Bethpage Hockey: Fight Of Our Life


Editor’s Note: This publication will also be able to be viewed on the Bethpage Tribune and New York Islanders website soon.


The capacity crowd buzzed with excitement as the zamboni slid off the ice. The anticipation grew audibly as fans chanted, louder all the time, echoing through the cavernous rink. Finally, the players burst from the locker room, and the crowd erupted in cheers.  This must be an NHL playoff game, right? Actually, it was a high school hockey game. If you don’t believe it, well…you weren’t there.


On December 19th, the Bethpage Hockey Team battled Oceanside in front of over 1000 fans at the Town of Oyster Bay Ice Skating Rink, affectionately referred to in Bethpage as “The Power Plant”. But it wasn’t just any game. The level of energy on the ice and the electricity in the stands brought this particular game to the next level. The enthusiasm and warm community feeling was bursting for Number 16, junior defenseman and Alternate Captain of the Golden Eagles Ice Hockey team, Derek Zacchino.


Here’s how the team found itself here: On September 4th, the Bethpage Eagles Varsity
Hockey team held their first practice. High hopes brimmed for these Bethpage boys, who captured a Division title, mounted a thrilling playoff run to the finals in the County Championship, and a trip to the New York State tournament the previous season. At that first practice, Coach Jeff Schmier was alerted that Derek, a key defensemen, was not feeling well and had left the ice. It was an extremely hot day, and Coach Schmier thought Derek’s nausea was caused by dehydration.


One week passed, and the second practice rolled around. Captain Bryan Hanley told Coach Schmier that Derek had to go to the hospital but it was, “no big deal” and Derek would talk to him later. Around midnight, Derek texted Coach apologizing for missing practice: “I had to head to the hospital because an MRI on my head revealed that there was fluid on my brain.” He added, “Surgery is an option, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.” Derek had experienced constant headaches over the summer, but the coach was not aware. “I was shocked.,” said Coach Schmier. The next morning, Derek was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was admitted to Cohen’s Children Hospital, who “took great care of him and his family.” World class surgeons operated on Derek at the hospital to remove the tumor. This news sent shockwaves throughout the community and especially friends, teammates, teachers, and family.


When Derek was able to finally come home after his hellish experience, he was visited by so many. “Everyone was there for me throughout this ordeal. My friends
stopped by the house constantly. It truly meant everything to me,” Derek

This reporter happens to be a teammate and close companion to Derek.  I made many visits to the Zacchino household to check in on him and his family. I remember the experience as one of those things you’ll never forget for the rest of your life. Seeing one of your buddies like that after getting brain surgery rendered me speechless and emotional to say the least. Teammate and senior captain of the team Matthew Salerno said, “I was in shock. But I was happy to see him smiling after undergoing such a surgery.” The same sentiments  were shared by not only the hockey team, but the whole community.


Bethpage High School teacher, Susan Sciglibaglio, suggested an idea to help Derek’s cause.  She, in collaboration with Bethpage High School teachers Danielle Mole´ and Amanda D’Amico, organized a tee-shirt sale to wear to a benefit game in honor of Derek. The first week of sales alone raised over ten-thousand dollars.  The Zacchinos are donating the money to Cohen’s Children’s Hospital, which had helped him immensely these last few months.


As word spread, December 19th was to be “STICK IT TO CANCER” day. High school teams, various organizations in the NHL including the Islanders, Rangers, Boston Bruins, and Vegas Golden Knights, and many other businesses sent raffle items and stepped up to help. Teams showed up en masse to support Derek.


At our last practice before the game, Coach Schmier told us “You need to prepare for the fight of your lives.” This became our war-cry for the upcoming week.  In the locker room before the game, he posted a sign in the locker room “Prepare for the fight of your life”. He reiterated “You need to fight for your lives out there for 45 minutes. You owe it to Derek who fights for his life every single day.” The words “Fight for your life” were burned in our minds.


Roughly 30 minutes prior to puck-drop, Coach Schmier told everyone to take a seat.

He had news that was going to “rock our world.” The team paused and Schmier said, “I got a call from Derek’s dad (Don) this morning. The oncologist cleared Derek to play and he WILL be in the lineup tonight.” Emotions ran wild. We all hit the sign on our way out the door.


The teams lined up, side by side, as Bethpage High School Assistant Principal played Scotland the Brave on his bagpipes. We walked through a sea of fans to the ice. During the pregame ceremony, Superintendent David Schneider made the surprise announcement that Derek would be playing. It was perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening.  


The matchup pitted the 4-4-1 Golden Eagles against the heavily favored, 6-1-1 Oceanside Sailors. Oceanside is one of the more skilled teams in the league this season, as they’d captured the 2018 New York State championship in Niagara Falls at the JV level.  


The Sailors jumped out to a quick lead, scoring a goal 5 minutes into the game. The Golden Eagles answered with two goals by junior Captain Bryan Hanley. In the 2nd period, senior Andrew Sciglibaglio scored the first goal of his career to make it a 3-1 game. Oceanside fought back to tie the score early in the 3rd period. The two teams remained tied deep into the third period. The crowd, estimated at more than 1000, hummed with anticipation as the game was waning down.

Finally, the dam broke as junior Johnny Thomaidis banged in a rebound with 4:31 remaining. The crowd roared with excitement as the Eagles scored the go-ahead goal. Derek anchored the defense as the Golden Eagles held off the Sailors’ attack to bring home the upset win. Coach Schmier said, “This was the most emotional and well attended hockey game in my 12 years as coach.”  “My prayers were answered, and I was speechless,” Derek said. “It was incredible and everything was coming together for a storybook ending.”


In tough times, communities like Bethpage come together to support each other. It’s a beautiful thing. Never was this more evident and emotional than at the Town of Oyster Bay Rink on December 19th, when a team, a town and communities near and far came together to lift up a great kid and help him with the biggest fight of his life.