The Penguins and Olympic by PPG are working together on a series of stories to feature the most colorful fans in the game.
The fight against cancer hits close to home for the Penguins organization. Mario Lemieux faced a lymphoma diagnosis at age 27, Olli Maatta underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his thyroid at age 20 and Phil Kessel beat testicular cancer at age 19.
During the month of November, the NHL has a league initiative to raise money and awareness towards cancer research. One Pens fan, Jackie Horner, was touched by the outreach from the team and from Kessel in particular.
She was compelled by Kessel's own story, especially after she successfully battled invasive lobular carcinoma breast cancer. So when the Pens had their "Hockey Fights Cancer" awareness night on Nov. 13 and wore purple jerseys during warmups, Horner tried to catch Kessel's attention.
Horner was wearing a purple Pens jersey that her daughter had gifted her last Christmas, and she made a sign that featured Kessel's No. 81 jersey and stated, "One-year survivor. Please sign my cancer jersey!"
During warmups, Kessel noticed the sign and asked one of the Pens' equipment managers to bring the jersey over to him so he could oblige the request. Horner was overjoyed.
"It didn't feel real, it felt like a dream," Horner said. "The security guard had told me earlier that the guys rarely sign any autographs during warmups. He said that (head coach Mike Sullivan) wants their focus. He said he never thought Phil would do that. And I couldn't believe it either."
Then, on the way back into the locker room, Kessel reached up to fist bump Horner as she said thank you.
"I never expected that," Horner said. "I just wanted Kessel to see that I recognize what he does not only for what he does for hockey, but for cancer."
Kessel helped raised awareness in a recent PSA that urges the importance of scheduling regular doctor visits to assist in early detection. He also recently received the "Excellence in Cancer Awareness Award" at the Prevent Cancer Foundation's 26th annual luncheon at the Library of Congress.
Horner is in remission after being diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma breast cancer. Fortunately, Horner's cancer was detected early at Grade Two. Horner said she wasn't originally going to go get a checkup because she was 49 years old at the time and didn't think she was in the danger window anymore, but is so grateful l that she did.
"I'm so glad I went and got a mammogram," Horner said. "Thank god I did. I'm so thankful because a whole year would have passed before I would have been found. When it happened to me, I knew about Phil Kessel's story and how his was detected early and he was so young. I knew that he advocates for that, early screenings. Early detection really does save lives."
Hockey is a big part of Horner's life, and her love for the sport and the Pens organization extends far past what happens just on the ice.
"It's like (the Pens) aren't just the boys, they're family," Horner said. "It's funny because we don't know them all personally, but we feel like we do. They do so much community outreach. All of them do. That means so much to do what they do for the community. That's why they have the following that they have, win or lose."