Leighton Accardo was a wisp of a 9-year-old girl who played hockey and stole the hearts of everyone in the Arizona Coyotes family. She died in November, just three days before Thanksgiving, after an 18-month battle with cancer that attacked just about every organ in her tiny body.
One of four children to New York Mets assistant pitching coach Jeremy Accardo, who pitched in the big leagues from 2005-2012, and his wife, Carly, a native of Canada, Leighton naturally gravitated toward two sports: baseball and hockey.
The Coyotes, who have been at the forefront of girls hockey in the Phoenix area for years, rallied around Leighton after she became ill, even signing her to an honorary contract.
This coronavirus-abbreviated season is the 25th since their move from Winnipeg to the Valley. What was originally supposed to be a 96-mile roller blade trip by Coyotes ambassador and color analyst Lyndsey Fry, traversing Maricopa County this past Feb. 21 to honor that anniversary, has turned into a fundraiser, famously called “Skatin’ For Leighton.”
It began at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and ended 14 hours later at Gila River Arena in Glendale, the home of the Coyotes, making stops at every single arena where youth hockey is played in the area. The trek hit a chain of towns in the greater Phoenix metro area with a population base of about 4.5 million; there are only 7.3 million people in the entire state of Arizona.
Thus far it has raised $75,000 for a scholarship fund.
“Originally it was supposed to be this big community event to try to get people excited about hockey,” Fry said in a recent interview. “Then when Leighton passed away, we decided to put all the money toward a scholarship fund so other little girls can get into hockey.”
Leighton had already been honored at Gila River last season, on Hockey Fights Cancer Night, during her struggles with a disease that will take the lives of 1,190 U.S. children under the age of 15 this year in its various forms, according to projections from the American Cancer Society.
Balding from her various rounds of chemotherapy, she was supposed to drop the ceremonial first puck for defenseman and team captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Instead, Ekman-Larsson turned the tables and dropped the puck for her.
That illustrates the high regard the Coyotes had for Leighton and their steadfast promotion of local girls’ hockey, building support for the pro sport at the gate and in the community.
“Leighton was awesome. She was so spunky,” said Fry, a former hockey player herself. “She was so competitive. She loved sports. She loved competing. And she was so positive. She just had a smile that radiated in a room. Such a fun kid to be around. Her mom summed it up so well at her celebration of life: Leighton just saw the positive in everything even when she was dealt the worst hand.”
Leighton’s light hasn’t dimmed. As the Coyotes have celebrated Gender Equality Month, the franchise walks the walk, or skates the skate, so to speak. They boast seven women in executive positions, the most among the four Arizona professional sports teams; the other three combined have eight. Overall, there are 33 female employees in the organization, which includes the minor-league Roadrunners.
Through their Kachina youth hockey program, there has been a 53% increase in girls’ participation in the Valley over the last five years—now enough to field 13 girls hockey teams.
Their diversity push, however, is not just limited to girls. Alex Meruelo, who purchased the Coyotes in 2019, is the first Hispanic owner in the history of the National Hockey League, and as the Coyotes try to build their local fan base, they are reaching out to the Latinx and other minority communities. The Hispanic population in greater Phoenix is 29.6% of the community.
It’s a no-brainer even though the league is largely white and male.
“I’m very proud of it, proud of what we’ve accomplished,” said team president Xavier Gutierrez, who was born in Guadalajara and grew up in San Jose, Calif. “We’ve barely begun to focus on how we can be an organization that supports, celebrates and empowers women and people of diverse backgrounds of all types. I’ve made it very clear that our key pillars are impact, inclusion and innovation.
“We have one of the largest female cohorts in the NHL and the largest of any team in the Valley. And yet, we’re just beginning.”
The franchise’s roster of female executives include two senior vice presidents, three vice presidents, the general counsel and an executive director—not to mention Fry, who is listed as ambassador of youth and women’s hockey and is only the third woman in NHL history to serve as an on-air radio hockey analyst.
She was the first hockey player born and bred in Arizona to represent Team USA in the Winter Olympics and is a silver medal winner.
As far as broadcasting the games go, Fry said, “I’m having a blast with it.”
She is nearing the end of her first season in that capacity.
“I love being an example for young girls who want to go into broadcasting someday,” she added. “The coolest thing: One of our Kachina kids, she’s 10 years old. She got a radio just to listen to me on the broadcasts. In 2021! That’s incredible! We’re all in. I can say that. I’m the chair of our diversity committee. I can feel it every day.”
Fry’s love of the sport, the team and Leighton made it imperative that day this past February to skate the pavement in Leighton’s memory. Hockey is a sport of sprints, not a marathon. Players are trained to take short bursts of a minute or two on the ice. They are not trained to skate for hours on end.
Still, Fry persevered just as Leighton did for a year and half as her young life inevitably slipped away.
“I was training for it for a few months,” Fry said. “Probably not as much training as I probably would’ve liked to during a busy work schedule and everything. It was a long day, but a great cause. I had a lot of help, a great support team. All I had to do was skate.“
It was as if Leighton was skating right next to her.