Leighton Accardo: The 'scrappy little human' who inspired a city, a state and the hockey world

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Lyndsey Fry doesn’t know when she will complete her 96-mile trek across the Valley on Sunday. The only thing that she knows is that she will finish. 

Fry packed extra clothes, extra socks, a headlamp, blister pads for her feet, and two extra sets of skates to help her complete her task. She will also be joined by special guests Shane Doan and Tyson Nash for a portion of the skate, which begins at Phoenix Children’s Hospital at 7:15 a.m, before making stops at every Valley ice rink

All of those additions will help her maintain a positive outlook as the miles, blisters, fatigue and inner demons pile up, but the most potent fuel for this rollerblading venture is the memory of a kid who never stopped rolling along a far more challenging course.

Leighton Accardo, 9, inspired the Valley and the hockey world with her smile, her tenacity, her grace, and her courageous, 18-month battle with cancer. She died on Nov. 24 at the family’s home in Gilbert. Family and friends gathered at a memorial service on Friday to honor and remember her, and Fry is determined to keep those memories alive.

“One of the best quotes I have ever heard is: ‘If you have a strong enough reason to do something, you’ll always figure out a way to do it,’” said Fry, the president of the Arizona Kachinas Hockey Association where Leighton played. “That’s how I am approaching this skate. 

“I tell myself, ‘Leighton didn’t feel ready to take on cancer, but she did it and that’s way harder than this, so I can do this, too.’ I have been trying to use her inspiration to mentally grind out the miles in training and that’s what I will be doing big-time on Sunday. When something challenging, terrible and tragic happens, you just try to do what is in your control to make sense of it and make something good come out of the situation. This is what I felt I could control in finding a way to honor her and let her family know that she will never be forgotten.”

Leighton Accardo injected herself into the Valley’s collective soul at Hockey Fights Cancer Night last season when the Coyotes faced the Calgary Flames at Gila River Arena. Accardo was supposed to drop the ceremonial first puck, but Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson suggested that they switch places and let him drop the puck while Accardo took the face-off across from Flames captain Mark Giordano.

Ekman-Larsson is a left-handed shot. Accardo was right-handed, but she adapted as seamlessly to the altered plan as she adapted to everything else that life threw her way.

“One of the first memories that sticks out for me is one of her first times on the ice,” said Carly Accardo, Leighton’s mom. “She was crying the entire time but she didn’t come off. She was falling and hurting herself and balling her eyes out, but she didn’t stop. She stayed out there and finished her lesson.”

Leighton’s father, Jeremy, is a former Major League Baseball pitcher who starred at Mesa High School, and now serves as the New York Mets assistant pitching coach. Carly was born in Prince George, British Columbia, went to high school in Victoria, and also lived in Ottawa and Toronto, where she met Jeremy while he pitched for the Blue Jays. It made sense that Leighton’s two favorite sports were baseball and hockey.

“For me, one of my strongest memories of her was all of the baseball we played in the garage,” Jeremy said. “Soft toss, Ts, ground balls, catching. We would spend hours out there and she never got tired of it.”

Given the hours and caliber of training that she received from Jeremy and Carly, who ran the all-girls Peaches baseball team, it’s no surprise that Leighton was a really good ballplayer.

“I have a son (Owen) who was the same age as her and we tried out in December of 2018 for a club team for the 2019 spring season,” said family friend Jerry Samson. “We got our roster and I saw the name Leighton Accardo. I knew about Carly because we knew about the Peaches, so I was excited and figured I had picked the right place.

“At the first practice, I found the only girl on the field and I told my son, ‘I want you to go over there and throw with her.’ My son is a pretty talented player but after throwing with her he says to me, ‘Dad, she’s unbelievable.’ Boys and girls that age don’t really know how to interact with each other, but they developed this bond because of baseball, where they could just say, ‘‘Hey, let’s go throw’ and so they became baseball buddies.”

The first thing that you noticed when you met Leighton was her unencumbered smile. It paired so well with a litany of other impossibly adorable attributes, and it belied her later battle with cancer.

“She would always sort of follow me around on the ice,” said Shaun Springer, who helped out in mini-mite practices while his son, Nash, played on the same team as Leighton. “I don’t know why she followed me but it was impossible not to notice her. She was the cutest, blondest little girl I had ever seen, wearing this pink helmet with her freckled, chubby cheeks just smashed inside of it.

“She was always a little more cautious, and a little bit wiser than the boys. My family and the Accardos went up to Breckenridge (Colorado) about four years ago and we put the kids in ski school for the day to get them ready. When we picked them up we went to do a couple of runs together. Of course, the boys took off down the runs full speed, no turns, just straight down. Leighton was sort of trailing them, screaming, ‘Control your speed!’ She was the one kid smart enough to learn a concept in ski school and apply it.”

Holly Harrington met Leighton well before her second birthday at AZ Ice Gilbert, a family-oriented rink where you’ll see toys, bags and children littering the lobby from open until close.

“I can remember Leighton flying around on her scooter from one side of the rink to the other,” Harrington said. “It was her giant playroom, as it is for all the kids.”

Harrington served as a dual coach for Leighton in hockey and in figure skating, helping Leighton master her edges, but it was her daughter, Lily, who took Leighton under her wing and helped keep her free spirit under control.

“Lily would say: “Whenever Leighton giggles it’s like a rainbow happening,’” Harrington said.

“What I would say about Leighton is this: Life is the beautiful thing. No one should waste life and Leighton didn’t waste life. I’m not talking about just before she got cancer, I’m talking about every day of her life. She was blessed to have Carly and Jeremy as parents. They gave her every opportunity to be active and try new things. She was always doing something and she always dove into it with everything she had.”

On April 19, 2019, Leighton and Holly had a figure skating competition. Carly was at a baseball event with Leighton’s brother, Larson, and Jeremy was back east with the Mets, so his mom, Christine, brought Leighton to the competition.

In the week leading up to that event, Leighton had been complaining about tummy aches. Before the competition, she had an accident that Holly and Christine thought would preclude her from competing, but she insisted on taking part.

The problems persisted so Carly took her to a GI specialist, who performed an X-ray and determined that Leighton was constipated; completely backed up. He prescribed MiraLAX for 48 hours to flush her out and it provided relief for one day before the pain returned.

“Every time she got on the toilet she was screaming in agony,” Carly said.

Jeremy was a minor-league coach for the Mets at the time, but he had been called up to the big club for his first big league coaching experience because another coach’s daughter was graduating from college. Carly left Leighton at home with Christine while she went to teach at preschool. She was only there a couple of hours before Christine called and insisted they get Leighton to a doctor.

“We went to an urgent care and as soon as we walked in you could tell they were scared crapless of the pain Leighton was in,” Carly said. “We rushed her to the ER at Baseline and Higley. I told them about her past, they did an enema and she is just wailing; no relief. They did another one and she is just screaming. 

“It wasn't until a shift change when the night doctor came on and asked, ‘If we have done two enemas and she is still having this much pain, why haven’t we done a CT?’ There has to be a blockage or something going on,’ so they did one and at 8 or 9 p.m., the doctor came in and said, ‘I hate having to give you this news but she’s not constipated. She has masses everywhere.’ I’m looking at him like, ‘OK, what does that mean? What’s the solution?’ He says, ‘We have to transfer you to the children’s hospital because they appear to be tumor-like.’”

It was Mother’s Day weekend.

Jeremy booked a flight home the next morning, but before he departed, he told the Mets, ‘You need to find me whoever I should go to.’ The Mets called the Diamondbacks and after a brief stop at Cardon Children's Medical Center ER (now Banner Children's at Desert ER), Leighton was transferred to Phoenix Children’s Hospital. PCH performed biopsies on Monday, the results came back on Wednesday and Leighton began chemotherapy on Friday to treat Stage 4 malignant germ cell tumors.

“Even at that stage they told us that germ cell tumors typically respond well to chemo so we're thinking, ‘Well, if it had to be cancer, we’re glad it’s the kind that responds well to treatment,’” Carly said.

Unfortunately, the original prognosis did not accurately portray the numerous narratives changes, and the wide swings in emotion that lay ahead for the Accardos. In addition to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, Leighton endured six procedures in a year. One was 12 hours long, one was about 11 and the others lasted four to six hours.

“From the day she got diagnosed, it has been a roller coaster of wins and losses; steps forwards and steps back,” Jeremy said. “There were moments and days where we celebrated and the next days would be devastating.”

“I think we did a really good job of not letting her see our own fear, but at the same time, she was probably protecting us, too, from some of her fears. I’m sure of it, in fact, because she was that tough.”

The first surgery in August was what Carly termed a bust. Leighton had a large tumor in her abdomen that had metastasized to her liver and lungs. After the first two rounds of chemo, the liver was clear, the abdomen looked like it might respond and the golf-ball sized tumors in the lungs had reduced by 50 percent, but when surgeons tried to resect the abdominal tumor at PCH, they were only able to remove a small piece. 

A Harvard germ cell specialist offered ideas for different forms of chemo. Just when they thought they were making progress, the tumors would return. After abdominal surgery in January of 2020, doctors determined that they were no longer dealing with germ cell cancer. They were dealing with Primitive Neuro-Ectodermal Tumors (PNET).

“They’re basically brain tumors that are not in the brain,” Carly said. “That’s probably why some of the chemos didn’t work so they changed them and it would always seem to work for a few rounds but it was like her cancer would say, ‘Oh, I see what you’re doing and I’m going to work my way around that.’ So they would change it up again and the cancer would work its way around that one, too.

“We basically tried every chemo available and super intense radiation for five days. Her backside was so burned it looked like someone took a hot frying pan and pushed it into her back and yet she still went out to all of Larson’s baseball games with a pillow to sit on.”

While the Accardos were riding a roller coaster of emotions, the Valley community rallied around them. As soon as Fry and Coyotes senior director of hockey development Matt Shott learned of the diagnosis, they organized visits to PCH with autographed sticks, jerseys, blankets, sweatshirts and other paraphernalia. Leighton Accardo didn’t just become the Coyotes ambassador for Hockey Fights Cancer Night, Carly said, she became a part of the organization.

“Everybody thinks that the Coyotes came in at Hockey Fights Cancer Night, but right from the get-go, the Coyotes have been involved and when it came to Hockey Fights Cancer, it was a no-brainer that she was going to be their ambassador, not only because they loved Leighton but because she was also a local hockey player,” Carly said.

“They went above and beyond with that day and the puck drop. I don’t think there is a kid out there that has had a day like Leighton had with that team. She was even supposed to get on the ice and practice with them that day but their practice was cancelled so (coach) Rick Tocchet said, ‘I’m sorry she didn’t get it today but this is our next practice and this is when we want to have her out’ and they followed through with that promise. They had us out to so many games and took such good care of us.”

Countless Coyotes visited Leighton in the hospital but they weren’t the only ones. ASU sent forwards Tyler Busch and Johnny Walker to visit her, and while Auston Matthews was skating at Oceanside Ice Arena in the offseason, he reached out to the Sun Devils program to set up a PCH visit through corporate communications manager Mitch Terrell.

Leighton even met 2019 National League Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso (Mets), and Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid.

In the community, her baseball team organized a head shaving party to show solidarity with Leighton and about 200 kids participated. During her final sessions of chemotherapy, Leighton and Carly asked her baseball coaches to allow her to pinch hit and later, to pitch. She looped a single and hobbled down to first base with a brace on one leg. on the mound, she was supposed to pitch to one batter, but she recorded a strikeout on three pitches so the coaches left her in. She struck out the side; three up, three down.

“The kid that she struck out to strike out the side was the other coach’s son and he’s a friend of mine,” Samson said. “He told me later, ‘I told my son, you’re going to remember that one forever.’ That was the last game that Leighton ever played for us.”

It was two weeks before Thanksgiving 2020 when the Accardos took their last trip to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. After blood work, Leighton went for her latest round of scans, which were always a source of anxiety for the Accardos. There’s even a term for it: scanxiety.

“Her oncologist texted me and said, ‘I’m not liking what I’m seeing on these numbers but I’m going to wait to see the scans. I’m just giving you a heads up,’” Carly said. “As soon as we walked into the patient room where you have your appointments, everybody was just silent. They had all seen it and they all knew what it meant. When they told me there was nothing else they could do they were devastated.”

Even doctors who weren’t a part of the process that day came in to see the Accardos.

Michael LaQuaglia, Leighton’s surgeon at Sloan Kettering, told the Accardos: “'The only comfort I can give you is that she’s just going to fall asleep. It’s not going to be a dramatic thing. She’s just going to fall asleep and she’s not going to wake up.”

Carly and Jeremy didn’t tell Leighton that she was dying and they didn’t tell their other kids until the day before she died. They didn’t want to let go of their last thread of hope and they didn’t want their daughter, who had fought so bravely and so tirelessly, to believe that she had failed.

The Accardo kids: Larson, 10, Locke, 5, Leeanne, 7, Leighton, 9. Leeanne, Larson and Locke began today’s skate with Lyndsey Fry at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Photo courtesy of Carly and Jeremy Accardo

When Leighton returned home from New York, she chose to remain on the couch in the family’s living room, never climbing the stairs to her bedroom in her final days. There were a couple of good days, eating mac and cheese, drinking Fanta orange and singing show tunes while watching “The Greatest Showman.”

Jeremy even bought Leighton a puppy named Max, but he and Carly tried to brace themselves for what was coming.

“For the last couple days we just sat and watched her breathe,” Carly said. “I kept waking up and checking her heart. ‘OK, it’s still beating’ and then I’d lay down again.

At 4:30 in the morning on Nov. 24, Carly checked again and Leighton was gone, leading to this emotional and powerful post on her Instagram page.

A post shared by Carly Accardo (@carly.lind.accardo)

“It was tough seeing her that last day because when we think of her we see a girl that had a hockey game and a baseball game the day before she got diagnosed,” Jeremy said. “We just remember her as always moving, always able and good at everything she did.”

The Coyotes had a visit planned to the Accardo household that day to see Leighton. They showed up anyway to offer support.

“All the teams and so many people have been great to us,” Jeremy said, “but the hockey community is in a different league. They never wavered.”

The Coyotes have numerous plans ahead to honor Accardo, and the Accardos are steadfast in their desire to keep Leighton’s memory alive through charities and other avenues. By sharing their experience through videos, interviews and social media, they hope to help others learn from and cope with the ordeal of cancer.

“It still hits us at different moments, but we’re so busy with our kids and our schedules that it helps keep  everybody's minds occupied,” Jeremy said. “I think once we have had the memorial (which was Friday) and we can wrap our heads around all of this, something big will come of this and it will help a ton of families. She touched a lot of people and she sure touched us -- in ways that we can’t even begin to know yet.”

A few days before her Skatin’ for Leighton journey began, Fry reflected on a few of those touchpoints.

“Leighton was just the coolest kid; this scrappy little human and this tenacious little hockey player that touched everybody she met,” Fry said. “She fought cancer so honorably and so bravely. She had such a positive attitude throughout the whole process, so I am going to finish this for her. 

“I don't care if I have to crawl or take off one skate and hop. I’ll keep pushing and finish because it is something that is within my control. Through whatever process — whether it’s spirituality or something else — that is keeping me and everyone else connected to her, it is something that I can do to honor everything that she was.”

Skatin’ For Leighton

Lyndsey Fry will rollerblade 96 miles across the Valley on Sunday to raise $49,000 in memory of Leighton Accardo. The money raised will support a girls hockey scholarship fund in Leighton's memory so more young girls can play the sport that Leighton loved.

“The scholarship will go to two things,” Fry said. “It’s for girls who want to get into hockey and maybe just are too timid, so paying a couple hundred dollars to try something is a little scary for their parents. This will reduce the cost of entry to draw more girls in, and then the other usage is going to be for those families where hockey is really this wonderful thing for their daughter but they struggle to afford it.”

Fry will begin her skate at Phoenix’ Children’s Hospital and then hit every one of the Valley’s ice rinks. The route and the approximate arrival times at each stop are listed below.

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Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan