- Steve Wulf, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAY WHAT YOU will about texting, the medium has brought a new sense of intimacy to the world. And without it, the connection between Liam Traynor, a 12-year-old from Blauvelt, N.Y., and 23-year-old NHL defenseman Michael Del Zotto from Stouffville, Ontario, wouldn't be nearly this strong.
Still, it was good old-fashioned kindness that first forged the bond between them. Four years ago, Del Zotto met Traynor, who has cerebral palsy, through Garden of Dreams, the Madison Square Garden Co.'s foundation that helps children who are sick or in need.
"Jan. 26, 2010," Liam says, noting the day that a limo was sent to his home to take him and his family across the Tappan Zee Bridge to the Rangers' practice facility in Tarrytown, N.Y. Ex-Ranger and Garden of Dreams ambassador Adam Graves greeted the Traynors as they got out of the car, and they interacted with several players at practice. Two people were especially nice to Liam that day: coach John Tortorella and Del Zotto, who earlier that season had become the youngest defenseman ever to open a season with the Blueshirts.
"Usually there's nobody at practice," Del Zotto says. "We're out there grinding away in the middle of a long season, and I look up and see this smiling face on a kid in a wheelchair. He took such joy in the game. And that's what got to me."
Del Zotto gave autographed sticks to Liam and his twin sister, Shannon, who plays on a travel team. As Liam's mother, Debbie Traynor, recalls: "He was so excited to meet Michael that he nearly fell out of his chair. He knew all the Rangers, of course, but it was the youngest one he was drawn to. And Michael, bless his 19-year-old heart, saw that."
Del Zotto and Tortorella also discovered in Liam someone who loved hockey as much as they did. "He can tell you the brand of sticks, gloves and skates most players in the NHL use," says his mother. Liam plays sled hockey with a cut-down Del Zotto Bauer stick, watches the NHL Network religiously and can whip just about anyone's butt in NHL 14 on Xbox.
"The Rangers invited us to some games," Debbie says, "and whenever we went, Michael would make it a point to talk to Liam. After one game, they sat on the bench for an hour, discussing everything that had happened on the ice. Just two puckheads."
By April, when Liam underwent hip surgery to relieve pain brought on by his condition, he'd become part of the Rangers family. He and Michael texted regularly. Tortorella called him every day he was in the hospital and even bought him the treadmill he would need during his recovery. The outwardly cantankerous coach and Liam became so close that when Tortorella sent Del Zotto down to the minors in the 2010-11 season, Liam left him a message: "We need to talk." Sure enough, Tortorella called him back, explaining why he thought a temporary trip to Hartford was in Michael's best interest. Another time, when Liam saw that Tortorella was upset after a game, he texted him, "You need a bro hug."
The 2011-12 season was stronger for Del Zotto, who led the team's defense with 41 points; the Rangers won the Atlantic Division and fell two games short of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. But last year, more trouble: After the Rangers were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, Tortorella was fired. Liam was understandably upset to see the coach leave, but at least he still had Del Zotto -- and the prospect that the defenseman might thrive under new coach Alain Vigneault. It was a hope he shared with Del Zotto, who dropped in on the Traynors last July, when he was in New York for sports-hernia surgery. Del Zotto knew that Liam was recovering from another hip operation, so he texted Debbie to ask whether he could stop by. When the two decided to play hockey on Xbox, Liam told Michael: "I'm going to be Del Zotto. Who are you gonna be?" They cleared up the confusion by deciding to play Canada (Del Zotto) vs. USA (Traynor).
The next day, Liam texted Del Zotto: "Got the stitches out today. Yeah!!! Now the hard work begins. Thank you soo much for yesterday." Michael replied: "Anytime buddy. Keep working hard. Stay positive."
As it turned out, working hard and staying positive would be more important than ever during the year ahead, which brought new challenges for both Liam and Michael. Despite their shared optimism for the new season and the new coach -- Vigneault switched places with Tortorella, who took over the Canucks -- offensive-minded Del Zotto had a hard time fitting into Vigneault's conservative system. He found himself wanting to join the rush when his coach wanted him to stay at home. While it often takes a few years for a defenseman to find his zone, Del Zotto was learning the ropes in a forum, namely Madison Square Garden, that doesn't exactly breed patience. The wunderkind once compared to Rangers legend Brian Leetch found himself in Vigneault's doghouse, attached to a chain of healthy scratches.
Before one November game for which Del Zotto didn't suit up, Liam texted Michael: "When I see Vigneault I'm having a heart to heart with that guy. I'm sorry buddy you don't deserve this." And Del Zotto responded: "It's ok buddy. Sucks but it is what it is."
Liam, meanwhile, had his own travails. Because he was growing but couldn't walk enough after surgery to stimulate the circulation around his bones, he was often in pain. He also struggled in school, in part because his cerebral palsy left him with vision problems. "It was a rocky year for both Liam and Michael," says Debbie, who is an occupational therapist for Easter Seals. "But at least they had each other."
Says Del Zotto: "Please understand, this is not a one-way street. Liam means as much to me as I mean to him. If I need some inspiration, all I have to do is call up a video the Traynors sent me of Liam working out on his treadmill. Before every game, Liam will send me a little scouting report on who to watch out for. If I'm down because I'm a healthy scratch, I'll get an encouraging message. Earlier this season, he sent me a photo of himself all dressed up at a Garden of Dreams gala with two beautiful models at his side and the message, 'My prom dates.' I had to laugh."
Liam continued to watch games from home, wearing the helmet and gloves Michael gave him. But in early January came the first indication that his buddy might not be a Ranger anymore. While watching the NHL Network, Liam heard Del Zotto's name mentioned as possible trade material. That's when he sent his friend the text asking whether Del Zotto was going to be traded. The deal came down a few weeks later -- around lunchtime on Jan. 22, almost four years to the day after Liam and Michael met. The Rangers were sending Del Zotto to Nashville for Kevin Klein, a veteran right-handed defenseman who was more physical than Del Zotto and fit better into Vigneault's strict system.
"I was kind of expecting it," Del Zotto says. "Assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld gave me the news at the practice rink. I saw that the Predators were off on a six-day road trip, so I had to get home to start packing to fly to Vancouver."
Liam's dad, Rick, who works as an estimator for a construction company, heard the news at his office. "Rick calls me," Debbie says, "and I immediately call the sitter to tell her to keep the kids away from the TV. I knew the trade would hit Liam hard, and I wanted to make sure that we were there for him."
When sports transactions are made, and they're made every day, we tend to focus on the players and coaches, wondering what effect the move will have on them. We don't think about the collateral damage, the disruptions in the lives of their families and friends. And what of the fans who wear their jerseys and follow their every move? What happens when their loyalty is suddenly tested by a change in laundry?
In the case of Liam Traynor, what happened was "a little nervous breakdown," according to his mom, explaining: "When you're 12 years old, it's not easy to process your favorite player leaving your favorite team, especially someone as close to Liam as Michael is. We talked through it and agreed Liam should be loyal to the Rangers -- they had done so much for us -- but that he could still root for Michael. That was the easy part. He was still worried about Michael. And he was afraid to go to school the next day because he knew he was going to get teased."
That night, the Predators beat the Canucks 2-1. (Tortorella wasn't there; he was serving a suspension that night for having stormed the Flames' locker room a few days earlier after an on-ice brawl.) Del Zotto was indeed paired with Jones, and he earned early praise from Predators coach Barry Trotz, who said, "I liked a lot of things he did."
Josh Cooper, who covers the team for The Tennessean, said, "On one shift that night, he made a great deke and passed to a forward who probably wasn't expecting it. Then when the Canucks took it back down the ice, he raced to the other end and broke up the play. I thought I was watching Brian Leetch."
As for the teasing Liam was worried about, well, it happened at sled hockey.
Over the years, Liam has gained almost cult status among Rangers fans, thanks in part to his appearance in HBO's 24/7 lead-in to the 2012 Winter Classic, talking about his friends DZ and Torts while sitting in his Rangers-themed bedroom. He also has a popular Twitter account: @sledhockeyboy. One night after the Jan. 22 trade, a fan at the Garden spotted Liam and started ribbing him about Del Zotto. "This guy called him Del Saster," Debbie says, "so I went over to him and quietly asked him why he was getting on a 12-year-old. He shut up after that."
But just as there are bad Rangers fans, there are some very good Rangers fans too. After Del Zotto's trade, someone known simply as Vinny V started a website called "Get Liam to Nashville" to raise money to send the Traynors to a game there. (The Predators had already played their scheduled game in New York.) In less than two weeks, the fundraiser solicited more than $4,000 in contributions, enough to cover the transportation and hotel costs for Rick, Debbie, Liam, Shannon and 7-year-old Kieran to stay in Nashville for two games: Thursday, March 6, against the Blues and Saturday, March 8, against the Blue Jackets. The Predators set them up with seats.
The best part of the trip, of course, was the reunion with Michael. "He texted me the night before, and I couldn't wait to see him," Del Zotto says. "Having him there really cheered me up." The Traynors spent Friday at the Predators' practice, and Liam and Shannon had a chance to shoot pucks off ice with Michael.
But on Saturday, Liam came down with a stomach bug. Says Debbie: "We're sorry we didn't get to go to the second game, but the most important thing was that Liam got to see Michael and that he was in a good place. That's really what he's been worried about since Jan. 22."
It's a good question. Despite Del Zotto's promising debut, as the season wore on he got less and less playing time under Trotz, who said in late March that Del Zotto's game had "slipped." Del Zotto had a few healthy scratches at the end of the season, so he clearly wasn't in Trotz's plans. But when Nashville failed to make the playoffs, the only coach the Predators had ever known was fired after 15 seasons. Liam's other close friend is also in limbo; on May 1 the Canucks cut ties with Tortorella.
Del Zotto is currently a restricted free agent whose untapped offensive potential could appeal to other teams -- "I think the Wild would be a good fit for him," Liam says -- or to the new coach in Nashville, Peter Laviolette.
In the meantime, Liam was rooting for the Rangers in the playoffs and hoping Tortorella lands on his feet. Del Zotto, studiously avoiding the Stanley Cup telecasts, began serious training for next season. "I'm thinking of switching sticks," he says, "but Liam is trying to talk me out of it."
No matter where he ends up, Del Zotto will check his phone before every game, as he always does, to see a message from Liam. He will text him back, reminding him to do his homework to prepare for the future. "Liam wants to work in the NHL someday," his mother says.
And if Liam is worried about Michael, he can always look at the signed No. 5 Predators jersey in his Rangers shrine. On the left shoulder, written in indelible ink, is this message: No matter where I am we will always be best buddies! Michael