PHOENIX – The Arizona hockey community rallied together recently for the second “Skatin’ for Leighton” event to honor Leighton Accardo, the youth hockey player who was diagnosed with germ cell cancer as a 7-year-old and passed away after a two-year battle with the disease.
But in many ways, the event was “A Shott for Matt” as well.
Matt Shott, the senior director of hockey development for the Arizona Coyotes, was instrumental in developing the Kachinas girls youth hockey organization that included Leighton. During his tenure with the Coyotes from 2012 to 2021, the number of girls playing youth hockey in Arizona tripled, according to USA Hockey.
Shott lost his own battle with cancer in December.
So Shott, who was only 34 when he passed from liver cancer, was also in the thoughts of those who celebrated Leighton at Phoenix Raceway, where the event was held this year.
“Matt was the one who, Day One, was there as the Coyotes representative when Leighton got sick – not only as a member of the Coyotes but as a friend,” said Carly Accardo, Leighton’s mother. “I wish so bad that Matt could be here today because this event was really special to him.”
Shott and Lyndsey Fry – a Coyotes radio analyst, community ambassador and director of external engagement for youth and women’s hockey – organized the first “Skatin’ for Leighton” event last year.
In the inaugural year, Fry skated 96 miles around the Valley, visiting eight hockey rinks along the way to raise money for the Leighton Accardo Scholarship Fund. The former Team USA hockey star set out on her 14-hour journey last February, and she was greeted by large crowds at each rink, all there to support the cause and celebrate Leighton’s legacy.
However, this year’s event aimed at bringing people together at one location, with the added twist of mixing in some of the other things in life that Leighton loved.
“When we planned out this event, our guiding light was ‘Would Leighton think this is the coolest thing ever?’” Fry said. “We really tried to integrate elements that she would have loved. We have our slides, our Slap Shot (game), we have street hockey. We have a movie theater room that’s playing her favorite movies throughout the day.
“We really wanted it to be something where Leighton could walk in and be like, ‘Whoa, this is so cool!’”
Phoenix Raceway provided the perfect location. For 12 hours there, participants could come in and out as they pleased and could now join Fry in a pair of roller skates or just to walk or run around the racetrack. Or, they could take part in the other activities.
One lane of the Phoenix Raceway mile oval was set up for rollerbladers and roller skaters. Another was reserved for participants who just wanted to walk or run in Leighton’s honor.
“There’s beautiful weather out here …,” Fry said at the event. “You can skate, walk, run or just hang out. I think that is just a wonderful way for everybody to come together and think about the impact that she had.”
Carly Accardo was impressed. And appreciative.
“They’ve gone above and beyond like they always do,” she said of the Coyotes organization. “They’ve had our backs with Leighton from diagnosis all the way through. The Coyotes knocked it out of the park.”
The baseball reference might not seem to fit for a young girl known for her love of hockey, but Leighton Accardo wasn’t just a hockey player. The Accardo family wanted to remind everyone that she was a multi-sport athlete and some of the earliest support after diagnosis came from her all-girls baseball team in Chandler’s East Valley Baseball league.
After raising more than $49,000 last year (a tribute to Leighton’s No. 49 jersey she donned for the Kachinas), the Fry and the Coyotes challenged the community to raise $149,000 this year. Thanks to the Skatin’ for Leighton event, the Leighton Accardo Memorial Fund, as it is now known, already has raised more than $54,000 toward that goal.
The proceeds are used to help young girls get started playing hockey, especially those facing financial hardship.
“We used a lot of the money last year on girls this season,” Fry said after skating some laps around the track. “Obviously, we are in the desert and hockey is a very expensive sport, so it can be challenging for families. We have about 20% of our girls on the Kachinas that are the beneficiaries of this fund, and we want to be able to continue to offer this to people.”
Carly Accardo said her daughter would have loved what the Coyotes are doing for girls in hockey.
“She would love it,” she said. “When Leighton would get on the ice, and she’d see another pink helmet or another blonde ponytail coming out the bottom of the helmet, she would get so happy and so excited that there was another girl on the ice.
“Leighton was very fortunate that we were able to put her in hockey and support that desire to be on the ice. There’s a lot of girls who don’t have that, so for us to be able to help them and get them on the ice is amazing.”
And Fry said Shott remains an important part of the effort.
“To just have the permission and the relationship to be able to do this on behalf of someone’s child, that takes a lot of trust,” Fry said. “Obviously, our connection to her was through hockey. When Leighton got sick, it was imperative to (Shott) that we bring her into our family. I think that’s what it is now. We feel like we’re all one family.”
That was true in a literal sense for the Accardos. Leighton’s siblings LeeAnne, Larson and Locke were on the track along with Carly and Leighon’s father, Jeremy, when they weren’t keeping their eyes peeled to see what Howler, the Coyotes mascot, was up to.
“Seeing her siblings out here is so meaningful to me because they all look so similar, and they all have the same energy,” Fry said, chuckling. “Just firecrackers, and that’s exactly what Leighton was. I think that’s special. To see her siblings have that reaction was really heartwarming.”
To further help build the sport for kids, the Coyotes also started the Team 94 General Donation in honor of Shott. That campaign has raised $9,700, surpassing the goal of $9,400.
The Accardos and Fry expect Skatin’ for Leighton to become an annual event, hopefully with the involvement of Phoenix Raceway and, of course, the Coyotes.
“As long as I’m around, we’re doing this,” Fry said. “It’s so important, as we’ve talked about, to keep Leighton’s memory alive. And this is such a fun way to do it.”
Carly Accardo agreed.
“I don’t think we can ask for much more than this, right?” she said. “This is pretty amazing. This is the perfect event for the sports community.”
Visit the Skatin’ for Leighton website to contribute to the Leighton Accardo Memorial Fund or the Team 94 General Donation.