Eric Naughton's 40th birthday last October was a moment of rebirth for the lifelong hockey fan: He dedicated himself to reaching a goal that he had set after defeating cancer.
A native of Erie, Pa., Naughton grew up a big Pittsburgh Penguins fan. His job in the film industry took him to Los Angeles, leaving him to only visit Western Pennsylvania during the December holidays where he's been sure to visit Mellon Arena during his time back.
At his new home on the West Coast, Naughton makes it a point to go watch the Penguins when they're visiting the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks. His game day photos can be often be found on the Empty Netters blog run by Seth Rorabaugh of the Post-Gazette.
In 2007, Naughton felt a lump near his collarbone. He kept his thoughts positive after learning his father had multiple cysts removed when he was younger and went to get checked out. When his doctor later called him with his test results, Naughton was told that Reed-Sternberg cells (consistent with Hodgkin's lymphoma) were found. Luckily, it was caught in Stage 2, but Naughton still had the cancer in his neck and shoulder, along with a large mass in his chest near his lung and heart. He went through months of treatment to battle the disease.
Having faced one challenge, Naughton is healthy and ready to face another: Learning, for the first time in his 40 years, how to actually play hockey; competing at an NHL fantasy camp and filming his journey for a documentary.
"I always wanted to play as a kid and never could because it was too expensive and then as I kind of grew up you kind of start thinking, 'Oh, these guys they have 10 years of skating on me. How am I ever going to be able to learn to play hockey?' so you just kind of blow it off thinking you can never do it," he said.
"It kind of got me thinking ‘Well, why can't I? It doesn't matter that I've only been on ice skates a handful of times in my entire life. I can do that! That'll be fun.'"
Naughton's recovery from his cancer diagnosis was standard for the stage he was in: Several months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation. The affects of the drugs he took didn't give him the typical nausea and vomiting that many experience.
"I didn't actually have a physical nausea reaction, but the weird side effect was that because your body is actually having the nausea reaction, these anti-nausea drugs block it in your brain and often times it manifests itself in another way," said Naughton.
"I would smell some kind of food that, if I didn't have those drugs, it would have made me nauseous and I'd be hurling in every room of the apartment. My reaction was extreme anxiety, so I would have panic attacks or just start crying involuntarily. It was very weird and distressing. It wasn't throwing up everywhere. It was just packing and wanting to crawl out of my own skin."
Naughton didn't allow his diagnosis to hinder his life. He kept his spirits up, took a humorous approach to things, kept busy with his fiancée and started work on a short film at the time.
A year after he was diagnosed, Naughton went back to work and began thinking about his next move. He pondered working in sports, in some sort of video capacity, before his focus started narrowing in on what he truly wanted to do: play hockey.
His work at the time on another film sparked the idea of making a documentary about learning to play hockey at age 40; and given his battle with Hodgkin's at the time, to help raise money for cancer research.
"It's funny, once I started telling people that I was going to learn how to play hockey, suddenly, everyone knows someone out here who plays hockey."
As he entered the process of learning how to skate and play hockey, Naughton didn't have any sense of difficulty in his mind. He had played soccer and lacrosse growing up in Pennsylvania, so the coordination skills were somewhat there - albeit some years ago - but he looked at it as another challenge to beat.
"I kind of approached it like ‘Hey, this is what I'm gonna do. I've always wanted to do it.' I think that's makes it not as difficult. It's tough, don't get me wrong."
What he wasn't prepared for was how out of shape he was. Naughton's lost 15 pounds since February just skating, but still, the prize at the end of the line was what drove him.
"You get to that moment and you say, ‘I'm done' and you look at the clock and you're like, ‘Alright, 15 more minutes. I gotta keep working on this.' The rewards far outweigh the difficulty."
Naughton's eye was on attending the Penguins' 2011 Adult Fantasy Camp next February at Consol Energy Center and he began his training this past Oct. 7, his 40th birthday (also two days after Mario Lemieux's birthday). Through work connections, he had been set up with skating coach Christian Lalonde, a former minor leaguer who now trains actors to ice skate in movies.
Naughton didn't want his ultimate prize to be starring in a local Los Angeles-area men's league.
"I felt that wasn't enough of a goal to push myself to be good," said Naughton. "People out here were like ‘why don't you want to go to the Los Angeles Kings fantasy camp?' I said ‘because I'm not a Kings fan.'There's no fantasy there. The fantasy is going back to Pittsburgh and putting that sweater on that has the Penguins logo on the front and your name on the back. And that's your sweater. I can say I got slashed in the wrist in that sweater! [Or] Bryan Trottier cross-checked me into the goal posts!"
To complement the personal training he was getting, Naughton also attended a "Hockey 101" clinic to further along his skating abilities. The clinic featured mostly young players, so when it was time to scrimmage, he would work on drills by himself on the side and not attempt to dominate like Kramer showing off his karate skills on "Seinfeld".
Naughton received his third straight clean scan for cancer last month, and it will be his final one unless something problematic pops up. If two years pass without any signs of a return, he'll basically be considered "cured," but he'll have to go about follow-up checkups for the remainder of his life.
His plan at the moment is to focus on his skating for a few more months before completely turning his attention over to putting a stick in his hand and learning an entirely new set of skills.
The four-day Penguins fantasy camp will hopefully be the grand finale to his story and Naughton hopes the film, "Life, Cancer and the Pursuit of Hockey" is finished by Fall 2011; specifically October, which is"Cancer Awareness Month." Proceeds from the film will benefit the Mario Lemieux Foundation and the NHL's Hockey Fights Cancer.
Were he to speak to someone contemplating a similar venture, Naughton's advice is plain and simple:
"Just do it. I don't mean it to be a Nike ad. That's it. If you want to do it, then do it. There's no reason you can't."
You can follow Eric's progress by "Liking" his Facebook page documenting his experience.