📝 by Ryan Smith | AHL On The Beat
Sam Anas has made his hockey living off of proving doubters wrong.
From receiving only one NCAA Division I offer, to becoming an All-American and a Frozen Four captain at Quinnipiac, to going undrafted to the NHL, the Springfield Thunderbirds forward has constantly played bigger than his undersized frame would show.
Genetics may not have dealt Sam the fairest hand in his hockey life, but it pales in comparison to the devastating hand the Anas family was dealt in their personal lives.
When Anas was just a small child, his mother Demetra ― affectionately referred to as “Deme” ― was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I didn’t grasp the whole concept of it. I just heard the word cancer and obviously was very scared,” Sam recalls. “[My parents] made sure that we knew she was going to be okay and that she was in good hands.”
Like her son, Deme Anas did not shy away from adversity. Over a period of more than 20 years, she beat breast cancer not one, not two, but three times. But in the eyes of her son, Deme was an everyday hero regardless of her health.
“She was an amazing cook but the best thing she was, was being a mom. No matter what, she always put being a mom first, whether she had lots of work or anything going on. Being a mom was always priority number one to her.
“When I was younger, I couldn’t appreciate how selfless she was in putting us first for everything. I think maybe the first time I sat down to try to appreciate it was in middle school,” Sam said. “I had to write a paper about who my hero was, and it just came to me that it was her. She definitely has given me a perspective on parenting and adulthood. It’s something I will take into being a parent one day.”
Deme Anas passed away on August 27, 2020, due to complications from breast cancer, lung cancer, and a brain tumor. She was 59 years old.
Heading into the Thunderbirds’ fifth annual Pink in the Rink game on March 5, the gravity of the night began to become more evident; it would be Anas’s first Pink in the Rink game without his mother there to wave to him and cheer him on. Anticipating it being an overly emotional night for his family, Sam was informed that his father, Peter, and sister, Georgia, would not be able to make it to Springfield from their homes in Maryland and New York.
What Sam did not know, however, was that he was going to be the target of one magnificent surprise.
“Once we saw that Sam was very involved in promoting breast cancer awareness, we knew we had to go,” Peter Anas told reporters from Springfield’s Western Mass News.
Unbeknownst to the T-Birds’ alternate captain, Peter and Georgia had conspired with Sam’s teammate, Nathan Walker, and tickets were delivered to the Anas family digitally to avoid Sam’s sight. Walker used his own last name as a “code name” on the team’s ticket request form in the dressing room.
As Sam went through his pre-game routine and made his way onto the ice for team warmups just before 6:30 that evening, three familiar faces yelled out from the edge of the Springfield bench. Peter, Georgia, and Sam’s fiancee Grace were in a spot where he normally would see equipment staff.
The quartet shared a heartfelt family moment, but the night had only just begun. Just past the five-minute mark of the second period, Anas and James Neal criss-crossed into the offensive zone. After Neal got a shot off that kicked off Providence goalie Kyle Keyser’s leg, Anas found himself alone, inches from the goal crease.
In a dexterous way only Sam could, Anas ― in one motion ― faked as if he was making a pass across the crease and slipped a quick release through Keyser’s legs. The horn blared. As he circled the net, Anas found himself all alone, again. In lieu of all normal celebration moves, Sam’s reaction was simple and powerful: he blew a kiss to the rafters, a fitting and poignant tribute to Deme, who always encouraged him to keep shooting.
The game would not go the Thunderbirds’ way, as Providence would prevail, 5-1, but for the Anas family, one more surprise remained, one that not even Peter and Georgia knew was coming. The Anas family was invited rinkside and Sam’s number 7 jersey was presented as a gift to the family from the Thunderbirds. There would be no auction; there was only one place the jersey was ever going to go.
“It’s really heartwarming,” said Georgia Anas. “It’s nice to know that so many people have been through [the fight], and even if it’s not them individually, it’s people around them. Even if they haven’t been through it, they’re supporting those around them.
“It means a lot.”