Cancer survivor inspired by hockey
In his 21 NHL seasons, Gary Roberts amassed more than 2,500 penalty minutes. So he knows a thing or two about mixing it up on the ice.
Eric Naughton has survived cancer. So he's not afraid of mixing it up with anybody. Not even a guy who was known as "Scary Gary" during his NHL career.
Naughton, a lifelong Pittburgh Penguins fan, took part in last month's fantasy camp put on by the team. It's the culmination of a year and a half of training Naughton went through after he beat cancer, and it's a big part of a documentary he's making about the journey called "Life, Cancer and the Pursuit of Hockey."
Naughton decided that, at 40 and having beaten Hodgkin's lymphoma, he would learn to play hockey. Along the way he got the idea for a goal he would set: Be good enough to play in the 2011 Penguins fantasy camp.
"I could play in a men’s league anywhere. But to be able to fulfill that dream of a hockey fan to go play at a fantasy camp, that then became the goal," said Naughton, who credits his coach, Christian Lalonde, with helping him learn to play well enough to attend the fantasy camp.
And when he had an opportunity to tangle with Roberts at the camp, he took full advantage.
Before heading out on the ice for a game against a team led by Roberts, Naughton asked him to sign a Penguins jersey he had been given. While doing that, he asked Roberts to do his worst.
"I made the request that I think every player in camp asked him. I simply asked him if he would hit me while we were out there," Naughton said. "It seemed like everyone was saying, 'I want Gary Roberts to hit me! That would be great! I want Scary Gary to level me out there!'
"So he laughed and said, 'You got it, buddy. You just let me know when.' ”
After Roberts' team went up by two goals, Naughton's team captain, former Penguins and Islanders great Bryan Trottier, told him it was time to have Roberts hit him, so he told Naughton to tie up Roberts during the next faceoff.
"So the centermen line up to take the faceoff, and I’m out on the wing against Gary Roberts," Naughton said. "So I said, 'All right, Gary, you gonna hit me now?' So he says, 'Oh, yeah, sure.' So he starts jostling with me and bumping my arm. We’re up on the Jumbotron, actually. So he’s bumping me, and they drop the puck, and I tie him up. And we’re kind of struggling and he’s playing it up, thinking, 'I’ll give this guy a thrill.' "
Meanwhile, Trottier wins the faceoff and goes down and scores a goal, all while Roberts and Naughton are tied up.
"So Gary skates past me and says, 'Oh, you were playing me! I can’t believe it!' " Naughton said.
On the ensuing faceoff, Roberts went at Naughton again. This time Naughton ended up with his stick between Roberts' legs, which caused Roberts to separate Naughton from his stick, which the ref took as interference. Roberts wasn't pleased with the call, but Naughton was awarded a penalty shot (they didn't have power plays at the fantasy camp). He missed, but he got his revenge later when he poke-checked the puck away from Roberts as he and his team were trying to tie it up at the end.
In addition to Trottier and Roberts, former Pengins at the camp included Mitch Lamoreaux, Dave Roche and Dennis Owchar, whose team won the tournament. All in all, even though he didn't score any goals, Naughton had a great time.
"There’s nothing like skating on the ice that your hockey heroes play on, and they’ve got you up on the Jumbotron, they’re blowing the goal horn, when someone scores they announce the goal and the assists, when we came out for our warm-up skate, they’re playing the theme music the Penguins always come out to," he said. "There’s only 80 people in the stands, but you get the feeling of what it might be like if you were a professional hockey player, living out your childhood dream in a way."
'Hockey saved my life'
It's a dream that almost never happened for Naughton, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in September 2007. He'd discovered a lump on his neck the previous summer, and after tests showed he had cancer, he started getting treatment.
Naughton, who lives in Los Angeles, spent a lot of time watching the Penguins on satellite TV while going through his treatment. It happened to coincide with the Penguins' run to the Stanely Cup Finals in the spring of 2008, recharging his interest in the team. The following year he got to watch them hoist the Cup. Naughton said watching the Penguins do so well helped him stay positive during his treatment.
"I used to tell people that hockey saved my life," Naughton said. "I watched so much of it and really got into it. It was such a positive influence on me during my treatment time. I think it really helped me out mentally."
Now, Naughton is cancer-free, having gotten one of several consecutive clean scans just last month.
"I'm three years out of treatment. My oncologist in LA and radiation oncologist at Stanford are all of the opinion I don’t need to do any more scanning. Just follow-ups at this point," Naughton said. "With Hodgkin’s, if the cancer hasn’t come back after five years, they consider you cured. So I’ll probably just do one more scan in a few years, as my doctor put it, to just kind of 'put a bow on it.' ”
When not working in television production, Naughton spends his free time working on his documentary. He's worked on other films, but none so personal. In addition to telling his story, Naughton is aiming to tell the story of some NHL players who have beaten cancer, like Toronto's Phil Kessel and Anaheim's Jason Blake and Saku Koivu.
"I realized I shouldn’t just tell my story. I should help those hockey players tell their story," Naughton said. "I think a lot of people are aware they had cancer, but I think by telling their story a little bit, too, (it) could have just a greater impact on more general audiences. All these guys have different stories, just like every single cancer patient has a different story that they go through.
"That’s how the idea for the documentary evolved."
Naughton said he's always had the idea of using the film to raise money for cancer charities. He said the natural choices were Hockey Fights Cancer and the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Lemieux, too, came back from Hodgkin's lymphoma to continue his Hall of Fame career with the Penguins.
"It feels like it was a lightning bolt, you know?" Naughton said. "I lived with it for so long, I just said, I’m going to do a film about this. I’m going to learn how to play. I’m a survivor. I’m going to talk to these hockey players who are cancer survivors who are still in the NHL. In the case of Mario, he retired, but he underwent treatment for the same type of cancer that I had. He came back and played and had a great career after that.
"I don’t know. It just seemed to me to be a natural thing to do, to tell my story to help people out who are less fortunate than I am."
The Penguins got wind of the trailer Naughton made for his film with editor Matt Ostrow on YouTube after it was posted in a hockey blog. Before this past season, the Pens invited Naughton to tour the brand-new Consol Energy Center before the team had even played an official game there.
"I just think I’m going to go and meet some of the executives and work out some of the details of the film," Naughton said. "One of the executives, Rich Hixon, he took me around and they managed to surprise me and had (Penguins coach) Dan Bylsma come out and complete the tour, taking me all through the player areas. So that was pretty exciting."
The team stayed in contact with Naughton throughout the season, even showing him in the crowd during a broadcast of a Penguins game in Los Angeles. Then they invited Naughton to take part in their fantasy camp, on the house, allowing him to film his experience there for his documentary.
As he continues to work on his film, Naughton has been raising money by getting donations at IndieGoGo.com. He also continues to skate and improve his game ("I’ve got to improve my shooting, my stickhandling, and keep improving in my skating") and is thinking about joining an adult league in LA.
He says learning to play hockey has taught him patience, while surviving cancer has taught him to have a positive attitude and to find the humor in things. But it's also taught him to live his life in the moment and on a day-to-day basis.
"It shifts your priorities," he said. "This whole experience over the past 3½ years, since my diagnosis to playing at a fantasy camp, if you look at it as one experience, it’s kind of taught me that you’ve got to enjoy your life. You’ve got to do the things in your life that make you happy. For me, that’s playing hockey, that’s spending time with my family, my fiancee’s family. My brother lives in town, so I've been spending time with him. It's getting your priorities straight. What do you really get upset over? Don't get bent out of shape over stuff that’s not really important."