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Hockey Fights Cancer

Jon Cooper, teen bond through cancer fight

Lightning coach inspired by 17-year-old battling disease

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper just had to meet Tony Colton.

Cooper watched Colton, then 15 years old, command the room at the 2015 Tampa Bay Sneaker Soiree, a community event to honor excellence in sports at all levels. Cooper, who was being honored for taking the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final, was practically in awe of the presence Colton had, inspired by the story he told as a teenager living with and battling cancer since he was diagnosed in 2011.

"I just started thinking, 'Wow, this kid, there is something about him, he has a future,'" Cooper said, "and then I thought, 'But he may not.' 

"I wanted to go meet him and find out more about him. I was really drawn to him. He was 15 years old but he commanded a room, spoke really well … was eloquent. And I just remember thinking, 'Bright future or no future.'"

Cooper met Colton that night in June 2015, and they shared a few words. Cooper later discovered Colton had been told that his cancer, a rare childhood affliction known as undifferentiated sarcoma, originally thought to be in remission, was in fact not.

"That was it for me," Cooper said.

A month later, after getting in touch with Colton's mother, Cooper surprised Colton at the hospital during a chemotherapy treatment and their friendship began.

He brought him some hockey gear and a copy of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final program. They exchanged phone numbers and Cooper gave him a standing invitation to attend as many Lightning games he wanted as a guest of the team.

Colton, now 17, went to the majority of Tampa Bay's home games last season and has already been to six this season, including some preseason games. He's on a first-name basis with many of the players, including his favorite, center Tyler Johnson.

Colton said he'll be in attendance Thursday, when the Lightning hold their Hockey Fights Cancer night at Amalie Arena during a game against the Boston Bruins (7:30 p.m. ET; SUN, NESN, NHL.TV). That's when Cooper and Colton will present a check for $60,000 to help fund pediatric cancer research at Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center and Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, where Colton is a patient.

The money was raised at the coach's first annual Coop's Catch for Kids charity fishing tournament on Oct. 11. The event was a brainchild of Cooper's, with Colton in mind as much as anyone else. Colton was on Cooper's boat during the event.

"[The friendship] definitely means a lot because I'm in and out of the hospital and to see someone of that caliber, of that standard, someone who since our friendship started has been taking time out of his day to come visit me, is just incredible," Colton said. "Who imagines waking up and having an NHL coach come to see you at the hospital just to have dinner? My life had been flipped upside down the moment I met him and it was something I was excited about and very thrilled to be able to start this relationship we have. Ever since then it's just grown."

Cooper, in his fourth full season as the Lightning coach, said he's starting to understand the impact he can have in his position, which is why he felt comfortable organizing the fishing event.

Part of his motivation also stems from a personal heartbreak. He lost his father-in-law, Steve Novak, to esophageal cancer, four months before he met Colton.

Video: 1st Annual Coop's Catch for Kids

"Although a lot of my efforts are for pediatric cancer, there's no question that Steve is a big part of this," Cooper said. "Just to watch his decline, it was gut wrenching. If you've ever been affected by the disease you'll do everything in your power to try to fight it."

But Cooper's friendship with Colton is different. He said he feels fortunate to call him a friend, because Colton has made as big an impact on him as he has made on the teenager.

Colton said it wasn't until the fishing event last month that he even realized the impact he has made on the coach. He heard Cooper talk to the people in attendance, retell the story of how they met, and finally understood.

"Up until then it wasn't the impact that I had had on him, it was the impact that he had made on my life," Colton said. "I was going through so much. I had been relapsing and had been going through so many different treatments and I didn't have it really cross my mind at that time, but definitely when we were at Coop's Catch it was an eye opener for me."

Colton said Cooper has also become a role model for him.

"I'm just a teenager growing up and to see a man of his caliber and how he's acting even though he's in such a great spotlight, it's really life changing," Colton said. "It's something that I would like to look up to and follow along in his footsteps someday."

Video: OTT@CGY: Flames celebrate Hockey Fights Cancer

Colton said he feels good now after having another surgery last week, but he has tumors in his stomach that can't be reached by surgery and aren't being attacked anymore by chemotherapy.

He said he has reached his limit on chemo treatments and his doctors said radiation isn't an option anymore because it could affect other areas of his body.

"We don't really have any treatment options now," Colton said. "I've been flown all over the United States to receive different treatments. Unfortunately all of those have failed. I've been on many different trials and experimental medicines that have also failed. So right now we're kind of at a stop sign and we're just kind of waiting to see what the next thing to come up will be."

Cooper is waiting by his side, trying to do anything he can to help Colton smile and feel good, both through text messages when the Lightning are on the road and face-to-face conversations when they're at home.

"He's a good kid," Cooper said.

"He's just incredibly genuine and a nice guy," Colton added. "It's crazy to see the friendship we have and I'm so thankful for it."

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