The Arizona Coyotes take the ice Saturday afternoon for what will be their most crucial game of the season, a chance to move back into playoff position with two points from a win over the St. Louis Blues.
Badly in need of a win after five straight losses, the Coyotes are down to 12 games left in the regular season and are trying to leapfrog over the Blues into fourth place in the West. Plenty can happen even after Saturday that could decide the Coyotes’ fate, but in a game that will already be loaded with importance for them, it will also be emotionally charged.
The organization will induct young hockey player and fan Leighton Accardo into its Ring of Honor, her name and memory to always be seen and remembered inside Gila River Arena. Leighton, who died at age 9 last November after a long battle with cancer, was beloved by the Coyotes’ players, coaches and staff from when she first spent time around the team.
She will become the first person who is not a former coach, player, general manager or broadcaster in the Valley and the entire NHL to be inducted into a sports franchise’s Ring of Honor.
“She would be very proud of herself,” Leighton’s mother, Carly Accardo, said Friday. “This would be another thing that she’d just be really happy she was involved in and she could be a part of.”
“Thank you is really all I can say. Our sports community, in particular, have stepped up in ways that I could never imagine, and really been our backbone getting through this,” Carly Accardo said. “And the Coyotes have been at the forefront of all of that. We’re so appreciative and so thankful.”
Coyotes fans know Leighton’s story and many were moved by the news of her passing, as she left a big impression on the night in November 2019 when the Coyotes welcomed her as a guest on Hockey Fights Cancer Night. Her own fight against cancer and her spirit and words of encouragement struck a chord with the team, and her cheery outlook, talent and love of competition left a lasting impact on those who coached her and played youth hockey with her.
Leighton started out as a figure skater, taking after her mom. She told Carly she wanted to try hockey after watching her older brother play, and after putting on her brother’s equipment and taking the ice in hockey gear for the first time, she found she could skate well and enjoyed the sport.
Not long after her passing, Accardo family friend and Coyotes executive Lyndsey Fry announced a fundraiser in honor of Leighton in which Fry spent an entire day rollerblading 96 miles across the Valley. “Skatin’ For Leighton” happened on a sunny day in February, the money raised to help girls afford to play hockey far surpassing the target amount Fry had hoped to reach.
The Ring of Honor ceremony will happen prior to the Coyotes-Blues game. Leighton Accardo will join Wayne Gretzky and former Coyotes/Jets franchise players Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Teppo Numminen, Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen and Bobby Hull in the club’s Ring of Honor.
“This is incredibly special to this organization. This is a celebration of life,” Coyotes President and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez said. “What often happens in sports is that people change your life. And that’s what Leighton did. She inspired us, she brought us together. She created hope, and she brought joy. When we think about her and what she meant to us, it was only fitting that we would ask her family to allow us to honor her. Not just about her and her life and her name, but of what she stood for.”
The Coyotes had planned to play hockey with Leighton and her brothers and sister before she died. The team still honored that commitment when they learned cancer had taken her.
Months prior, Leighton had been in New York getting treatment a few days before meeting the Coyotes, and still found the strength to get on the ice and play a little with players Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Lawson Crouse, head coach Rick Tocchet recalled.
“Very unpleasant treatments, and for her to come in there smiling and laughing and grabbing a puck and playing on the ice after what she went through, those are the moments you reflect on,” Tocchet said. “That’s the stuff I’ll think about (Saturday) when her jersey goes up in the rafters.”