‘You have to fight this. You don’t get a choice.’

Editor’s note: Ten days after this story was published, Julia Mazur died at Lehigh Valley-Cedar Crest Oncology Center in Allentown, Pa. She was 20.

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer

Julia Mazur’s plans going into the summer centered around managing her studies, balancing her part-time jobs, and her internship with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Hockey life started early for this 20-year-old go-getter. Her grandmother, Sandy, won tickets years ago and brought Julia to a Penguins game. Eventually a night at the rink became a bonding event for Julia and her mother, Carey, as well.

That first glimpse of hockey eventually blossomed into a job with the team’s ice crew, an ever-increasing range of responsibilities, and then an internship. She balanced that with as many as 30 credits one semester at nearby Wilkes University as a double-major: marketing and sports management, naturally. Julia added a communications minor, just for good measure.

Handy with a sewing machine, she put those skills to use during the COVID-19 pandemic and stitched more than 350 masks for the Diocese of Scranton to provide for the community. She learned to repurpose hockey jerseys into other clothing designs, another creative outlet for her: Add some glitter or sequins, and a jersey could take on a whole new look with a personal touch. She found work as a seamstress at a local bridal shop. And she was a rink rat, working as scorekeeper for the dek hockey program at Toyota Sportsplex, the Penguins’ practice facility. The hockey program at Wilkes University needed support staff, and she stepped in to provide that too.

This is, after all, someone who had her middle name legally changed to “Hockey” when she turned 17. She has centered much of her life around the Penguins and the sport.

“I don’t like sitting still,” Julia said. “I like going and doing things. Work is relaxing for me, honestly. I like being around all my coworkers at all my jobs, so I’ve just always enjoyed working and working hard.”

Soon the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton front office took to this energetic newcomer. Players develop as prospects in the AHL, and the Penguins have certainly sent a parade of them onward to the NHL throughout their 25-season history. But off-ice personnel grow in the AHL as well, and Julia embodies that development mindset.

“She doesn’t stop,” said Brian Coe, the team’s senior vice president of operations. “She’s all over the place. She’s busy. Incredibly friendly. Everybody at the arena knows her. Just an amazing love of life and attitude, and I can’t speak highly enough of her.”

Then a diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic melanoma cancer came on July 28.

“It just completely flips your world,” Juila said. “It’s so hard to have to tell people that you’re sick, especially when in the beginning I didn’t feel sick. I didn’t look sick. I really didn’t have any symptoms, so I think it’s really important that people, if they think something’s wrong, get it checked. Because if I had ignored it, things could be a lot worse.”

The news flipped the worlds of everyone in her life, too, including the Penguins’.

Julia Mazur has plans. She always has. A fan first, this is someone who created her own niche inside the business. Coe remembers when she showed up as a 14-year-old looking for an opportunity – any opportunity – to break into hockey.

“She was just so into the Penguins, really wanted to be a part of this, and wanted to learn what goes on behind the scenes,” Coe recalled. “I really pushed for her to join the team and join the ice crew, and she was all-in.”

Coe’s hunch paid off. Chuck-a-puck? Set up items for an on-ice intermission game? Whatever needed doing, Julia did it from the get-go and did it right.

“She was ready to go,” Coe said of her early progress. “She knew what was going on. She was taking the lead. At a very young age, you could see that she really got it and understood. She was playing an important part for us from the day that she got here.”

Working in an AHL club’s front office means being able to multitask, especially on a game night. But Coe has always been able to count on Julia to take on some of those responsibilities. Maybe there is a more efficient way to tend to the ice during a break. Or when the Penguins looked to update their game-night playlist, they went to her for her musical picks, something that might appeal to the Gen-Z crowd. Social media, community events, video skits, whatever needed to be done got done.

“I’ve known that I wanted to work in hockey for a long time,” Julia explained. “I knew I wanted to make a good impression and be the person that they went to for certain things. I’m not afraid to ask people questions, talk to people that I haven’t talked to before.

“I’ve always had a mindset of my future as opposed to what I wanted to do right now, so I’ve always known my end goal is working in hockey, and I’ve always worked toward that goal. I think that being able to have the group of people I have in hockey really helped me because it was kind of like my safe haven. That was where I went to feel better. That’s where I went to escape from everything in my world that was hard.”

Quickly Coe learned that he could count on Julia to identify an issue and handle it before he even needed to point it out. It lightened some of that game-night burden for the team’s staff. Then as she gained experience and moved through high school, she sought Coe’s advice on building a full-time career in hockey.

“‘I’m looking for any way that I can get a job with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins,’” Coe recounted Mazur telling him. “‘This is my team.’”

The Penguins mapped out an internship plan for her. Learn how to script a game presentation. Video production. Graphics work. Everything that goes into putting on a show 36 nights a year at Mohegan Sun Arena. Shadow Coe and the game-night staff. Immerse yourself in this business. Make hockey a career.

Whatever has needed to be done, Julia Mazur always has been there to help.

But now she needs help, and that is exactly what the Penguins are providing. This is an American Hockey League organization that is sturdy enough, rooted enough, to be able to have some real resources behind it. Yet the Penguins are still a community member, an entity that can cut through obstacles and go directly to someone local who is facing a challenge like Julia’s. That organizational heft comes with a community feel and touch.

“An AHL team is a small microcosm of community,” Coe said. “We’re here to help everybody, and I think that’s one of the beautiful things about this league and what we can do. We’re so tight with the people we work with and our fan base. We want to help, and I think that’s universal. These people are so close to us.”

Julia has another strong team around her now as she has been in and out of the hospital. Her mother and grandmother have been bedside with her. Her professors have made arrangements on the fly so that she can continue her education. She has leaned on Dr. Linda Thomas and Dr. Lisa Thomas. And she has Dr. Suresh G. Nair, the physician-in-chief at the Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute, helping her while she undergoes treatment in nearby Allentown, Pa.

“They have been absolutely phenomenal in helping to take care of me,” Julia said recently after another demanding day of treatment. “I could not ask for better doctors.”

And her ties to Northeastern Pennsylvania remain tight as well. They may be even tighter now, actually. The text messages continue to arrive from the Penguins, the Wilkes University hockey community, and the many friends that she has made through the sport and elsewhere. The college team’s players have donned support bracelets that she made. There has been a basket raffle that the Penguins coordinated to raise money for her. Coe and the Penguins’ director of team services, Jason Jarecki – two long-standing mentors – are only a text message away at any moment.

This Saturday the team will host its Julia Mazur Penguin for a Day fundraiser when Syracuse visits. Penguins community hockey programs manager Kyle Hammer has worked with Julia through the years and is organizing the event in which local players will battle on the arena ice before taking in that night’s Crunch-Penguins game; a portion of the tickets sold that night will go toward Julia’s expenses.

“It is unbelievable the support that they have poured out for me,” Julia says. “They just have always gone above and beyond for me. Everybody that I’ve worked with in the hockey world, they’ve all been so supportive. I call it my ‘hockey family’ because it’s really like a family… We all really care about each other.

“I’ve been staying very positive through the whole thing, and positivity, I think, has helped me more than anything. I think having such a huge group of people behind me supporting me that I had no idea I even had, it’s just unbelievable.”

Going through this experience, Julia plans to put these hard-earned lessons to work.

“I’ve learned that you have to have bad moments, not bad days,” she explained. “You can have your moment, you can have your breakdown for a couple minutes, but you have to get back up because negativity affects your mental state so much, even if you don’t realize it. I feel like I’m going to come out of it a better person because I’m learning to be more empathetic toward people, to appreciate the little things that people do for you.

“I definitely realized I was strong in a different way before. But now, I’ll be sitting here in excruciating pain, and I’m like, ‘I’m still here, though. Still doing it.’”

Said Coe, “Once she gets back on her feet here, she’s going to be a part of this team. She’s already in my mind a part of our department.”

The Penguins will be getting themselves someone who has chosen to frame these last few months as an education. She approaches hockey that way and has carried that same mindset into this experience.

“You have to fight this,” Julia said. “You don’t get a choice.”

To help defray medical and everyday expenses, a GoFundMe site has been set up to benefit Julia Mazur.