DETROIT — Alongside the Red Wings’ starters during the national anthems, cancer survivor Anthony Salah, 10, stood in front of a packed crowd for Hockey Fights Cancer Night at Joe Louis Arena.
“It felt good,” he said. “It felt like I can’t really explain it. You feel like you’re special. You feel really special.”
Three years ago, Salah was diagnosed with brain cancer and told he would never walk again. As part of the night’s events to help support cancer survivors and raise cancer awareness, he skated from the Zamboni tunnel to the blue line and stood with Red Wings players before the start of the game.
Moved to tears, his father Charlie Salah, said the night was about more than just the game on the ice.
“It shows that they’re not bigger than their status,” Charlie Salah said. “They’re still down to earth. I think that they relate to the community, they’re human just as we all are.”
The event was part of the annual Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Month, an initiative founded by the NHL and NHLPA in Dec. 1998 to raise money and awareness for hockey’s most important fight. To date, more than $12.8 million has been raised under the Hockey Fights Cancer initiative to support national and local cancer research institutions, children’s hospitals, player charities and local cancer organizations.
All 30 NHL teams will host a Hockey Fights Cancer Night, however the Red Wings are one of only seven teams that will celebrate their game with all-lavender advertising on their dasher boards, which is the color that represents awareness for all forms of cancer.
In the spirit of the event, Wings players sported lavender tape on their sticks during pregame warm-ups and goalie Jimmy Howard wore a pink, breast cancer awareness-themed mask. These items will be auctioned off at Auctions.NHL.com the following week. Howard wore a similar mask that went for $8,000 in an auction last year.
Every fan in attendance received a purple rally towel and a My Purple Is cardboard placard, courtesy of Van Andel Institute. During a first-period stoppage in the game, fans were encouraged to stand and hold up their My Purple Is card to recognize someone in their life who has been affected by cancer.
In addition, there was a bone marrow registration drive done in partnership with Delete Blood Cancer on the concourse of the arena. By filling out a registration form and doing a quick cheek swab, fans could be added to the Be The Match Registry, where they could qualify to be a blood donor for cancer patients in need of blood transfusions.
Jennifer Daniel, donor recruitment coordinator for Delete Blood Cancer, said the event provided a unique opportunity for fans to get involved in the fight against cancer while still supporting their team during the game.
“This is a practical way for people to get involved in the fight towards ending cancer,” she said.
Of the many cancer survivors on-hand to celebrate the fight and help raise awareness was Eric Halstead, from Hazel Park, Mich. After experiencing headaches and pain in his jaw, Halstead was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 16 and told he would require a feeding tube for the rest of his life.
Without a feeding tube and cancer-free, Halstead, now 19 years old, was in attendance for the Wings’ morning skate as well as the game Thursday night.
“I’ve never been to any other arena and watched a hockey game,” Halstead said. “But it feels like the Red Wings especially, they really care about their fans and what they’re going through.”
Wings coach Mike Babcock took a moment to acknowledge the event and the importance of raising cancer awareness.
“It's a great cause, it's an ongoing battle,” Babcock said. “Kids, anybody involved with cancer, people don't understand when someone in your family gets cancer, the whole family gets cancer. We've made significant strides in the battle and research and doctors are doing great things but there's a lot of work to be done. It's one night here today but it's ongoing 365 days a year and anytime you're in a position of notoriety and you can help, you should help. This is something near and dear, close to me for sure and I'm thrilled that the players are involved as well.”