Hockey Team Raises Money to Buy Home for Biggest Fan

PHOTO: Zach Bennett, an 11-year-old with a degenerative bone disease that took both of his legs, found hope and inspiration in his favorite hockey team, the Albany River Rats.PlayESPN e:60
WATCH Charlotte Checkers Buy House for Biggest Fan

What if our lives were changed because we loved a team -- and it found a way to love us back?

Zach Bennett, an 11-year-old boy from Albany, New York, loves hockey, and to him, hockey means the Albany River Rats.

"It feels great to see them," he said. "Hockey means life to me because it makes me motivated."

Zach was born with neurofibromatosis, or NF1, a degenerative disease that causes soft-tissue tumors grow on his nerves. He shares the condition with his mother, who suffered a stroke during her pregnancy, affecting her movement and speech.

For Zach, the disease has caused broken bones and chronic pain to be a constant in his life.

"We know it's going to be continuous because the bones in his legs had gotten worse from when he was born," said his mother, Danielle Bennett.

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Zach has never stood on skates, or glided across a rink. He has already endured more than 20 surgeries, including the amputation of his right leg in January 2009.

"I was brave, because if I'm a sissy, that means I'm scared about it getting cut off, but I'm a man and a man never cries," said Zach. "That's what I wanted. I wanted it cut off."

Just 10 months later, facing the daily pain of living with a single leg, Zach made the decision to let surgeons remove his left leg as well.

"He said, 'I don't want any more casts, I just want [cutting sound],'" said Danielle. "That's the sound he made... I want to cut it off."

"It didn't matter if it was amputated or not," said Zach. "I want this to be gone."

"I think he took hold of the disease, he knew what he wanted," said his mother.

So in November 2009, doctors removed Zach's left leg. The hospitalizations were hard; his spirits often sagged. Danielle Bennett asked her son's favorite team for help.

The mascot of his beloved River Rats came by to visit. Shortly after, the players began to visit Zach as well.

"The first time I met was pretty special," said River Rats defenseman Tim Conboy. "As a team we thought this kid, he loves us, so why not help him be around a little bit more?"

"I was so soon as I got out of the hospital I wanted to get out and go to the game," said Zach.

Over the River Rats' next two seasons, Zach only missed one home game.

"He's very strong, and you know, never, never, ever gives up," said Zach's sister, Jenna Bennett. "To Zachary, they're his role models, and to the players, Zachary is their role model."

But last spring, as Zach was learning to walk with his new prosthetic limbs, word came that the team had been sold to a new owner. After the 2010 season ended, the River Rats, of the American Hockey League, were moving to Charlotte, N.C.

"I didn't want them to move, I wanted them to stay here," said Zach. "I felt sad, hopeless, down in the dumps."

Danielle Bennett said Zach gave up hope.

"Zachary stopped trying with his legs because the team wasn't there to say, 'How'd you do with practice on your legs today? Did you walk any?' They weren't there to do that," she said.

"I stopped walking with my stumps," said Zach. "I gave up, I didn't want to do it."

When word reached the team -- now called the Charlotte Checkers -- as their new season began last fall, one of the players, Brad Herauf, called Zach with an idea.

"We made a little bet that every time we won, he'd have to keep practicing until our next game," said Herauf.

If the team lost, Zach got a day off from practicing walking. But eventually, even when the team lost, Zach would practice anyway.

"Even after some losses, he's been calling me or he's been texting me pictures saying, 'I'm practicing,'" said Herauf.

Disabled Boy Draws Inspiration from Favorite Hockey Team

Zach watched every Charlotte Checkers game on the Internet. Seeing the motivation that the team gave him, and the connection they shared, Zach's parents made a big decision. The team had moved to Charlotte -- and they would try to go as well. Last fall, they put their house up for sale in Albany.

"We're selling our house because our son asked us to," said Danielle. "Because he wants to be closer to his big brothers."

Zach's health care was key to the decision. Luckily, Charlotte is one of a handful of medical centers with doctors specializing in Zach's disease.

But Zach's father, Randy, a delivery truck driver, did not have steady work, and didn't know if his family could afford the move. He was determined to sell their home as soon as he could.

"My next move is to hit the Thruway," he said. "There is no looking back."

The Checkers offered to help. They held fundraisers and donated a portion of ticket sales to help pay for the move. The Checkers' owner, Michael Kahn, offered to do more.

"We decided we would help them with the purchase of a home here in Charlotte," he said. "Their house had not sold yet and that was holding them back from moving. It was time to get them down here."

On a Wednesday in April, Zach and his family pulled into a driveway in Matthews, N.C., 800 miles from Albany. It was their new home, purchased and furnished by the Checkers and several donors.

The Checkers players were waiting in the garage, ready to greet their biggest fan, who was able to walk on his own through the front door. The Bennetts couldn't hold back their tears as they looked around their new home.

The Charlotte Checkers are now well into their playoffs, and Zach Bennett is with them.