After a battle with Stage 2 Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Eric Naughton began learning how to ice skate and play hockey at age 40. He decided to film a documentary about the journey from his first steps onto the ice to his ultimate goal: Participation in the Pittsburgh Penguins' annual adult fantasy camp.
He had no idea what the Penguins organization had in store for him to help make his dream come true.
After we wrote about Naughton's story last July, members of the Penguins organization read it and saw an opportunity for the franchise to continue its fantastic reputation of community relations.
In September, Naughton was back home in Western Pennsylvania and was invited to tour CONSOL Energy Center, just a few weeks before the Penguins officially christened their new arena. Midway through the tour, he was joined by Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero, who presented him with his own jersey when they reached the locker room.
As if that experience couldn't get any better, Naughton learned that he was to be their special guest at the Penguins fantasy camp, which took place earlier this month.
The camp was a memorable one for Naughton and made more memorable by the passion of the other members attending.
"There's nothing like going to an event where you're kind of collectively enjoying this experience with a bunch of people who also happen to be rabid Penguins fans," said Naughton.
Former Pens Bryan Trottier, Gary Roberts, Dave Roche, Mitch Lamoreaux and Dennis Owchar were on hand as team captains. Naughton ended up on Trottier's team and despite telling us in July that he wanted to be able to say the six-time Stanley Cup winner cross-checked him into the goal posts, he had to settle for some on-the-fly tips.
One tip was about tying a guy up on the faceoff.
That "guy" being one Mr. Gary Roberts.
In the locker room, before the game against Roberts' team, Naughton joked with the 21-year NHL vet to hit him during the game — a popular request from the guys at the camp. But during a faceoff, Naughton's memorable moment wasn't getting drilled by Scary Gary.
"He starts jostling my arm and giving me little crosschecks in the arm and he's bumping me," said Naughton. "Right when they drop the puck, we kind of tie up and I'm kind of putting pressure on his stick and kind of keeping him there. He's kind of playing it up for me. So we're mixing it up and in the meantime, we win the faceoff and go down and score. Gary skates past me and says, 'You were playing me!'"
A normal man would've withered like a flower at the thought of pissing off Gary Roberts, but Naughton stood his ground on the next faceoff.
"We line up on the faceoff again and he turns to me; and now he's really giving me the business. I put my stick in between his legs and right when they drop the puck I do the old "can-opener" move on him and I get his legs separated and he's starting to go down and he's trying to pull me down. Well, I let go of my stick and I stood straight up and they call him for interference."
Just before Roberts hit the ice
Was that incident with Roberts the moment Naughton realized, "Hey, I did it. I'm at Pens fantasy camp"?
No, because the entire weekend was Naughton's "moment."
"There wasn't a single moment during the whole camp that I wasn't thinking, 'I'm at the Penguins Fantasy Camp'," said Naughton. "Every time I put my game jersey on I thought about it. Every time I stepped out onto the ice I thought about it. Every time Bryan Trottier sat down on the bench next to me I thought about it."
The Penguins made their camp a true hockey experience. Camera crews were following the teams around the entire weekend; the Jumbotron showed game highlights; goals and assists were announced on the PA; and they even put the goal horn to use each time the teams scored.
Now that the centerpiece for Naughton's documentary is finished, he'll still shoot his story, but the work won't be as intensive. His focus now is to speak with NHL players who've been affected by cancer such as Jason Blake and Saku Koivu of the Anaheim Ducks.
The plan at the moment is to release the film sometime in 2012.
While he's still learning the subtle nuances of ice skating, as well as honing his hockey skills on a regular basis, the experience at Penguins fantasy camp has Naughton contemplating joining a men's league much sooner than he thought. He credits his progress in just 18 months to his coaches, Christian Lalonde and Xiao Jun Tian, who both helped him work on his hockey and skating skills.
The payoff from the work Naughton's put in with his coaches, and by himself, finally hit him when he registered the first of three assists on the weekend. It was then that he realized he didn't "suck" and that the hours of skating and stick handling and shooting has paid off.
As if reaching his goal wasn't good enough, Naughton received great news just last week.
During an appointment with his oncologist he was told at this point in time, he's in the 97-98 percent cure range. Each scan he's received since last summer have all proven clean.
And in the end it comes back to hockey for Naughton. He's come a long way since his 40th birthday when he first stepped onto the ice to begin to tell his story.
"I also owe a lot to the guys I skate with on a regular basis who encourage me a great deal and are always giving me pointers," said Naughton.
"All that being said, I know that I'm not all that great at playing and I have a ton of stuff to work on (it's a very long list). It was gratifying to come off the ice to hear my teammates say stuff like 'great shift' and 'nice job out there.'"
Here's Eric's trailer edited by Matt Ostrow:
You can follow Eric's progress on the "Life, Cancer and the Pursuit of Hockey" Facebook page.