2022 began on strong note for both Seattle-based Nadia Popovici and Vancouver Canucks’ assistant equipment manager Brian ‘Red’ Hamilton.
On New Year’s Day, the Canucks extended a message to their fanbase asking for help in tracking down a certain fan, to whom Hamilton says “saved his life”.
The date was October 23rd, and the Canucks were facing off against the NHL’s newest franchise, the Seattle Kraken. Seattle superfan Yukyung Nelson and her daughter Nadia were sitting in Nelson’s regular seats behind the visitors’ bench. Although situated in Seattle – where she and her husband are season ticket holders at Kraken games – Nelson has always been a Canucks fan. When the opportunity arose to see Vancouver in action against Seattle, she brought her daughter along for the game.
It just so happened that that decision altered the life of the Canucks’ trainer.
“You were sitting behind the Canucks bench the night the Seattle Kraken played their first ever home game,” the public message from the Canucks on behalf of Hamilton said. “The message you showed me on your cell phone will forever be etched into my brain and has made a true life-changing difference for me and my family. Your instincts were right and that mole on the back of my neck was a malignant melanoma. Thanks to your persistence and the quick work of our doctors, it is now gone.”
I want you all to know that this isn’t about me,” the plea continued. “It’s about an incredible person taking the time to notice something concerning and then finding a way to point it out during the chaos of a hockey game. Going to great lengths to get my attention from the stands while I did my job on the Canucks bench. We are looking for this incredible person and we need you to share this with your friends and families to help us find a real life hero, so I can express my sincerest gratitude.”
The message was shared far and wide through #HockeyTwitter and within just hours, Nelson responded to the post rather jubilantly.
“This was my daughter, Nadia Popovici,” Nelson wrote. “We sit behind the visitors bench at the Climate Pledge Arena. She was the one that noticed the mole and really wanted to let him know in case he wasn’t aware of this. She has no idea what’s going on because she’s asleep… She will be at the game tonight! Same seats! We love you Canucks! You guys really made her first NHL game a special one. So happy for Red!!! I’m trying not to cry!”
As it turned out, Nadia is a recent university graduate who is heading to med school in short order. She had been volunteering in oncology in hospitals where moles and malignant melanoma were prevalent. Her strong instincts and reaction to spotting Hamilton’s skin defect changed the course of his life, quite possibly forever.
“I felt bad in the moment, because I’m walking off the bench and she put her phone up to the glass and her phone said, ‘The mole on the back of your neck is cancer,’” Hamilton said in a special weekend media availability. “It threw me off. I kind of just shrugged and kept going. My inital response when I found out was, I felt bad because I felt like I didn’t really give her the time of day.”
After much persistence, Nadia’s cell phone message got through to the team’s trainer. He simply nodded to her as he left the bench, just before she was presented with a stick from the Canucks’ bench.
"She extended my life. I've got a wonderful family. I've got a wonderful daughter. She saved my life."
🗣 Part 1 of Brian "Red" Hamilton's interview with the media after finding the woman who he calls his hero pic.twitter.com/t5sS8RCZPW
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) January 1, 2022
“She had her phone pressed up against the glass, and the thing that really registered in my mind is it wasn’t like text, she had gone to more effort to make the font bigger and colourful,” Hamilton added. “So it got my attention and and so I saw the message but I looked at her and I was like ‘OK,’ and then I just kept walking. I’m sure if there’s footage as I’m walking down the bench, like I’m rubbing the back of my neck because I didn’t even know.”
Going from not knowing he had a cancerous cell build up on the back of his neck, to being notified, to having it checked out, removed and getting back into action within a few weeks’ time, has been nothing short of a New Year’s miracle for Hamilton.
“She extended my life,” he said. “I’ve got a wonderful family, I’ve got a wonderful daughter and I just think like, she extended my life. She didn’t take me out of a burning car like the big stories but she took me out of a slow fire, and then words out of the doctor’s mouth where if I ignored that for four to five years, I wouldn’t be here.”
The craziest part for Hamilton is just how observant Popovici was, in order to actually spot and diagnose his heavily obstructed growth.
“I didn’t know it was there,” he said. “She pointed it out. How she saw it boggles my mind. It wasn’t very big. I wear a jacket. I wear a radio on the back of my jacket that hooks on so the cords are there. She’s a hero. And her persistence. I wish she was sitting here so you guys could talk to her about what a great human being she is.”
On Saturday evening, the two teams met once again in Seattle for a Pacific Division tilt. Although Hamilton didn’t know in the morning if he would be given a chance to speak with Popovici, he did long to give his miracle worker an in-person thank-you. It appeared as though the powers that be overheard, and the two did meet up prior to puck drop.
The internet community helped us find Brian's hero, Nadia, and tonight they met in person where he got to express his sincerest thank you to her for saving his life.
A story of human compassion at its finest. pic.twitter.com/66ogo5hB1a
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) January 2, 2022
Able to speak to each other in an arranged meetup, prior to the opening face-off, the two shared a brief exchange where Hamilton and Popovici recounted their sides of the tale, before going on to speak of Nadia’s upcoming plans for med school later this year.
Before the night was over, the Canucks and Kraken teamed up for one more special surprise. At a stoppage in play, the in-house public address announcer provided the background of the story on the jumbotron, before going on to say that the two teams were gifting Popovici with a combined $10K scholarship to go towards her medical degree.
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) January 2, 2022
After nearly two full years of pandemic, the slightest of good news stories certainly go a long way. But in this life and death situation, a New Year’s miracle certainly got 2022 off to as good of a start as many could imagine. Without the keen eye and persistent mind of Popovici and the willingness of Hamilton to share his story, this interaction wouldn’t have ever come full-circle.
Sometimes it is best to act upon one’s instincts.