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NHL rallies around Lightning assistant Wayne Fleming

With his team on the brink of playoff elimination, Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock took a moment to forget about the San Jose Sharks and whatever Sunday's result would bring.

Instead, he thought of his friend Wayne Fleming, the Tampa Bay Lightning assistant lying in a Southern California hospital recovering from brain surgery.

"I've been a big fan of his for a long time," Babcock said. "I'm pulling for him."

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In times of crisis the hockey community is quick to rally around one of its own, and it was through Babcock's connections that Fleming was admitted to an Irvine hospital last week. There, the 60-year-old Winnipeg native underwent an eight-hour surgical procedure to remove much, but not all, of the malignant tumour in his brain.

The surgery was considered successful and Fleming is now resting comfortably in postoperative care. Inevitably, he is facing a strenuous comeback, but one made possible by many acts of kindness.

"Wayne's gotten some great help," said Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Dave King, another Fleming friend. "Mr. Vinik [Jeff Vinik, the Lightning owner] met with Wayne and his wife Carolyn and said the team would do whatever was needed. They provided a private plane [to get Fleming to California] Steve Yzerman has been terrific; the Tampa players, too.

"And it was Mike Babcock's contacts that got him to the right people in California."

When Babcock first heard in early April that Fleming had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, he called to offer support and assistance. Fleming had been complaining about feeling "unclear" mentally. A Computerized axial tomography (CT) scan ordered by the Lightning physicians revealed a sizable mass. A biopsy determined the growth to be malignant.

Babcock told Fleming, "You might have great people checking you out, but what does it hurt to get another opinion?" Babcock then told Fleming about a physician he had met while coaching the Anaheim Ducks, Leonard Sender, the medical director of the Cancer Institute at the Children's Hospital of Orange County. It wasn't long before Fleming and his wife were flying West to pursue their options.

"Lenny is one of the best oncologists in the world," Babcock said. "He got involved with Scotty's son, Stan Bowman [who underwent a stem cell transplant for his cancer in 2007] He got involved with Lindy Ruff and his daughter [in 2006, 11-year-old Madeleine was diagnosed with a brain tumour and eventually had surgery] I've seen his work with kids. It's really something."

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Babcock has seen his share of cancer. When he was 26, his mother died of cancer. When he coached the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs, Babcock befriended local hero Mark Rypien, the former Washington Redskins quarterback and Super Bowl most valuable player. Rypien's son, Andrew, was diagnosed with cancer and eventually died. In Cincinnati, where he coached in the American Hockey League, his neighbour's son was diagnosed with cancer and died. (The boy's parents founded the Jeffrey Thomas Hayden Foundation.)

First in Anaheim and now Detroit, Babcock has spent time with cancer patients, especially children. Often he passes along autographed Red Wings memorabilia and was quick to bring the Stanley Cup to the Children's Hospital of Michigan when the team won in 2008. He also buys tickets for sick kids and their families so they can attend Detroit home games.

"When I got here I met with the Detroit Medical Center and started buying tickets for kids," Babcock said. "I'm not involved in research. I'm just trying to make the days better for these kids."

For his friends, too, particularly the guy who once coached him as a player at the World Student Games and has been one of the game's most respected teachers.

"In hockey, in something like this, we care about our people," Babcock said. "But Wayne is one of those special guys."

Fleming will eventually be moved to a therapy unit and is expected to remain in California for several weeks. In his NHL career, Fleming has been an assistant with six teams, including the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, and was on the coaching staff of Canada's 2002 gold medal-winning Olympic team.

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Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. More

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