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Long-distance friendships

November 8, 2010
Photo courtesy Danielle Bennett

by Jeff Hawkins || AHL On The Beat Archive

His voice rises with each mention of his former River Rats "teammates."

"FITZGERALD ... BORER."

Pausing, his voice rises higher: "CONBOY ... HERAUF."

AHL fan Zach Bennett pauses again, only briefly. The 10-year-old Albany, N.Y., resident has a long, influential player/friend list.

"PETERS ... MURPHY."

Laughing and joining in on the fun with her son, Danielle Bennett could be heard over the phone providing a primary assist on another name: "PETRECKI."

It's all so unbelievable.

"Sometimes, in my mind, I didn't think this is possible," father Randy Bennett said of the support the AHL community has provided for Zach, who suffers from neurofibromatosis (NF1) and has endured 22 surgeries. "With all the negative things you hear about sports, what they've done for us. I give the players and the AHL a lot of credit.

"For the AHL to go and have the players interact with our family, that says something good about the AHL."

In the league's landmark campaign, fans like Zach Bennett represent the player-fan foundation that has energized the AHL over its 75 seasons.

"It's really a unique situation where we get to help improve someone's life," Charlotte Checkers defenseman Casey Borer said.

An Albany River Rat fan for over three years, Bennett forged a bond with several players, starting with simple pre- and post-game conversations. Now that the Carolina Hurricanes' AHL affiliation is the Checkers, the long-distance friendships continue. The Devils may now call Albany home, but Bennett's "teammates" are in Charlotte.

"When we came back, they were the first ones to greet us," Borer said of the Checkers' visit to Albany on Oct. 20. "It's more than hockey and it doesn't stop because we're four states away."

Bennett has yet to miss a Checkers' match, thanks to the Internet and favorable scheduling.

During the Checkers' recent Northeast road trip, including a swing through upstate New York, the Bennetts rooted for the Checkers.

"Bug (Zach's moniker) wouldn't have it any other way," Danielle Bennett said in an introductory e-mail. "The (Checkers/Rats) are our extended family. They will always hold a special place in our hearts as they have given Bug so much support and encouragement."

NF1 is a genetically inherited degenerative disorder where soft-tissue tumors grow on nerves. Zach Bennett, who turns 11 on Dec. 3, had both legs amputated.

Still, with all the setbacks, ask Bennett how many River Rats game he missed during the three seasons he followed the team and he will proudly declare: "One."

That type of grit and perseverance could be a major reason Bennett most identifies with goalies. When he watches a game in person, his mask is often strapped tight.

"What's important is Zach getting out," Randy Bennett said. "He knows he'll never play a real game of hockey - at the level of where they are - but don't tell him he can't do anything. We try to encourage him."

Soon, the family hopes, "Bug" will be able to watch his Checkers "teammates" in person. The Bennetts have their upstate home for sale and are planning to relocate to Charlotte, taking advantage of the medical facilities and a climate better.

"Their family is real dedicated; they have made friendships," Checkers defenseman Zack FitzGerald said.

Danielle serves as chief communicator. Some players, like Worcester's Nick Petrecki, reach out to her. Since reading an Albany Times Union article last spring, Petrecki has been in constant e-mail contact - and the 2007 first-round draft choice has never met the Bennett family. When "Bug" underwent surgery number 22 in January, right wing Tim Conboy, who competes for Portland this season, texted Danielle for updates. Spearheaded by goalie Justin Peters, Mike Murphy and Brad Herauf, "Bug" had constant company and support during his recovery.

"Bug" treasures an NHL stick Conboy used during his 12-game stint with the Hurricanes last season. Conboy presented the stick to "Bug" during one of their talks.

Influencing positively someone like Bennett "is better than anything," FitzGerald said. "Better than a win or anything.

"He's the reason why this job is special."