Leighton Accardo’s legacy, one built on positively impacting the lives of everyone she came into contact with, will forever live on in the hearts of Arizona sports fans and the Coyotes organization.
In a special ceremony on Saturday, April 17, Leighton became the first non-player, coach, general manager or broadcaster inducted into an NHL team’s Ring of Honor. Her name, along with her patented No. 49 Coyotes jersey, will now forever hang above the ice inside Gila River Arena.
The ceremony was one that brought on a wide variety of emotions for all involved as Arizona’s professional hockey team paid tribute to the little girl that meant so much to its players.
“For me, when I saw she sadly passed, the reaction from our players, our coaches, the youth hockey community, it was obvious she touched this community and organization in a very different way,” said Xavier Gutierrez, the president and CEO of the Arizona Coyotes. “When we saw that it began with the question, ‘how do we honor her, honor her family and honor her spirit?’
“That’s when the conversations around this is the only answer that we can truly try to capture physically rather than the emotions we all have.”
Leighton’s 18-month long battle with Stage 4 Cancer was one Valley sports fans grew to be familiar with over the course of her fight. A hockey fan and player growing up, Leighton captured the hearts of the Arizona Coyotes front office and its players in 2019 when the team signed her to a one-day contract.
She joined captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson at center ice on Nov. 16, 2019 for the ceremonial puck drop, where she faced off against Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames.
Just over a year later on Nov. 24, 2020, Leighton lost her battle to cancer at 9 years old. The Coyotes have worn “LA49” decals on their helmets all season long in honor of Leighton, and when the opportunity came to induct her into the team’s Ring of Honor, the team jumped on it immediately.
Coyotes players wore special white and pink warm-up jerseys ahead of the Ring of Honor ceremony Saturday. Each jersey was numbered 49 with “Leighton” written on the back and a cancer ribbon on the front.
The team hosted the ceremony ahead of its game against the St. Louis Blues and posted a tribute to Leighton on social media. On Friday, April 16, just one day before the ceremony was schedule to take place, Leighton’s mother, Carly Accardo, expressed her gratitude to the Coyotes organization.
“It’s an incredible honor,” Carly said. “But it doesn’t shock me they went to this length. It speaks to how amazing they’ve been throughout this entire journey and this entire process. I knew they were going to do something special, and we were speechless when we first heard.
“We are incredibly grateful, but it doesn’t come as a surprise because they’ve been fantastic.”
Leighton’s battle with cancer was well documented due to the impact she made throughout her fight.
She fell in love with sports from an early age and never shied away from competing with her brothers or other boys on youth teams. She played on a boys’ baseball team in Gilbert before her and her parents helped create the Peaches, East Valley Baseball’s first all-girls team. Since then, the league has established 12 girls’ teams in total, a nod to the work Leighton did despite her young age.
But baseball wasn’t the only sport of choice for Leighton. Carly said she was figure skating when she began watching her older brother, Larson play hockey. Wanting to try it for herself, Carly reluctantly game Leighton her brother’s equipment to try on and skate around.
“I said, ‘you have to try it in his gear because I’m not buying this stuff if you don’t like it,’” Carly recalled. “She loved it. She always had a blast when she was on the ice. She was a natural skater and she liked being out there with her brother and her friends. She took to it and loved it.”
Leighton joined the Arizona Kachinas, a girls youth hockey program created by the Coyotes. It was there her relationship with the team began to blossom. Players frequently visited her in the hospital and on the day of her passing played a game of street hockey outside of her Gilbert home.
Lyndsey Fry, the director of external engagement and female hockey for the Coyotes, had initially planned to roller blade 96 miles to raise money for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital. But when Leighton died, she rebranded the event to “Skatin' for Leighton.” Fry raised more than $100,000 for the Leighton Accardo Scholarship Fund, which provides financial assistance to girls interested in playing hockey in Arizona, during her 96-mile skate.
“It makes me really happy and makes me smile knowing kids to know kids coming into the game 10, 15 years down the road that don’t know us are going to hear about Leighton and are going to learn about her,” Carly said, fighting back tears. “That means so much to me, as her mom, because our fear of her being forgotten kind of eases a little bit knowing kids 10 to 15 years down the road will know her name.”
The loss of Leighton still weighs heavy on Carly and the rest of her family. Leighton’s siblings still have moments where their emotions overcome them. Carly said her and her husband, Jeremy, also experience moments of sadness.
But at the same time, Carly can’t help but be proud of all Leighton accomplished and the impact she had on the lives of many while going through her own battle before she passed. Leighton’s inspirational journey will allow her spirit and mission live on not only in the Arizona Coyotes organization, but in the hearts of hockey and Arizona sports fans forever.
“It makes me really proud to know she was capable of these sorts of things and bringing these people together and just being so positive and uplifting to so many people,” Carly said. “These are the sorts of qualities parents hope and try to work with our kids on.
“Leighton came by all of those so naturally. It makes me really proud. She would be really proud of herself.”