Family, school rally around goaltender battling brain tumor
A junior goaltender for the men’s hockey team at New York University, Sam Daley never considered he wouldn’t be lacing up his skates and putting on his pads for practice this Sunday when he left NYU for his family home in New Hampshire for Christmas break last month.
A devastating New Year’s Eve diagnosis of a brain tumor turned the vibrant 21-year-old’s world upside down, calling into question not only his future as a netminder, but whether he’d be able to return to school.
The problem surfaced in October, when Daley began to feel occasional numbness and tingling in his left arm and forearm. Later, he began to feel the same sensation in his left hip and leg. Eventually, Daley called his primary care physician back home in New Hampshire, who recommended that he make a trip to the emergency room.
Daley headed for Beth Israel hospital in Manhattan, but there he was only advised to see to a specialist. Beth Israel neurologist Dr. Daniel MacGowan did a workup in early November, but, like the emergency room physicians before him, MacGowan concluded that the numbness was likely either a result of a pinched nerve or an issue stemming from Daley’s sleeping position.
MacGowan told Daley to come back and see him if he was still having problems in six months.
It’s nothing you can explain to someone who hasn’t had that happen to them, but when your child is facing something like this, you’ll do anything to take this away from them. You’ll do anything to take it onto yourself. If we could have spared him any of this, we would have. It’s just been very, very difficult.
Leslie Daley, Sam's mom
But Daley, who like many athletes is exceptionally in tune with his body, couldn’t shake the lingering feeling that there was more to it than that. He would tell his mom, Leslie, that while he didn’t feel horrible, he also didn’t feel quite right, and MacGowan eventually gave him a referral to get an MRI. Unfortunately, because of his busy schedule with classes and hockey, Daley wasn’t able to get the MRI done before the end of the fall semester.
NYU finished the fall portion of its schedule on a four-game winning streak, with Daley in net for wins over American Collegiate Hockey Association teams from Boston College, New Hampshire, Siena and Central Connecticut State, leaving them ranked fourth in the ACHA heading into winter break. On the first day back home in New Hampshire, Daley got in contact with his pediatrician, who was able to get him an MRI scheduled for Dec. 31.
That morning, Daley finally had his MRI, and before the Daleys had gotten home, the office called Sam back for a second MRI, this time using a more definitive dye in an attempt to take a closer look. Then, at around 5:30 that afternoon, as the Daleys were hosting their annual New Year’s Eve party at their home, a call came from the doctor, who said they’d spotted a tumor in Sam’s brain.
"It’s like being kicked in the stomach when you get that call," Sam’s father, Jack, told FOX Sports.
"(I was) shaking," his mom, Leslie, added. "(There are) just involuntary responses in your body to that kind of news."
Daley was referred to Dr. Brian Nahed at Mass General Hospital in Boston, and surgery was scheduled for Jan. 7, but the week in between his diagnosis and the procedure was exceptionally tough.
"It’s been distressing," Leslie Daley said. "Honestly, I feel like since we got that news, I’ve been on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t keep control of my emotions. It’s been really, really, really hard to stay positive and strong for Sam. He’s very sensitive to my emotions, and it was just a very, very hard time.
"It’s nothing you can explain to someone who hasn’t had that happen to them, but when your child is facing something like this, you’ll do anything to take this away from them. You’ll do anything to take it onto yourself. If we could have spared him any of this, we would have. It’s just been very, very difficult."
After a sleepless night for the entire family Tuesday, Sam went in for surgery at about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday.
During a 6½-hour procedure, Nahed removed the tumor, which was roughly the size of an apricot, from Sam’s cerebellum and spinal cord stem, in the fourth ventricle of the brain on the left hand side — the tube that drains fluid from the brain. Nahed suspects that the tumor had been slowly growing in Daley’s brain for quite some time, and had it grown much larger, it could have totally blocked the fluid in his brain from draining down his spinal column, which can lead to a litany of serious problems.
"The doctor said that, normally, if you took a marble(-sized tumor) and put it in someone’s brain in the same spot, that they’d be having a stroke and they wouldn’t be able to operate," Leslie Daley said. "His body did a remarkable job of hiding what was going on with it and compensating. He should have been having a lot of fluid buildup on his brain, and he should have had more symptoms, which he had none of, and his body was compensating for all that."
The Daleys won’t know the results of the pathology tests until next week, but Nahed expressed confidence that the tumor was benign, in part because Sam is both young and in great shape. Still, Leslie said she won’t feel fully relieved until the tests confirm that assumption.
"The worst part of all of this is that they tell you all the worst things that could happen," Leslie said. "So you’re sitting there obsessing over all of the bad things that can happen. And I’m obsessing because the chances of him even getting a tumor like this were very remote to begin with.
"The doctor said that there’s about 20,000 cases a year, so when you’re one of those 20,000, you wonder, ‘Could I be in the one percent of those 20,000 that doesn’t have a good outcome from the surgery?’"
Provided that all goes well, though, Sam is looking at a best-case recovery of six to eight weeks before he can hopefully return to school, where he wants to perform well this semester before he applies to dental school, and to the ice for practice — which is exactly where he wants to be.
Daley just doesn’t know any other way of living. He started playing hockey at the age of 6, and seemingly hasn’t left the net since.
"In one of the very first learn-to-skate programs, when they were pushing around milk crates learning to stand up on skates, he told the coach, right then, ‘I want to be a goalie,’ and the coach’s response to him was, ‘Well, you’ve got to learn to skate first, Sam,’" Jack Daley said with a laugh.
"We kind of joke about that now. He was a little bit heavier kid then than he is now, and he’s kind of grown into an athlete, but back then, we thought that he thought that if he was the goalie, then he wouldn’t have to work as hard. Turns out that’s not the case, but it was very fortunate for all of us, because he’s a natural."
By the age of 12, Sam had been named to the New England select team for his age group, an honor he received again when he was 14. But when he got to high school, there was a logjam of upperclassmen ahead of him in the competition for the starting goalie position, meaning he likely wouldn’t have a chance to play significant minutes until his senior year.
So after being contacted by Bishop Brady, a private school playing in a higher division in nearby Concord, Sam made the decision to switch schools, hoping to earn a position on a better team that was in no way guaranteed.
The move paid off, and by his senior year, Sam had been named New Hampshire’s Division I goalie of the year, and finished second in the state’s player of the year voting. After a year of playing junior hockey with the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs, Sam decided, on his own, to turn his attention toward his education — he’s a biology major with a 3.72 GPA and wants to be a dentist, a curious profession for a hockey player — and enrolled at NYU, where he was able to join the hockey team.
"I told (his junior coach), ‘Look, I need a goalie," NYU hockey coach Chris Cosentino said of his recruitment of Daley. "It’s not easy to get guys to NYU, because it’s a tough school to get in academically. But he said, ‘I’ve got the perfect guy for you.’ I spoke to his goalie coach, as well, and he said, ‘Sam’s going to be a game-changer for you, on and off the ice.’"
During the national tournament last spring, NYU needed a shutout to have a chance of advancing out of pool play. Who do you think Cosentino put between the pipes? You can guess how many goals he allowed.
As a freshman, Daley appeared in 15 games and allowed 34 goals, finishing the year with a 2.64 goals against average. As a sophomore he was better, allowing 34 goals on 474 shots in 16 games. During the national tournament last spring, NYU needed a shutout to have a chance of advancing out of pool play. Who do you think Cosentino put between the pipes? You can guess how many goals he allowed.
"We got the shutout but we didn’t advance because of goal differential," Cosentino said. "The team that actually moved on was Florida Gulf Coast, a team that Sam had beat the first game, when he came up huge — one of the top teams in the tournament. So going into this season, Sam was our guy. He proved it on the national stage, he’s proved it in the big spotlights, and even the year before he did very well in the postseason for us."
This year, Daley was 9-3 as a starter before his surgery, and had a .913 save percentage. Cosentino said he never had the slightest inclination that anything was wrong, as Daley played as well as he had for the Violets. But it’s Daley’s impact away from the rink that Cosentino says stands out most.
Cosentino first learned of Daley’s condition via text message over winter break. He’d sent a note out to his captains regarding the team’s return to practice in January, and Sam responded with a message that simply said, "We have to talk." Word of Daley’s tumor then made its way to the rest of the NYU team, which banded together to create a video in support of its man in net.
With players all over the world — one of Daley’s backups is from South Africa — it was tough to pull it all together, but Sam was able to watch the tribute the night before his procedure.
"You can see it in the video how sincere the guys are," Cosentino said. "We’re not just losing our starting goalie. This is a guy who has made such a profound impact on everyone on and off the ice. He’s an incredible student, he does incredible things in the community, and he’s always had our back in games. Always. And now he needs us to have his, and we certainly do."
In addition, Daley’s NYU teammates immediately began championing the cause on social media, getting the #DaleyStrong hashtag rolling on Twitter and generally being supportive of their brother on the ice, doing whatever they can to inspire and help. It’s for that reason — the sense of community Daley has found at NYU — that Daley says he can’t wait to get back in the rink.
"He’s told me that he doesn’t know what his college experience would be like without his team, and that’s what makes his whole college experience there what it is for him," Leslie Daley said.
"He loves being in the city, he loves New York City, he loves the school, and he particularly loves his team and his teammates and being part of a team is very, very important to him. He’s said many times, ‘I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t have my team and that connection in this community,’ because it’s such a large school and such a big city, and the way he gets around it is to be part of a group, part of the team. It inspires him, it keeps him motivated."
I just can’t wait to speak to him again, to be honest, and I can’t imagine what I’ll feel seeing him in equipment again. All I want to do is just talk to him, honestly, but what that moment will be like? That’s movie stuff, man, and I hope it happens sooner than later.
NYU coach Chris Cosentino
And though Cosentino says he’s not worried about anything other than Daley’s well-being right now, he knows he’ll cherish Sam’s return, whether it comes this season or next.
"If it was anybody else, I’d say, ‘Yeah, probably next year,’" Cosentino said when asked whether it’s possible Daley could play again this year. "But with Sam, he’s the type of person — they’re probably doing tests today in the hospital, and he’d be like, ‘OK, stitch me up, let’s go. Where are my pads?’ Honestly, I haven’t even thought about it — I haven’t thought about anything hockey-related yet — but knowing Sam, he’ll want to get back as soon as possible.
"I’m getting emotional just thinking about it," Cosentino continued, his voice cracking. "I just can’t wait to speak to him again, to be honest, and I can’t imagine what I’ll feel seeing him in equipment again. All I want to do is just talk to him, honestly, but what that moment will be like? That’s movie stuff, man, and I hope it happens sooner than later."
And whenever it does, he’ll have some new headgear to show off for the occasion.
For Christmas, Daley’s parents surprised him with a custom-made goalie mask, painted with his name, the family crest, the seal of the state of New Hampshire, the Statue of Liberty and the NYU logo. At the time, Jack and Leslie had no idea about the diagnosis that was looming for their son, who said he wanted to surprise his teammates with the mask when he returned to school.
And though the plans for Sam to wear it have been put on hold for now, the moment he can finally test it out will be precious for Daley and his family.
"To know that he went through such a hazardous operation and to be able to come back from that — I’m 50 years old, and when I was growing up, if somebody had a brain tumor, it was almost a death sentence," Jack Daley said. "And that’s the first thing I thought in my mind, going back to my experience as a kid. So you see your son has the problem, and to know that he’s going to be able to make a full recovery and fulfill all of those goals that he has, it’s just not something you can put into words.
Added Leslie: "We’ve always been proud of him, and it’s a fault, I know, to be so proud. But the pride we feel in him is even greater — I don’t know how it could be greater than it was, but I know it will be. His courage and his strength of character was something I already knew he had, and he’s just shown it to us even more. We know that he’s going to go on to accomplish great things and honestly, I feel like he’s here to do something good with his life."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.