On Thursday, the Penguins were able to show their appreciation for Naughton’s story when the Los Angeles filmmaker stopped by CONSOL Energy Center for a tour of the Penguins’ sparkling new facility, as well as a few other surprises for the recent cancer survivor - including meeting Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero.
In case you are not familiar with Naughton, he is a devoted Penguins fan whose dream upon recovering from Hodgkin’s disease last fall was to learn to play hockey at age 40.
However, instead of simply learning to play hockey, Naughton, who grew up in Erie, has been filming the entire experience as part of a documentary, “Life, Cancer and the Pursuit of Hockey.” Naughton hopes to produce and release his documentary in time for October of 2011’s Hockey Fights Cancer month, with proceeds benefiting the Mario Lemieux Foundation.
When Naughton was interviewed in July, he told Leahy that the culmination of his learn-to-play hockey project would be to fulfill his ultimate fantasy – to appear at Penguins Fantasy Camp.
Naughton, who skates several times a week with the help of his trainer, former Penguins minor-leaguer Christian Lalonde, will realize his dream this coming February because Bylsma and executive director of strategic planning Rich Hixon formally invited him to the team’s 2011 Fantasy Camp on behalf of the organization.
“To have the team invite me to come to the fantasy camp is overwhelming, really,” said a beaming Naughton. “I knew that somehow I was going to come to the fantasy camp, but to have the Penguins actually invite me to be there is really just heartwarming. It made me realize if they are behind my story then other people might get behind it too. That will hopefully allow the documentary to have success and raise that much more money for cancer research.”
It was great to see Naughton’s appreciation at receiving the invitation, but the fact is the Penguins were more than happy to reward such a loyal fan who has shown such great determination throughout his battle with cancer.
“It kind of started with (Penguins vice president of communications) Tom McMillan forwarding me the story from Yahoo! Sports,” Hixon said. “We immediately got together and decided this was a guy we have to bring in. He’s a huge Penguins fan from the West Coast, but obviously he’s not interested in any other team. The tie-in obviously made sense with his connections to Erie and Penn State. His story is so inspirational that we felt we had to bring him in as our guest.”
“We have followed Eric and heard about his story – his battle with cancer and then his desire to fulfill a dream to play hockey,” Bylsma said. “To see him with his struggle with his battle and at the same time embrace hockey and be a Penguins fan, we appreciate that.”
Naughton embraces Penguins hockey so much that despite living in Los Angeles, he never gave a thought to attending Kings Fantasy Camp, even though such an arrangement would have been easier from a filming standpoint.
“As a fan, putting on a Kings jersey, that doesn’t interest me in the slightest,” Naughton said. “Putting on a Penguins jersey – now that’s exciting. Am I going to move away to another city and become a fan of another team? I don’t think so! I am a Penguins fan and I will always be a Penguins fan. That doesn’t change because I am living out in Los Angeles.”
Before Naughton received his invitation, he began the day by going on a tour of CONSOL Energy Center.
As Naughton toured the facility, his trek was filmed by his small crew which accompanied him. That turned out to be a great decision because when the group reached the Suite 66 private club located just outside the Penguins locker room, he was greeted with a pleasant surprise.
“Eric, I am pleased to introduce you to our head coach, Dan Bylsma,” Hixon said.
To have the team invite me to come to the fantasy camp is overwhelming, really. I knew that somehow I was going to come to the fantasy camp, but to have the Penguins actually invite me to be there is really just heartwarming. - Eric Naughton
The two quickly stuck up a chord as Naughton filled Bylsma in on what aspects he enjoyed most about CONSOL Energy Center. They were both extremely impressed with Suite 66, which Bylsma called “the ultimate man cave.”
Bylsma took over as tour guide from there, taking Naughton through the Penguins hockey operations offices, training room, workout room and player lounge.
But the real highlight occurred when Bylsma opened up the double doors which lead to the Penguins locker room.
“Wow!” exclaimed Naughton as he walked in. “This is just wow!”
If Naughton was speechless just entering the locker room, he was left even more so when he looked to the back of the room and saw a black Penguins home sweater complete with “Naughton 40” hanging from the stall located directly to the right of the one which will by occupied by Sidney Crosby
“That’s a big wow!” Haughton said. “That’s just super!”
Naughton quickly threw on his new jersey as Bylsma made the formal invitation for Naughton to attend fantasy camp – along with an unsolicited tip.
“You have to watch out for 29er (Penguins’ radio color commentator Phil Bourque),” Bylsma joked. “He takes that stuff pretty seriously.”
Once Naughton was able to allow everything to sink in, he had nothing but more praise for the Penguins head coach, GM and the entire organization.
“That was unbelievable to have Coach Bylsma give me the news,” Naughton said. “Talking to him is just like talking to your next-door neighbor. He is just a really nice guy. He seems like the kind of person that you hope you can be.
“This was also totally unexpected to get a jersey with my name on it like this. To have that kind of generosity from the team – it might seem like a small thing, but to me it’s pretty big.”
Hixon, whose efforts were behind bringing Haughton to CONSOL Energy Center, was pleased to see how happy Naughton was with his tour and camp invitation.
“He was genuinely excited throughout the tour,” Hixon said. “He was smiling ear to ear. I think meeting Coach Bylsma and Ray Shero was just the icing on the cake. When they gave him his jersey, it was really rewarding to have a chance to see that.”Click here to view Naughton’s Facebook page and read more about his documentary, “Life, Cancer and the Pursuit of Hockey.”