Nine-year-old Dominque Vassalo belted out the national anthem – getting a bit of help with the “RED!” from the crowd – prior to the Panthers Game 5 matchup with the New York Islanders on Friday, Apr. 22.
All of the eyes in the building were stuck on Vassalo during her performance, save for the two eyes fixated on the two adults standing to her right.
US Air Force Staff Sergeant Zach Lieberman was back stateside – unbeknownst to his mother – and back in the arena where he fell in love with his hometown Panthers. This time, he was on a very special mission, but there was one detail that could have spoiled the surprise.
He was in full uniform, standing in the section directly across from the anthem. And as he stared at his parents down on the ice, he hoped they weren’t staring back.
"I got goosebumps seeing them out on the ice for the national anthem,” said Lieberman. “A few people were looking at me, so I didn’t want anyone to point me out."
His father, Ron, was in on the surprise. His mother, Heidi, wasn’t. Luckily for Zach, he blended in just enough during the anthem. And the plan to surprise his mother was still on.
"I was nervous for that part, but it was just awesome seeing them on the ice,” he said. "She didn’t know what was coming."
They’d tried this kind of a surprise after Zach’s first deployment. It didn’t work.
“We didn’t really think it out and it wasn’t really a surprise at all,” said Zach. “She picked up on it, she knew I was coming back."
They had a bit of help this time, though. They reached out to the Panthers Hereos Among Us program with the idea. And from there, the plan was born.
First, they needed to figure out a date.
“The problem was, in the service, nothing’s definite,” said Ron, "and with hockey, nothing’s definite."
They needed two things to go right; the Panthers making the playoffs, and Zach’s return lining up with a home game. As it turns out, things lined up perfectly for Game 5.
Second, they needed to figure out how to do the surprise.
They knew that Ron and Heidi would be out on the ice for the anthem, but there wasn’t enough time in the pregame ceremony to squeeze in the reunion. Colombo and his team had to get creative.
A TV timeout would work the best. But they needed a video to lead-into the surprise, keeping up with the typical Heroes Among Us tradition. So, Colombo had to get a bit tricky.
“We reached out to the mom and threw an idea out that they were honoring her son due to him not being able to be there,” said John Colombo, the Panthers Director of Community Relations. “We had her come in and do the interview under the assumption that they were standing in for him."
Finally, they had to sell it.
The plan was all laid out. Now Ron, along with two of Zach’s younger brothers, had to keep it all under wraps, lest Heidi figure it all out again.
“She’s one of these people who gets this gut feeling about things,” said Ron. “She knows her kids phenomenally well, she’s a very close mother to her kids."
Ron had to constantly watch everything he said. He almost spoiled it once, but caught himself. And up until the day of the game, Heidi didn’t suspect a thing.
Zach had to sell it, too.
"He told me earlier in the week that he’d be out of touch because he was going on a mission,” said Heidi. "Little did i know that his mission was coming home and surprising me."
One thought ran through Heidi’s mind as she trotted out onto the ice for the anthem. This, she thought, might be the moment she’d be reunited with her son.
If there was a surprise reunion, she thought, this is when it’d happen. That’s how these things work.
“I was hoping in the beginning that maybe he would be there,” she said. "Once the national anthem was played and I realized he wasn’t coming out, i just kind of lost my mind."
The misdirection was necessary due to the tight pregame schedule – but it ended up being one heck of a twist – and it worked out perfectly.
“The idea that they had was phenomenal,” said Ron. “She was absolutely shocked and surprised."
The twist also meant that Zach got to watch his parents on NHL Stanley Cup Playoff ice from the best seat in the house, directly across from them in Club Lexus.
"I got goosebumps seeing them out on the ice,” he said.
Zach flew in the morning of the game. Lunch with his father and brothers went by pretty quick. They left for the arena and got there early – Zach’s brother Adam is part of the ice crew – and the clock seemed to slow to a crawl.
“We looked over at the clock and just went, ‘man, this is going to take forever,’” he said.
It was a long wait for the anthem. Then, the puck dropped. And between the excitement of playoff hockey in his hometown, and knowing the moment that was in store, the next few minutes absolutely flew by for Zach.
“It was a blink of an eye from that moment, waiting in the suite, to when they told us to come out and surprise my mom.” he said. “It just happened so quick, it was all surreal."
“Ok, wait here for our signal."
The game presentation crew told Zach to wait for his cue to go surprise his mother. Problem was, Zach almost couldn’t wait that long.
“I probably jumped the gun like three or four times thinking that they gave the thumbs up,” he said. “I was just so excited and so amped to see my mom for the first time in a while
“I knew she was going to cry, so i had to have the camera crew hold me back a few times."
The pre-recorded interview with Heidi and Ron played on the arena scoreboard. Then the monitors cut to a live shot of the parents, accompanied by an ovation from the crowd.
But then the camera panned up. And the ovation got a lot louder.
“All of the sudden, I’m looking on the screen, and i’m seeing him actually walking,” Heidi said. “I was in disbelief."
Before the anthem, she thought he was coming back. After the anthem, she thought it’d be another two months before she would see her son.
“It wasn’t that i thought he was coming back, it was wishful thinking,” she said, "but i was hoping he would be… I was in complete and utter shock when i saw him.”
Everything leading up to that moment – the perfect timing of Zach’s return, the fake-out during the anthem – it had all gone exactly according to the plan.
“When i just came out and she freaked out, I saw her crying,” Zach said. "It was probably one of the best experiences of my life, just seeing her that emotional and knowing we were able to pull this off without her catching onto anything."
Ron knew what was coming, but actually seeing it all come to fruition caught him off-guard.
“It was almost like an out-of-body experience,” he said. And the thunderous ovation amplified that even more.
“The admiration that they had for him,” he said, “It was like he scored the winning goal in overtime."
After the moment had passed, Colombo had to get one more thing he had to tell Heidi.
“When I saw her, I gave her a hug,” he said. “And I told her, ‘I’m really sorry for lying to you, but I hope it was worth it.’"
After the live reveal, Ron’s phone exploded with texts. And with good reason, because the Liebermans had quite a few friends in attendance that night.
Any surprise reunion would have been special. But to have it happen at a Panthers playoff game meant so much more to the family that has been a fixture in the South Florida hockey scene for the better part of two decades.
“It just kind of comes full-circle, doesn’t it?” Heidi pondered.
Ron has been a coach in the area for over 15 years. Each of the Lieberman boys started playing hockey at the age of four. Zach, the oldest of the siblings, fell in love with the game during the 1996 playoff run, as a toddler.
“As a young kid, he was caught up in the moment,” Ron recalled. “He only wanted to play ice hockey."
So, he did. He was never the biggest, or the fastest, but he played with heart. And maybe a hit of a hot head, too, he said. But he stuck with it. His brothers followed suit.
"I wouldn’t consider myself that great, just your average South Floridian kid who fell in love with the sport,” Zach said. “And I found a great time to be in love with the sport."
Despite the loss, Zach says that Game 5 was the best Panthers game he’s ever seen. Playoff hockey in South Florida. A double-overtime thriller. An electric crowd.
For the Liebermans, the venue for the reunion couldn’t have been more fitting.
“The hockey community has meant so much to our family over the years,” said Ron. “To be able to tie that in with what was done, that was very special to us."
Zach grew up skating on the rinks at the Florida Panthers IceDen, long before it was actually called that. He’s loved the game since the moment he saw that 1996 team on the ice. He still plays in adult leagues up in Maryland, where he’s currently stationed.
But for those few moments during Game 5, he felt like one of the 23 guys suited up for the Cats.
"I actually felt like one of the players when I got that applause,” he said. “I was not expecting that big of an ovation from the arena.
"Being a hometown kid, having my hometown recognize me at my favorite sport for my favorite team ever, it was just a surreal moment."
The game was on a Friday. Zach got to spend Saturday with his family before flying out to Maryland at 5 a.m. on Sunday to complete his processing and debriefing.
But he got to take one incredible memory back to Maryland. The same incredible memory that he left his family, and the 17,000-plus fans at the BB&T Center that night.
It was a short stay. But the brevity doesn’t matter.
“I’m going to take anything I can get with him,” said Heidi. "If it’s a day, two days, a week, two weeks, just being able to see him and spend time with him is great."