SUNRISE, Fla. - After a big game, MacKenzie Weegar was used to hearing his phone buzz. If the up-and-coming defenseman had a big hit or dropped the gloves that night, he usually had a few supportive texts from his uncle, Tim, waiting for him right after he stepped off the ice.
"He'd say things like 'fight for me,' 'chuck the knuckles' and 'nice hit out there,' said Weegar, smiling as he recounted the messages. "He usually liked the rough stuff. But for the most part, he was a pretty loving guy. He'd always also make sure to say, 'I love ya and I'm proud of ya.'"
In the midst of his second full season with the Florida Panthers, Weegar said he's still getting used to not receiving those texts. Around the start of training camp in late September, he lost his uncle to cancer after he had courageously battled with the disease for almost three years.
"All that I can say is that he fought hard and we'll miss him," Weegar said.
When asked about the impact his uncle had on his hockey career, Weegar was quick to point out that "there's obviously a lot of hockey in the family." The second member of his family to reach the NHL, the 24-year-old's cousin, Craig Rivet, spent 16 seasons in the league until 2011.
As his uncle battled cancer, a disease that slowly infected his bone marrow and eventually limited his ability to walk, Weegar said he expects the sport served as a good distraction.
"I think it might have helped him out through the nights, watching me play," said Weegar, a seventh-round draft pick of the Panthers in 2013. "He was probably one of my closer uncles. He was hilarious. He was a jokester, a fun uncle. We got along well and had a lot of laughs that I'll remember for a while."
It was those moments that were likely racing through Weegar's head when he took the ice for warmups in a special purple jersey for "Hockey Fights Cancer Night" at BB&T Center on Nov. 30. That night, the Panthers defeated Buffalo 3-2 in overtime, with Weegar posting four hits in 18:10 of ice time - a game that certainly would have gotten a proud text from Uncle Tim.
"I'll be thinking of him that whole time," Weegar said the morning before the game. "I know he'll be watching me from up there."
Founded in 1998 by the NHL and NHLPA, Hockey Fights Cancer is a month-long initiative that raises money and awareness in the support of cancer patients and their families. For the entire month of November, all 31 teams turn purple and host their own "Hockey Fights Cancer Night."
From growing mustaches to auctioning off items and experiences, every team comes together to help raise money for the American Cancer Society, Canadian Cancer Society and the Movember Foundation in order to fund research and provide a better quality of life for patients.
The Panthers' "Hockey Fights Cancer Night" was presented by the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is among the nation's leading cancer centers and South Florida's only Cancer Center of Excellence. Part of UHealth, Sylvester has seven locations in the region.
"I'm really delighted bout the partnership we have," said Dr. Carmen Calfa, a medical oncologist at the Sylvester Comprehensive Care Center. "This is the third year, so we just hope to make it stronger and better every year. It feels like coming home. It feels like coming to a nice family where we care about each other. It really does."
Weegar plans to visit patients at the Sylvester Comprehensive Care Center in Miami on Friday.
"There's a lot of people with family members that are going through the same thing right now," Weegar said. "There's teammates and people in leagues and organizations that have their own stories. I'm glad that the league does this every year. It's nice to see everybody come together and raise money for a good cause. It's good to see and I'm glad to be a part of it. I really am."