HFC Vegas Golden Knights

Hockey Fights Cancer, a campaign started by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, turns 25 this year. To mark the anniversary, NHL.com will be telling stories about Hockey Fights Cancer and those impacted by the disease all season long. Today, NHL.com columnist Dave Stubbs looks at the origins of Hockey Fights Cancer.

It was launched modestly Dec. 3, 1998, with a three-page news release, under the logos of the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association.

“The hockey world unites to fight cancer,” the release was headlined, Hockey Fights Cancer (HFC) born as a joint initiative of the NHL, NHLPA, NHL Officials Association, the League’s then-27 teams and a broadcast and corporate partner.

Nearly 25 years later, HFC has grown beyond what anyone in 1998 likely believed it might, more than $32 million raised in its mission to raise awareness of cancer and support the countless number whose lives have been touched by the disease.

“Hockey Fights Cancer has been an incredibly powerful initiative in terms of raising money for research and raising awareness and making people understand the need for education and prevention,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said with HFC’s 25th anniversary approaching next month. “And as importantly, when somebody is inflicted with cancer, knowing that there is a support system, and that the NHL family is there. So it has been an all-encompassing effort which has raised a lot of money at the same time.”

The Commissioner’s view is shared by Marty Walsh, executive director of the NHLPA, who has seen cancer from up close. The former mayor of Boston was diagnosed at age 7 with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare, aggressive kind of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that primarily affects children.

“As a cancer survivor, I am honored to join the Hockey Fights Cancer team, along with the players, the League and the clubs, as we continue to raise funds for research, increase awareness and provide further support to those who are dealing with this terrible disease,” Walsh said. “The hockey community is one that is committed to fighting cancer together.”


From humble beginnings, with the NHL and NHLPA each making $50,000 donations in 1998 to launch the program, HFC has grown to unite players, teams, coaches, broadcasters, caregivers, doctors, nurses, patients, survivors, families and fans.

Less than two months after its launch, HFC had raised nearly $1 million, a check for $900,000 to benefit cancer-fighting groups in the United States and Canada presented as part of the 1999 NHL All-Star Game in Tampa.

The network has grown exponentially beyond its first days. The original partners, stakeholders to this day, have been joined by the NHL Alumni Association; professional hockey trainers and equipment managers; corporate marketing and broadcast partners; and professional and amateur teams and leagues throughout North America.

Though November is recognized as Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the NHL, with teams organizing events and special theme nights in their markets, the initiative will now be active year-round, tied closely to the American Cancer Society and Canadian Cancer Society at a national level.

HFC has joined forces with the V Foundation for Cancer Research, which was founded in 1993 by college basketball coaching legend and ESPN broadcaster Jim Valvano. The strategic partnership is expected to dramatically increase fundraising to benefit cancer research by some of the world’s best scientists.

The 25th anniversary year of HFC will see its message spread broadly across the continent with myriad initiatives rolled out in arenas, on social media, with fundraising auctions and by word of mouth, 25 years of storytelling to share many uplifting stories from the front lines of cancer battle.


Mike Gartner, a 2001 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee who scored 708 goals during a 19-season NHL career, was freshly retired in 1998 and barely settled as the NHLPA’s new director of business relations when the Hockey Fights Cancer file landed on his desk.

“This was an easy partnership,” Gartner said. “Most of the interaction between the PA and the League had up to that point been somewhat contentious, having to do with labor, revenue, salaries, etc.

“That John Cullen had been diagnosed with cancer in 1997 was kind of shocking,” he added of the Tampa Bay Lightning forward who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, ultimately requiring a bone-marrow transplant. “John’s battle is what started the discussion, that this is something the PA and the League should do together. There wasn’t a lot of negotiation other than how we should do this. It was a very natural partnership. Over the past 25 years it’s maybe taken on a couple of different looks, but at the end of the day, it remains extremely supportive of all the different types of cancer that touch not only the hockey world and those within it but the world in general.”

Hockey has seen more than its share of heartbreak through the years. In one awful eight-month stretch from August 2021 through April 2022, cancer took the lives of Hall of Fame members Tony Esposito, Rod Gilbert, Clark Gillies, Mike Bossy and Guy Lafleur.

But there have been inspirational stories, too. Many players throughout the League whose lives have been touched by cancer have put a very human, public face on their challenges, established fundraising foundations as they’ve championed the need for research and support.

As Gartner has seen HFC evolve over its quarter-century life, he has come to view one of the program’s greatest strengths as something that takes place beyond the lab and the clinical work of scientists.

“What Hockey Fights Cancer has done is broaden the discussion on the disease,” he said. “It’s made the discussion of cancer, the screening for it, more acceptable and that’s a good thing. And for those who lose their fight, the support network that’s there for the families who are left behind has been such a positive thing as well.

“Whatever your walk of life, cancer has affected us all. Maybe very closely with yourself or family members. There are a number of men who I played with that I know are fighting cancer right now, as well as people outside the hockey world.”

HFC Gartner 2021

In 1998, Commissioner Bettman saw the need for a united cancer effort joining the NHL with the NHLPA.

“Unfortunately, none of us need look far to be touched by cancer personally,” he said as the program was launched.

Then-NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow added, “Many current and former members of the NHLPA and their families have experienced the effects of this disease. Players such as Milos Holan, Doug Wickenheiser, Mario Lemieux and John Cullen have all fought courageous battles against cancer. Our membership is fully committed to this cause and are proud to be able to work in concert with these other organizations to fight this terrible disease.”

Twenty-five years later, cancer’s reach and Hockey Fights Cancer’s resolve haven’t changed.

“Cancer is without a doubt one of those issues that directly or indirectly affects almost everybody,” the Commissioner said. “So many people have had cancer, have had family members, have had friends … and there’s been great progress made over the last few decades in treating cancer and detecting cancer.

“So I think the combination of touching so many people and so much progress having been made has made [Hockey Fights Cancer] even more visible than we could have hoped.”