PHOENIX – “Skate hard, have fun.”
Those words from Leighton Accardo served as a guiding light for Lyndsey Fry as she embarked on an inspirational journey.
Fry, the director of external engagement and female hockey for the Arizona Coyotes and the president of the Arizona Kachinas Hockey Association, rollerbladed 96 miles Sunday, Feb. 21, to raise money for the newly created Leighton Accardo Scholarship Fund.
It honors Accardo, who passed away Nov. 24 after a battle with Stage 4 cancer. For Fry and others, Accardo’s fighting hockey spirit is persistent motivation to do better.
“This is one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had,” Fry said. “To be able to do something so impactful that is literally going to enable hundreds of little girls, if not thousands over the years, to play hockey because of what a 9-year-old girl inspired is amazing.”
Fry’s journey of more than 14 hours began at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Phoenix, spanned all eight hockey rinks located around the Valley and ended at Gila River Arena in Glendale, home of the Coyotes.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, Fry kicked off her endeavor with Leighton’s siblings LeeAnne, Larson and Locke Accardo accompanying her for the first few miles.
Along with stops at the local rinks, the Mesa-native and 2014 Olympic silver hockey medalist received rallying cries of support from members of the Arizona Kachinas girls hockey program and from fans decked out in Coyotes colors and Accardo mementos.
“The way she was able to bring so many people together, I think we saw that today,” Fry said. “Every single rink, it was rocking and truly incredible.”
When she reached the fourth checkpoint of her rollerblading trip at the recently constructed Coyotes Community Ice Center in Mesa – the latest example of the Valley’s growing youth hockey movement – Fry grabbed a bite and reapplied some sunscreen on the sunny day before starting the second half of her journey on in-line wheels.
Tyson Nash, analyst on the Coyotes’ Fox Sports Arizona broadcasts, joined Fry for the fifth leg from AZ Ice Gilbert to Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe.
“I was absolutely floored when Lyndsey asked me to come out and give her some help,” Nash said. “We’re all in this together, supporting a great cause.”
Shane Doan, the team’s chief hockey development officer, swapped in for Nash at Oceanside Ice Arena and skated with Fry to Ice Den Scottsdale.
“When you get asked to do something like this, I knew this would be a fun one,” Doan said. “I was really excited to hang out with Lyndsey for the afternoon.”
Fry trekked through the toughest part of her journey from Scottsdale to AZ Ice Peoria on rough terrain as the sun set. Even through the muscle soreness and mental fatigue, she strived to carry on Leighton’s joyful spirit.
Leighton’s battle with cancer was moving for the whole community.
A stomach pain prompted a CT scan which revealed multiple masses on her abdomen, liver and lungs. Biopsies determined germ cell tumors.
She underwent weekly chemotherapy treatments and radiation therapy, spending countless days and nights in hospital beds.
In May 2019, Leighton decided to shave her head. She did not do it alone.
She was surrounded by teammates from the Peaches, an all-girls baseball team from the East Valley Baseball league. Katie and Emily, two of Leighton’s friends, did not hesitate to join her and shave their heads, along with about 200 kids, to show the support of her fight.
A fight with a smile along every step of the way.
“Leighton was such a positive person,” Fry said. “She saw the bright side in everything. The biggest thing I took away from Leighton is you can do hard things and you can do it with a smile on your face.”
When Fry finally crossed the red-ribbon finish line in the Coyotes’ plaza at the Westgate Entertainment District, she embraced Carly Accardo, Leighton’s mom.
“I’m really proud of what she did,” Carly said. “I’ve been thinking about Leighton all day long, so it was nice to give her that hug at the end.”
Fry originally planned to do part of the rollerblading event with Leighton.
“I was going to push her in an athletic stroller across the finish line, although knowing her, she would have gotten up and walked on her own,” Fry said. “When that wasn’t possible anymore, I always thought about hanging onto these kids first and her parents.”
Fry prepared for the special occasion just like her days as an Olympic medalist, waking up before the crack of dawn and skating between five to 50 miles each day for the past month. Fry had difficulty comparing her 96-mile adventure to any of her athletic achievements, which include finishing Ironman Arizona, a 140.6-mile triathlon.”Physically, most similar to the Ironman, but emotionally and as far as the meaning behind it, it’s probably one of the most special things I’ll ever get to do,” Fry said.
Although the Coyotes’ coaches and players were not able to attend the event due to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols, it is clear that Leighton touched each and every one of their hearts – even during tough times.
“We lost a couple games and I remember she came in and she just brightened the room up,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “She had a smile on her face and came on the ice, and we won the next game. I remember the guys being so thankful of this little girl. If you go play hard and have fun, sometimes those dog days aren’t as bad. I think she affected us in that way with her smile.
“She’s up there smiling again. She is a terrific young lady. We miss her dearly.”
Coyotes forward Christian Fischer choked up while describing the impact Leighton made on him and his teammates and remembering the one-day contract she signed with the Coyotes in 2019 on their “Hockey Fights Cancer” night.
“When she came into the locker room and signed that contract with us for the day, I don’t think her family knew how much that meant to us,” Fischer said. “We would always get little videos and pictures throughout her battle. It was so inspiring just to see her … It’s tough to talk about her just knowing how much joy she brought to everyone. That’s the one thing that she left behind and the one thing that we wear on our helmets. She’s gone, but not forgotten.”
The Leighton Accardo Scholarship Fund will provide financial support to young girls interested in playing hockey in Arizona and carry the memory of Leighton in the Valley hockey community. On the day of the event, the Coyotes surpassed their goal of $49,000 – a special total because Leighton wore No. 49 for the Arizona Kachinas.
“It’s comforting to know that Leighton won’t be forgotten with this scholarship fund,” Carly said. “Girls will get the chance to experience hockey, a game that Leighton absolutely loved, in her honor.”
Fans can continue to donate to the Leighton Accardo Scholarship Fund at ArizonaCoyotes.com/skatinforleighton.
“We’ve already won,” Fry said. “People are talking about Leighton. You guys are sharing this story, which is incredible. We’ve raised a lot of money for such an amazing cause. She would be proud.”
This won’t be a one-hit wonder. Fry says an annual tradition will sprout to make sure Leighton’s memory and legacy lives on.
“We’re going to do it,” Fry said. “This is our way of being able to do that and our promise to her family. She was an amazing, amazing kid that impacted so many of us in so many different ways. This is something we want to do forever. That’s my personal vow. As long as I’m here, we’re going to do something like this every single year.”