GLENDALE, AZ — There is an important hockey game for playoff purposes Saturday at Gila River Arena between the Arizona Coyotes and the St. Louis Blues. But the importance of what will take place before the puck even drops will have a lasting impact far beyond that.
Just like Gretzky and Tkachuk, Roenick and Numminen, Hawerchuck, Steen and Hull, Leighton Accardo's name will now sit among the franchise greats in the Coyotes Ring of Honor.
She's the first non-player, coach, general manager or broadcaster to be inducted into a team's ring of honor in the Valley and the entire NHL.
"We honor great sports heroes because of what they mean, not just what they've accomplished," said Coyotes President & CEO Xavier Gutierrez. "Their toughness, their resiliency, how they brought out the best in not only themselves, their teammates, but in us. That just defined Leighton Accardo."
"It makes me really proud to know that she was capable of these sorts of things and bringing these people together and being so positive and being so uplifting to so many people," said Leighton's mom, Carly.
Anyone who has followed the Coyotes in recent years knows the name Leighton Accardo like she's on the roster. In fact, she was. On Hockey Fights Cancer night in November of 2019.
She signed a one-day contract, took the ice for warmups, gave the pre-game pep talk, received the game pelt and was named the first star in a 3-0 Coyotes win.
"Cancer took so much away from her and all of those things that she was such a superstar [at]," said Carly Accardo. "It took her ability to compete on the baseball field and on the ice, and it took all that away, and that day kind of brought back that superstardom for her. So, I think this would be another thing that she would just be really happy that she was involved in and that she could be a part of."
Leighton was an athlete, but hockey was her passion. And boy did she love the Coyotes. The bond between them was as organic as it comes.
"Her joy in her and her inner fight and her spunk, it was just a contagious thing," said longtime Coyotes captain Shane Doan, who is now the organization's chief hockey development officer. "When you're around her, you enjoyed life, and the guys felt it and the people that are around her always felt it."
"It's something that we're excited about, the fact that she gets the Ring of Honor. She's a special part in our place in history with the Coyotes," said head coach Rick Tocchet. "Leighton was somebody that came here, and you never knew she was sick. She came here four or five times, and she'd always have a smile. You never even knew the stuff she was going through. I remember one time she was gone for two weeks, and some of those treatments are painful, and she came here with a smile on, so it gives players different perspective. Not even the players, just everybody in general, just to cherish the time you're with people."
Leighton lost her courageous battle with cancer on November 24, 2020. She was just 9 years old. Shortly after, the wheels were set in motion to find a way to honor her family and her spirit.
"Leighton and her family are absolutely incredible people," said Doan. "I can't even, as a dad, understand the strength and everything that it's taken for them to go through all of this. To be able to acknowledge and just offer our respect to her and to her family, it's to the family as much as it is to her because of how incredibly strong her brothers and sisters and mom and dad have been through all of this."
"This will touch us in ways that we can't describe and put into words, and so we'll just stare up at that name and that number and it'll be there forever," said Gutierrez.
"I love that," said Carly of the induction. "It makes me really happy, and it makes me smile to know that kids coming into the game 10-15 years down the road that don't know us are going to hear about Leighton and are going to learn about her and know about her. That means so much to me. That as her mom, because the fear of her being forgotten, you know, kind of eases a little bit knowing that kids 10 years, 15 years down the road will know her name."
Nobody will forget the name Leighton Accardo, whether they look up at Gila River Arena, or join the "Little Leighton's", a program to introduce young girls to hockey, or can afford to play the game she loved because of the Leighton Accardo Scholarship Fund, generated in part by Lyndsey Fry rollerblading 96-miles across the Valley in her little friend's honor.
"It just makes me really proud that our entire community, our sports community in particular, have stepped up in ways that I could never have imagined and really been our backbone getting us through all of this," said Carly. "The Coyotes have just been at the forefront of all that and we're so appreciative and so thankful, we wouldn't have gotten through it without our sports community."