NEWARK, N.J. -- The NHL's Hockey Fights Cancer initiative this month holds a special place in the heart of New Jersey Devils forward Vernon Fiddler.
Fiddler was just 4 years old when his role model and 8-year-old sister, Erin Dionne, died of leukemia.
"She'd come home a few times and we'd swing on the swings, but a lot of the time we were at the hospital," Fiddler said. "She was a huge fan of Michael Jackson, so I remember seeing the pictures on the wall in the hospital. It was one of those things where that was the journey she had to lead."
Fiddler, now 36, was too young then to fully understand the cruel nature of the disease, but he does remember the trips to the hospital and how difficult a period it was for his entire family.
"It was a tough time in our family's life and I know what these families are going through, so it's always nice to help them come out to the rink and maybe get away from what they've been going through," Fiddler said. "Whether they were at the hospital receiving chemotherapy treatment or something else, this helps them get away from that and allows them to get together and make some memories with their families."
The Devils invited 9-year-old Santino Anastasia of Kinnelon, New Jersey, and his mother and father to the game against the Chicago Blackhawks at Prudential Center on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET; MSG+, WGN, NHL.TV). Santino, being treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, signed a one-day contract with the Devils on Friday and even wore a personalized Devils jersey autographed by all the players during a meet-and-greet session.
As a member of the Dallas Stars in 2014, Fiddler and his wife, Chrissy, helped create "Fidd's Kids," a cause to help the families of children with cancer come together for a night of hockey. Fidd's Kids partners with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in allowing families and children served by local nonprofit organizations to attend every Stars home game.
"We bring four kids to every hockey game and do a meet-and-greet before the game," Fiddler said. "It's about getting the kids away from the hospital and trying to create a memory with their family. We want to get their minds off the fact they are fighting cancer and just be a kid again."
Fiddler also hosted a charity golf tournament in Edmonton for nine years to help raise money for children with cancer. The money raised from the outing was used to provide families with a trip to Disneyland in California.
"We'd send two or three families a year to Disneyland to get their minds off what they're going through," Fiddler said. "What was most rewarding from that was we'd send kids that had just six months to live, and the kids in two of the nine families are still living. I'm not saying that the trip saved their lives, but we feel it did something for them and gave them energy to fight harder."
For the past 13 seasons and before he signed a one-year contract with the Devils on July 1, Fiddler always was considered a depth forward capable of providing energy and intensity each shift. He goes about his business in helping those afflicted by cancer with the same emotion.
"I have met so many families who have children affected by cancer; these kids just want to be kids and this cancer takes that away from them and that's what eats me alive," Fiddler said. "Anytime you can get them to the rink, give them pucks or get them a signed stick, that's what they love. It puts a smile on their face and makes us all feel good."