By Carolo Pascale
Rider ice hockey does everything it can to help give back to one of its biggest fans and inspirations.
Zach Steward, brother of one of the team’s managers, Sam Steward, was diagnosed with Central Nervous System Leukemia in August 2019.
Zach Steward, already a cancer survivor, had been cancer-free for 10 years up until it returned in 2019.
Sam Steward talked about how tough her brother’s diagnosis was on her family.
“I was absolutely crushed; our entire family was. He had been cancer-free for 10 years since his first battle with cancer, and relapsing seemed like something that would never happen to us. When it did, it was devastating,” said Sam Steward.
Zach Steward, having already beaten cancer before, said how overwhelming it can be and how it felt when he relapsed.
“It can be very overwhelming at times with the treatments, because you feel you have finally reached the end of something, and then it’s basically like it restarts right over again,” said Zach Steward. “The best thing to do is just focus on whatever it is in the moment and how far you have already come.”
Described by both Zach and Sam Steward, hockey was one of their ways to cope with the feelings and hard times the family was going through.
“Hockey was definitely a way for me to escape whatever feelings or emotions I was feeling in the particular time. Even if it was stickhandling in my garage, watching a game, or anything. It’s always something to get my mind off of the current situation and can help a lot,” said Zach Steward.
Since Sam Steward was one of the managers on the team, the team had already known about Zach being a cancer survivor before his relapse, right before the 2019-2020 season.
As soon as Zach Steward was diagnosed, Sam Steward reached out to Rider Ice Hockey and the players on the team.
“When I reached out to them all in a giant group chat about his relapse, they were all very kind and offered anything they could do for our family. A few of them were more affected than others, and you could really tell that Zach became a little brother to them,” Sam Steward said.
Zach Steward talked about how the players reached out to him and his family.
“Many players reached out and were very nice and selfless when they heard about the situation that I was in. I didn’t see their initial reactions, but you could tell that a lot of them were touched and wanted to do all they could to make my life easier in any way, shape or form. Many players still keep in contact with me and always ask how I am doing,” Zach Steward said.
Goaltender Eric Linemen, with help from the team, expresses support for Zach Steward.
“[Forward Nick Ruggero and I] talk to Zach a lot. We keep in touch and check in on the family a lot. We gave the Pink in the Rink money to them and that helped a lot. We all wear the wristbands and the shirts that were made for him,” Lineman said.
Sam Steward appreciates all that the team has done for her family.
“About half of the team came out to support Zach [Steward] in September at our Bellmawr Bears Street Hockey Tournament and played in it, as well as donated their time and money.”
Sam Steward also mentioned the Pink in the Rink night that Rider Ice Hockey holds every year.
“Rider Ice was kind enough to make their annual Pink in the Rink game last season dedicated to Zach [Steward] and our family with an “Orange Is the New Pink” theme, since orange is the color of Leukemia Awareness. They made and sold shirts with Zach’s hockey number on it and the hashtag #RiderIceFightsWithZach on it. All of the money from raffles, shirts and donations they made from that game were graciously donated to my family and Zach,” Sam Steward said.
Pink In The Rink Night is Rider’s very own take on Hockey Fights Cancer Night, which the NHL does every November. Last year, the event was dedicated to Zach Steward and his family.
“Going back several years we have done a Pink in the Rink Night. It evolved last year when we decided to do that game for Zach [Steward] and the family. We started raising money as best we could and the guys on the team really gravitated toward Zach [Steward],” Levin said.
The team also went to watch and play at Zach Steward’s street hockey tournament in Bellmawr, New Jersey.
Alumni player Nick Leelum recounted the time he had down at the street hockey tournament.
“It was basically just us all having fun and I hold that memory pretty close,” Leelum said.
Overall, the team has done a lot for Zach, Sam and the Steward family.
Ruggero talked about Zach Steward being a part of “the brotherhood” that Rider Ice Hockey has built up over the years.
“He is part of the brotherhood, him and the whole Steward family. He even has some Rider memorabilia like a game puck, a mini stick with all of our signatures on it and his Rider Ice Hockey shrine,” Ruggero said.
Zach Steward himself also touched on how the team made him part of “the brotherhood” that Rider Ice Hockey has.
“The team made me feel part of the brotherhood right away and treated me just like I was part of the team and was one of the players. From including me in the pre-game hype, tapping their sticks at me and coming up to me at the glass during warm-ups, to going in the locker room with the boys, everything made me feel like I was a part of the ‘brotherhood’ and was one with the team,” Zach Steward said.
Zach Steward’s battle continues to inspire the team and alumni player Jared Roy mentioned how inspiring it is to him.
“His whole story is inspiring. His perseverance, his attitude, his smile, it’s just infectious and it’s inspiring. He was one of my favorite teammates on the team,” Roy said.
Ruggero finds Zach Steward as someone that can inspire anyone.
“When people hear his story, it’s not that he’s had it once, he has it for the second time. They feel proud that he’s happy and he always has a smile on his face. He stays positive no matter what and it pushes his positivity on to other people,” Ruggero said.
Sam Steward sees her brother as a role model and an inspiration and she will never forget the support that the whole family has received.
“Zach [Steward] is truly a role model and an inspiration to anyone he meets. He is a fifteen-year-old who has been through two battles with cancer, and is going to win again. He goes to radiation and chemotherapy treatments and still makes time to get all of his schoolwork done, workout and keep himself busy and happy. His strength, positivity, and resiliency is truly unmatched,” Sam Stweard said. “He is an inspiration to all and anyone that has been touched by him is truly lucky, and I hope that that is what he leaves behind. As for the support we received, it has been truly amazing. We never thought hockey would become this important to our lives, but it has brought us some of our greatest friendships thus far. We are so beyond thankful for all of the support whether it was a text, a meal, or a dollar we received and will never ever forget it.”
Steward’s battle with cancer is still ongoing and if you want to stay updated on his progress, follow @bigtuffguyupdates on Instagram, where Sam Steward posts about Zach Steward’s journey and story.