Photo Credit: Deborah Traynor
By Jim Diamond
Most hockey players have certain routines that they go through before a game. Nashville Predators defenseman Michael Del Zotto is no different, but one of the things he does prior to a game stands out as a bit unique.
Each game day, Del Zotto checks his phone to read a text message from his 12-year-old friend Liam Traynor.
“He texts me before every single game, and says ‘good luck, go get em,’” Del Zotto said. “He gives me a little pep talk.”
Liam was featured as part of HBO’s “24/7” series leading up to the 2012 Winter Classic game between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. One of the documentary’s episodes profiled the special relationship Liam had with then-Rangers head coach John Tortorella.
Mostly known for his crusty exterior and testy exchanges with the media, Tortorella showed a much softer side in his interactions with Liam, who is living with Cerebral Palsy.
One of the scenes took place in Liam’s bedroom. He is shown maneuvering his wheelchair over to a Rangers jersey hanging on one of the posts of his bed. That jersey was Del Zotto’s number four.
“We met, I am pretty sure it was my first year,” Del Zotto said. “He came to practice and I just saw him there, came over to him, and gave him a stick. From then on, we’ve just become friends.”
Not long after that, Liam attended a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden and went down to the team’s locker room after the game. Del Zotto brought his friend to the team bench where they spent the next hour discussing all of the things that happened during the game and where they occurred on the ice.
Following one of Liam’s surgeries, Del Zotto surprised his friend at the family’s Rockland County, New York home so that they could play Xbox together.
One of the signs of a solid friendship is when one friend stands up for the other, and that’s exactly what Liam did during Del Zotto’s second NHL season when the Rangers assigned him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Hartford, Connecticut.
Not happy with seeing his friend and favorite player sent down to the minors, Liam called Tortorella looking for an explanation. To his credit, Tortorella called Liam back and explained the process that teams sometimes have to go through with young players.
A New City, A New Beginning
An offseason coaching change in New York made the start of the 2013-14 season a difficult one for Del Zotto. In late January, the Rangers sent him to Nashville in exchange for longtime Predator blueliner Kevin Klein.
“He texted me right away, and I knew he was pretty sad,” Del Zotto said of Liam. “I didn’t know what to say. It was a tough time obviously for both of us. He was pretty sad to see me go, but he is still watching every game. I am a little bit further away, but he is still watching. I can’t wait to have him down here to catch a game.”
Seeing his friend move close to a thousand miles away was difficult, but Liam has seen a dramatic on-ice change in Del Zotto early in his tenure with the Predators.
“I am very excited to see Michael and see a different approach to how he plays,” Liam said. “When he was in New York, when I saw him the last time before he got traded, you could see that he was very frustrated and he was not himself. Now to see him with the Predators, you can definitely see him relaxed and see him taking risks and knowing that he can make those plays.”
Liam also noted the instant chemistry Del Zotto developed with Seth Jones, who Del Zotto was paired with when he first became a Predator. And as a sled hockey defenseman, Liam definitely knows what he is talking about.
Knowing that Liam missed his friend, one of Liam’s fellow Ranger fans came up with the idea of starting an online fundraiser to send Liam and his family to Nashville to catch a Predators game.
“When we saw the site, we were like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Liam’s mother Deborah said.
In just 11 days, the online fundraising campaign raised over $4,000, enough to cover all of the transportation and lodging expenses for the entire Traynor family (Liam, his twin sister Shannon, seven-year-old brother Kieran, and parents Deborah and Richard) to head south and reunite Liam with Del Zotto.
Single donation amounts ranged from five dollars all the way up to $1,000, with all contributors electing to remain anonymous.
“Once I saw that we got $2,000 up to $3,000, I kind of started realizing that it was getting real and it was going to happen,” Liam said.
Since the Predators do not face the Rangers or the Vancouver Canucks, Tortorella’s new team, in Nashville again this season, the March 8 game against the Columbus Blue Jackets was selected as the target.
“It was really generous of the fans to raise money to send him down here,” Del Zotto said. “I know it means a lot to him, but it means even more to myself.”
Thanks to one Rangers blog, Liam will have proper attire for a game in Smashville. That blog sent him a Predators jersey, complete with Del Zotto’s name and new number. Liam says he can’t wait to get his friend to sign his new jersey.
Since Ryan Ellis wears number four for the Predators, Del Zotto needed a new number.
“He texted me one day, and I asked him if he was going to keep his number and he said he didn’t know yet,” Liam said. “He asked me what numbers would you choose and I said five, two, and 43. And he chose five.”
Del Zotto did not have too difficult of a decision to make; in fact, it was already made for him.
“You can tell he has a lot of pull with me,” Del Zotto said with a smile.
Nashville in Style
Thanks to a helping hand from the brass at 501 Broadway, Liam and his family will have their seats at the game upgraded. They will sit in the suite that Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber purchase for each home game, usually for use by families going through some difficult times.
“Whenever we get a chance to use this team to make someone’s night a little nicer or make them forget about some pain, it’s a good thing to do,” Predators president and chief operating officer Sean Henry said. “Sometimes you do things to make a kid smile.”
Still a diehard Ranger fan, Liam is now a big supporter of the Predators as well.
“His room is painted all in New York Rangers’ colors and theme, but now he says he wants to paint the other half the Predators’ colors,” Deborah said.
Liam has been doing some walking on the treadmill lately. He documents the workouts and sends the video to Del Zotto.
“Just to have him send me those videos makes me teary,” Del Zotto said. “He’s an inspiration to me just to see what he has gone through. If I am going though a tough time or having a tough day, I kind of look at him and see what he has gone through and how tough he has been, it’s unbelievable.”
With the Traynor family set to be in town for the game on the 8th, Del Zotto’s pregame routine will be a little different. He won’t have to check his phone for words of encouragement from Liam. He will be able to get them in person.
“He and his family talk about what an inspiration I’ve been to him, but for me, it is the other way around,” Del Zotto said. “I am just so happy to be able to call him my best friend.”