When the ceremonial puck-drop starts the annual L’Anse Creuse North alumni hockey game Wednesday night, Joel Zito will be back in his element.
Zito will once again walk to center ice to drop the puck to begin a night that in the end will benefit him and his family in more than one way.
“If you’ll be at the game, you’ll see his spirits really lift up,” said Ken Zito, Joel’s dad. “He goofs around once he’s on that ice. We really don’t go much to hockey anymore so when he gets back out there it’s really fun to see.”
It’s the fifth year in a row the alumni game will double as a fundraiser to help defer expenses to help Joel recover after being severely injured in an accident in March 2010.
Joel, a 2008 LCN graduate, suffered a head injury that put him in a coma when he tried to move a soccer goal off of a field near L’Anse Creuse North Middle School so he and friends could play softball.
He also suffered a stroke at the same time.
He was in a coma for roughly six months.
“Each year he’s doing a lot better,” Ken said. “He’s more focused with his mind and physical abilities. He gets stronger every year, but it’s just a long, long, long process, but he’s doing well.”
Ken added that Joel has been getting up and walking on his own quite a bit as well.
“He’s really been pushing forward with that for the last two months,” Ken said. “He walks with a walker mostly, a push one with wheels, but he can walk on his own if someone is kind of spotting him.
“He pushes himself at the gym and all his therapies – speech, physical and occupational,” Ken continued. “When we brought him home he was bed ridden and had feeding tubes. Now he’s eating on his own. He’s come a long way.”
Joel played four years of varsity hockey at LCN.
“Not only was Joel a great hockey player, but the Zito family is a great LCN family,” said Crusaders coach Jon Nader, who started the fundraiser soon after Joel suffered his injuries. “They’ve always been great. We thought this would just be a great thing to help support him and his family.
“And the kids love coming back and taking part in it,” Nader added. “He’s still a very positive kid. He remembers a lot of faces. I think a lot of that has to do with his family. They’re very tight knit.”
Nader isn’t a bit surprised the progress Joel has made in his recovery.
“He’s just a go-getter, always has been,” said Nader, who added that LCN booster club president Steve Kostenko plays a big part in getting this event together that’s raised close to $7,500 over four years. “He’s a workaholic, a talented young athlete. Everything he got into he was good at. He was a leader and a role model. He was just a great kid. And his parents were there every step of the way to help out with anything you asked.”
Also in attendance at the game Wednesday will be Washington Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy.
“He’s always been there to support Joel,” Ken said. “That means a lot to Joel. Joel knew him personally. Having the alumni game there and seeing some of the guys Joel played hockey with, it kind of gets to be a tear jerker.”
The game will take place at Mount Clemens Ice Arena, which donates the ice for the event, at 7 p.m. A $5 donation is asked to get in and watch the game.
If you’d like more information on how to support the Zito family, go to the Team Zito Facebook page, which has more than 1,300 members, and reads, “This is a prayer group, a sending good vibes and thoughts group, a group of whatever you do to send prayers and wishes to another.”
Referees who officiate the game out of the Northeast Referee Association also donate their time, and Dooleys provides post-game pizza for the players.