Derek Zacchino stood out on the enclosed Kan Jam playing area. It was Saturday afternoon on a rooftop at the Renaissance in Manhattan, and he was chatting comfortably with the well-known co-hosts at this Jam Kancer In The Kan Foundation event — the Rangers’ Kevin Shattenkirk and the Islanders’ Anders Lee.
“They’re great guys,” Zacchino said. “The hockey community is really something different. They’re not just inviting me down here. They’re hanging out with me. They’re talking to me, having a conversation like we’re buddies.”
The new captain of the Bethpage High varsity hockey team has been through an ordeal. How does a teen deal with the diagnosis of a cancer called Glioblastoma, two operations to remove a malignant tumor on his brain and the energy-sapping aftershocks of radiation and chemotherapy?
In this case, he has done it with the support of doctors, family, friends, schoolmates and community and the spirit-lifting kindness of the hockey community, especially Shattenkirk, Lee and some other NHL players. He has also done it as a matter-of-fact challenge, as a 17-year-old with an “I’ve got this” attitude.
“A lot of people were surprised the way I reacted,” Zacchino said. “I knew being upset about it really wasn’t going to do anything. I needed to keep on fighting.”
He has fought his way into remission.
“I feel great,” Zacchino said.
The fight engulfed the 6-3, 140-pound defenseman and his family very quickly.
It was last Sept. 4, the opening hockey practice at the start of his junior year. It felt warm inside the rink at the Town of Oyster Bay Ice Skating Center in Bethpage. Zacchino’s head was bothering him. He didn’t have water. So he left the ice early.
“I got sick in the locker room and a few other players got sick, too,” Zacchino said. “So I didn’t think much of it.”
But the following week, he was seeing double. So he went to a neurologist and underwent an MRI. He said he went back right before the next practice on Sept. 11 “because I figured he would say, ‘You’re fine; there’s nothing wrong.’ ”
There was something very wrong. He had to head right to Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park. There was a large tumor on his brain and he needed an operation ASAP.
So he texted a teammate to tell his coach that he couldn’t make practice and he would explain when he could.
The five-hour operation took place the next day. About 85 percent of the tumor was removed. It was then found to be malignant.
“We never really talked about [survival] chances,” Zacchino said. “I wasn’t too worried. I was pretty confident that I was going to get through it.”
His approach helped his parents, Don and Dawn, cope.
“He didn’t really give us the opportunity to worry because he was so matter-of-fact about it,” his father said. “I don’t know what to attribute that to. I was marveling at it. I still do.”
So Zacchino began treatment — five days a week of radiation for six weeks, a chemo injection once a week for about two months. He also took chemo pills daily. But he still attended school, practices and ultimately games.
Then came a game against undefeated Oceanside Dec. 19. It was held in his honor. Funds were raised for the children’s hospital. The Bethpage rink was packed. Zacchino was supposed to just drop a ceremonial puck. But his dad had called him at school during lunchtime with a news flash. The oncologist had cleared him to play.
His coach surprised his teammates with the news. Joy erupted. There was a PA announcement before the game to surprise the crowd. More joy.
Bethpage won, 4-3. The hospital won thanks to the more than $20,000 that was raised for pediatric brain tumor research. And Zacchino won because the people from his community, his school and even from other schools came out for him.
“It felt amazing,” he said.
He played a few more games, but he couldn’t make it all the way through them.
“Once I found out that I had to have a second surgery and that I wouldn’t be able to finish the season, I just decided to not play until next year,” Zacchino said.
The second surgery to remove the remainder of the tumor happened Feb. 1. Eight days later, Zacchino attended Shattenkirk’s Kancer Jam event in Westchester, a fundraiser for kids in battle against cancer.
Jamey Crimmins founded the Jam Kancer in the Kan Foundation in 2014, so he’s involved with the events that Shattenkirk and Lee stage to help the cause and does marketing for them. Crimmins’ sister-in-law is a teacher at Bethpage High. She told him about Zacchino.
“I found out he was a Rangers fan and I called Kev and I explained it to him,” Crimmins said.
So Shattenkirk invited Zacchino via a video to a December game at the Garden and gave him an autographed jersey.
“I was just shocked when I heard the news,” Zacchino said. “It felt incredible.”
Shattenkirk also invited Zacchino to his Kancer Jam. Then he messaged Zacchino on Instagram the day before the second operation to wish him well and said that he couldn’t wait to see him at the fundraiser. They teamed up in the Frisbee-throwing Kan Jam games there and again Saturday.
“I just remember when I was that age, and I couldn’t imagine having your hockey career come to a halt because of such a major issue like that,” Shattenkirk said. “The fact that he was able to come back and play, it just shows some of that hockey toughness.
“More than anything, I just wanted him to know that we were here for him and wanted to put a smile on his face. I think that’s what hockey and that community is all about.”
Zacchino couldn’t attend school for the most part after that second surgery because of the effects from the radiation and chemo, and he received tutoring instead. He was invited to go away for a few days in May with his dad to the World Championship in Slovakia — for free thanks to Lee.
This was the second straight year the Islanders’ captain sent a teen boy with cancer to the tournament. USA Hockey had approved, and Lee knew about Zacchino and invited him over the phone.
“When Derek and Kevin hit it off at his event and those two started a relationship, it was kind of an easy thing for us to all decide: Let’s send Derek over. Let’s give him a chance to get away,” Lee said. “Him and his dad are big hockey fans. To be able to send him over there and have USA [Hockey] take care of them and all that stuff was pretty special.”
They had lunch with Crimmins and four Team USA players, including the Rangers’ Chris Kreider and Brady Skjei.
After a game against Germany the following day, Crimmins brought the Zacchinos down by the locker room. Kreider and Skjei came out to talk. They presented Derek with a Team USA jersey complete with his name on it. They had it autographed by the team. Other players came out to talk, too.
The Zacchinos appreciated all the efforts.
“They help you to occupy your mind with all these wonderful things and realize how great people are, and then you’re not sad,” Don Zacchino said.
“Derek did get a bad break, yeah … It’s a gene and it just happens. But a lot of good has come out of this. It does make it so much easier to deal with.”
Zacchino has taken his finals. He’s skating again. He’s looking forward to rebuilding his stamina for his senior season, to attending college, to maybe playing hockey there, to finding a career that brings passion for him. He takes preventive chemo pills daily and gets monitored for signs of the cancer returning.
So far, so good.
“I got it beat,” Zacchino said. “I went through it once. Even if it does come back, there’s no reason I can’t go through it again.”