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Hockey team’s equipment manager asked community to look for fan who alerted him on cancerous mole

Thanks to a young ice hockey fan’s life-saving observation, Vancouver Canucks assistant equipment manager Brian “Red” Hamilton is now cancer-free.

Nadia Popovici sat behind Hamilton’s bench during the Seattle Kraken’s home opener at Climate Pledge Arena on October 23.

As she watched the game, the 22-year-old couldn’t help but notice a weird-looking mole on the back of Hamilton’s neck.

Popovici, a 2019 University of Washington graduate heading off to medical school, had seen plenty of melanoma during her time volunteering at hospitals.

The one on Hamilton was large, discolored, and raised with an “irregular border,” so she knew it was something serious.

Popovici knew Hamilton had to know, so she typed out a message on her phone and knocked on the plexiglass to get the man’s attention. She warned him that the mole on the back of his neck was cancer.

“He kind of glanced at my phone and walked away and I thought maybe he’d already seen it,” she recalled. “Maybe he’d already gotten it checked out by a doctor, it’s probably fine.”

But Hamilton actually didn’t know about the mole’s existence, and he is extremely grateful to Popovici for letting him know about it.

The equipment manager remembered that the message wasn’t typed like a text; Popovici had put more effort into making the font look bigger and colorful, which really got his attention.

“I saw the message but I looked at her and I was like ‘OK,’ and then I just kept walking,” he said. “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.”

After the Canucks flew home, the equipment manager asked his wife if he really did have a mole on his neck. She said he had one, so they contacted the team doctor, Dr. Jim Bovard, who cut it out and sent the biopsy sample.

Popovici’s speculations were confirmed as the test revealed that the mole was a type-2 malignant melanoma, which means it hadn’t penetrated the second layer of the skin yet. Doctors removed a bigger part of it, and all tests have come back negative since.

Doctors told Hamilton that he wouldn’t be here if he had ignored the mole for another four to five years.

“She extended my life,” Hamilton said in a Zoom press conference. “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.”

Hamilton never got the fan’s name, so he composed a letter and asked for help from the hockey community to find his “real-life hero.”

“I want you all to know that this isn’t about me,” Hamilton wrote. “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.”

The Vancouver Canucks Twitter account shared Hamilton’s heartfelt letter, and within two hours of posting, Popovici was identified via a Kraken fan Facebook group.

Popovici said she and her mother, Yukyung Nelson, had talked a few times about Hamilton since the opening game, wondering how he was doing and if he did get the mole checked out.

Popovici never expected to hear anything about it again until she went viral on Twitter months later.

The pair reunited Saturday before the Canucks-Kraken game in Seattle. The teams announced they would be giving Popovici a $10,000 scholarship for medical school to show their appreciation for her life-saving efforts.

This story proves that great things can happen if we all look out for each other. Kudos to Popovici for reaching out to a stranger and saving the life of the equipment manager in the process!

Hear Popovici and Hamilton themselves talk about their incredible story in the video below. 

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