Vancouver Canucks assistant equipment manager Brian Hamilton didn’t realize he had a cancerous growth on his neck until he visited Seattle in October.
But an eagle-eyed fan sitting behind the Canucks’ bench for the Kraken’s inaugural home game on Oct. 23 at Climate Pledge Arena saw something that concerned her.
And Hamilton got the chance to say thanks to that fan — Nadia Popovici — and let the world know the story on Saturday.
As the story gained traction, in a surprise move at the New Year’s day game in Seattle, the Vancouver Canucks and the Seattle Kraken announced a joint $10,000 fund to go toward Popovici’s medical training.
Popovici’s going into medical school next fall and has been accepted by several schools but hasn’t chosen one yet.
Kraken and Canucks are giving $10,000 to Nadia Popovici toward her medical school funding for what she did for Canucks trainer Brian “Red” Hamilton. #SeaKraken pic.twitter.com/nBi0tH0mVG — Ryan S. Clark (@ryan_s_clark) January 2, 2022
The Canucks had shared a message on social media Saturday morning asking for help in tracking down the woman who had alerted Hamilton to the growth on his neck. It didn’t take long for word to spread and for the team and her family to connect.
“I’m happy that story’s there, not for me, but for her because the world needs to know that this woman exists, and she’s a hero, and we need to celebrate her and people like her,” Hamilton said on Saturday.
About an hour after the Canucks posted the message to Twitter, a reply came in suggesting the family of Popovici was looking to make contact. The team was able to speak with her and Popovici was able to meet Hamilton before Saturday’s game.
At that October game Popovici was sitting behind the bench and got Hamilton’s attention as he was rearranging iPads, gloves and extra skate blades between periods.
Popovici had written a note on her phone that said she was concerned about a mole she’d noticed on his neck. She made the text on the screen large and colourful, obviously hoping he’d notice it. He finally saw it but didn’t think much of it initially.
“It had irregular borders and it was discoloured and fairly large,” Popovici, 22, told Postmedia Saturday.
Popovici had spent some time helping out in an oncology ward, so she was familiar with what cancers like Hamilton’s look like.
Popovici was at the October game with her mom. She and her mom, Yukyung, are lifelong Canucks fans, though they have thrown their hockey dollars into Kraken tickets since the NHL arrived.
“My mom is a huge Canucks fan, a huge Canucks fan before the Kraken,” Popovici said.
It was a special thrill for them to be behind the Canucks’ bench for the Kraken’s home opener.
“We were going back and forth on what jersey to wear,” Popovici said, admitting they settled on the home team’s colours that night.
“But I’m a Canucks fan, I’ve cheered for them forever.”
Popovici and her family lived in Vancouver before her parents split up and she and her mom moved south to Washington. A dual citizen, she graduated from the University of Washington in 2019.
#HockeyTwitter, we need your help! Please RT to spread the word and help us connect Red with the woman he considers his hero. pic.twitter.com/HlZybgOnjf — Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) January 1, 2022
Hamilton said Saturday that Popovici changed his life.
“She extended my life. I’ve got a wonderful family, a wonderful daughter. She saved my life. She didn’t take me out of a burning car — like a big story — but she took me out of a slow fire,” he said.
“I want you all to know that this isn’t about me. 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,” he said in his original message.
Hamilton said the message Popovici relayed to him on her phone will forever be etched in his mind, even if he didn’t process it at first.
“Her persistence is what saved my life.”
Hamilton, 47, said the message from Popovici lingered in his mind. Once he was back home in Vancouver, he asked his wife Jess to look at the mole and she agreed it looked unusual.
He was amazed the Seattle fan had seen it in the first place, given he’s always wearing a jacket and an earpiece that would partly obstruct the mole.
Three days later he talked to Canucks’ team doctor Dr. Jim Bovard, who agreed the mole looked concerning and took a biopsy. Within days, it had been completely removed by a specialist, who said it was cancerous — a malignant melanoma.
The specialist told Hamilton that the melanoma hadn’t penetrated far into his skin, but it would have been a life-threatening situation if he had neglected it for another few years.
“It’s a pretty surreal phone call.”
Hamilton was thrilled about the idea of meeting Popovici. The Canucks invited her to the arena early on Saturday so she could meet Hamilton and have dinner with him.
“I’m so happy his wife encouraged him to get the mole checked out,” Popovici said.
During the game, the Kraken and Canucks announced that they were giving Popovici a $10,000 scholarship to go towards her medical education. Popovici was shown on the big screen and the Hockey Night in Canada cameras also zoomed in on her.
She was visibly moved by the announcement.
“I’m so in shock, they have no idea what this money means to me. I’m so incredibly lucky and grateful for everyone who planned that out,” she told Postmedia in a text message shortly afterwards.
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
Hamilton said he hoped his message would prompt others to be aware of blemishes or moles on their skin.
Hamilton,born-and-raised in Richmond and now a Langley resident, has worked more than 1,000 games over the last two decades for the Canucks after spending more than a decade working for the B.C. Lions.