More Than A Game – The Story of Zach Steward

zach steward

On August 25, 2019, I walked into the Intensive Care Unit of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to see what looked like the shell of my 14-year-old brother, Zach. He was heavily sedated, to the point where he could not respond to us and was deeply asleep. A few weeks prior, Zach was diagnosed with Central Nervous System Leukemia, and after 8 years of survivorship, he would be facing his second battle with cancer before his high school years began. Looking at him in that hospital bed with tubes and wires surrounding him, I felt that my family and I had hit rock bottom. My first reaction? Send a Tweet.

Later that day, after I got home from visiting Zach, I laid in bed and tweeted, asking the hockey community to help me get in contact with the Philadelphia Flyers, a shared loved between Zach and I, along with our entire family. I was hoping for maybe a quote tweet from the Flyers back; and I got that. I also got 2.1 thousand likes and hundreds of retweets in a matter of eleven hours, and the Flyers community relations department on the phone with my mom, Leah, the next morning. The outreach was absolutely incredible and unexpected, and throughout the next month or so, the Flyers sent Zach a care package of autographs, Hockey Fights Cancer gear, and a plan for him to attend a game and practice when he felt up to it.

Fast forward two months, and Zach has come home from the hospital, gained back the majority of the weight he lost, and was astounded that all of this was happening for him. I had seen the #HockeyFightsCancer hashtag every year. My brother was a cancer survivor by the age of 7, so my family and I always paid close attention to how our favorite sport supported other families going through it as well. It was always great to see the outpour of support from all thirty one NHL teams, but I looked at it with a much different point of view now that my brother was not only a survivor, but once again, a cancer patient. In the back of my head, I always thought, do these sick kids meeting professional athletes really help them? Do these millionaires really set aside time to help these families, or is it just part of the job? To the first question, yes, definitely. I never imagined that meeting our favorite hockey team could bring the amount of optimism to my family as it did. As for the second question, I watched it get answered in real-time, and I confidently believe that these stories absolutely reach the hearts of these athletes and organizations.

The Flyers generously welcomed Zach and my entire family of my mom, myself, my dad, Don, and my 16-year-old brother, Nate, to join them for practice at the Skate Zone, prior to their Hockey Fights Cancer game on the following Monday. The day before practice, Flyers crew and in-arena host, Andrea Helfrich came out to our house to interview us and learn about our family and Zach’s story. We really didn’t know what to expect. When Andrea called my mom and asked if we wanted anything from Dunkin Donuts on her way over, I knew that this was going to be a very personal, special experience.

Zach watched practice from the bench, met his favorite player, Travis Konecny, and played ball hockey with some of the other Flyers. I never thought in a million years that I would be watching my brother play a pickup game with Carter Hart and Ivan Provorov, but there we were. The fun didn’t end there, and when Monday night came around, Zach was now the “Honorary Coach” of the Flyers game. Coach Alain Vigneault welcomed him into the locker room to read the starting lineup, fist-bump the team on their way out of the locker room, and join the team for the anthem on the bench.

As I stood there watching Joel Farabee stand in his lucky spot in the hallway between my mom and Zach, while my mom was jokingly heckling Sean Couturier to get dressed quicker, I realized that we were standing among a bunch of regular people at their jobs. When Konecny pulled his glove off to show Zach that he was wearing the orange bracelet that Zach had gifted him on Friday which read “Z-Man #2, Strong Then Stronger Now,” it was evident that this was more than publicity for the team. As Konecny watched Zach pump up the crowd on the big screen with a smile and look of pride on his face, it was clear that not only had the Flyers impacted Zach, but the feeling was mutual. As Michael Raffl stepped out of the face-off circle to let the crowd cheer longer for Zach, it was evident that his story impacted the members of the team. Zach, and the millions of kids affected by cancer every year, have faced more hardships than most adults; however, even when fighting these battles, Zach’s personality remained bright. He was still telling Scott Laughton to “hit the net” during practice, still trying to check Travis Sanheim into the boards during their ball hockey game; he never once let his disease change who he was, and I truly think the players realized that. It quickly became clear that this was more than just a hockey game.

So, when I look back and ask, would this experience really affect my family and my brother? There are two options; I could choose to think about the negatives and the unchangeable situation. I could think about my parents watching their son get diagnosed with cancer again. I could think about my brother Nate and I trying to get through a school day without being asked how our sick brother is doing. But, because of the Philadelphia Flyers, I choose to look at the positives. I picture the sparkle in my little brother’s eyes as he looked around the stadium cheering him on. I see him hugging Travis Konecny in the hallway before the game, like old friends would. I see Zach’s timid smile as random people congratulated and blessed him as we walked around the Wells Fargo Center in between periods. I hear him running around our house as 11 p.m. after the game screaming, “I can’t believe I was in the Flyers locker room!”

I think often about that day in the ICU, seeing Zach at his lowest point. I remember wondering if our family would ever see a happy day again. And now, I do not have to wonder. The answer is yes. Because of this experience with the Flyers, I know that Zach will have good days, and that it will not always hurt as bad as it did back in August. It won’t always be easy, but it will never be impossible. Now, whenever there is a flicker of doubt, we can think back to the weekend where Zach was having lunch with Claude Giroux, the weekend where our whole family felt like we were the ones winning much more than a game.

There will never be enough words to capture the gratitude that my family and I have for the Philadelphia Flyers and the hockey community. This experience has given us the hope that we needed. As Zach begins hard chemotherapy and steroids just in time for the holidays, we will think of this past weekend, knowing that there is most definitely light at the end of the Zamboni tunnel.

A special thanks to Andrea Helfrich, Jason Tempesta, and Travis Konecny for making this unforgettable for Zach and my family. As a big sister, a hockey fan, and a member of the Flyers family, I say this my entire heart, thank you. Thank you for choosing us. Thank you for choosing Zach. Thank you for showing us that the hockey community is stronger than this disease.

Together, We Fight.

Mandatory Credit – Sam Steward