A homecoming away from home

by Mike Lappan || AHL On The Beat Archive 

When Zach Bennett got to Time Warner Cable Arena on Thursday night, he saw plenty of familiar and friendly faces, despite being 700 miles from home.

The 11-year-old Albany, N.Y. resident, who traveled through a snowstorm with family in tow, got another chance to see his beloved Checkers. Or River Rats as they were once known.

Zach, who suffers from Neurofibromatosis (NF 1), has had more than 20 surgeries to date, including the removal of both legs. And despite all of that, he never misses a game. On the computer that is.

“He’s a fighter,” says dad Randy. “Which is why he relates to the guys who spend the most time in the penalty box.”

No surprise then that the fourth-grader lists the River Rats’ two leading pugilists from last season, Zack FitzGerald and Tim Conboy, among his favorites.

Randy, who had the family van intricately decorated in River Rats images, admits that the team’s move to North Carolina was a devastating blow to the family, who had been season ticket holders for several seasons.

“When [the River Rats] left here, it was heartbreaking that we weren’t going with them,” he says. “I knew then that we had to somehow get to Charlotte.”

Cue Checkers owner Michael Kahn.

Upon announcing his intent to purchase the River Rats last spring, Kahn began to pay closer attention to the team and its community efforts. It is then when he learned that Randy was planning to move the family to Charlotte.

A shift to North Carolina, after all, would mean better medical care for Zach, better weather and the chance to be close to his team again. A hat trick of life improvements, so to speak.

Kahn, no stranger to philanthropy, has raised more than $1.8 million for Charlotte-area charities over the past four years.

A Queen City transplant by way of Atlanta, he prides himself on helping local, Carolina-based causes and non-profit organizations, which is the basis for the mission statement of his team’s charitable foundation.

But this particular cause, five states away, made Kahn extend his helping hand toward the Northeast.

“When I learned of Zach’s story, it touched me,” says the entrepreneur and father of four. “I wanted to do what I could to help.”

The Bennetts, meanwhile, stayed put in Albany, attempting to sell their house and head south. Though no bites came through the summer and into the beginning of hockey season, Zach could be found, game after game, propped in front of his mom’s computer and cheering on the Checkers.

Never one to sit around and wait for things to happen, Kahn jumped to action and initiated a plan which would both facilitate and expedite the moving process.

Through his team, he set up a fundraiser and reunion all at once. Friday, January 14 would be the date and a portion of the proceeds from tickets and a jersey auction that night would go to the honorary guest, Zach, and his family.

“The Bennetts are true and devoted fans of this team,” he says. “Zach has had a tough life and I want to make it a little easier.”

Kahn admits he wanted the Bennetts to come see Charlotte for themselves and re-visit the players, who Zach has formed special bonds with over the years.

One of those players, Checkers goaltender Mike Murphy, is elated at the chance to again see ‘Bug’, as family and friends call him.

“We’re all excited to have Bug come down," says Murphy. "He’s one of the guys, a teammate of ours, and gives everyone inspiration.

“You’ll never find him without a smile on his face,” he adds.

Randy recalls a story when Murphy dropped by the house last season to play video games.

“For a guy like Mike Murphy to be on Facebook talking to [Zach’s mom] Danielle and asking if he can come over really speaks to the character of these guys.”

Just 15 minutes later, there was Murphy pulling in the driveway.

“He came in the house, kicked his shoes off and took a seat on the couch like he was at home.”

Impressed with the overall demeanor of hockey players, Randy says that even when they make it to the big league, they don’t forget a kid like Zach. In fact, Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Justin Peters, who spent three seasons in Albany, still sends emails almost daily.

Kahn, who believes that community achievements and helping kids are every bit important as putting together a winning team, takes pride in, and encourages the player-fan connection.

And he is thrilled to facilitate this special reunion.

“If a family is this passionate about their son’s well-being and our players, I am more than happy to help them join us again.”