November 14. 2013 11:18PM

Monarchs reflect on one of their own at this year's cancer awareness night

New Hampshire Union Leader

Jim Atherton, a three-year intern with the Manchester Monarchs while a student at Southern New Hampshire University, and his father, Lee, pose with the Stanley Cup during its visit to Manchester in September 2012. (COURTESY)

MANCHESTER -- A  signature event of the Manchester Monarchs minor-league hockey organization, Mullets in Movember annually draws a big crowd to Verizon Wireless Arena and helps raise awareness of men's cancer issues.

This year, the event has added significance. Saturday night, while the first 3,000 fans to enter the arena sport mullet wigs and mustaches courtesy of Dartmouth-Hitchock's Norris Cotton Cancer Center and Manchester skates against the Norfolk Admirals, Monarchs employees will be thinking of former intern Jim Atherton, who died in March at age 23 after a battle with Ewing's sarcoma.

A native of Lebanon, Maine, and student at Southern New Hampshire University, Atherton began working in the American Hockey League franchise's public relations department in January 2011 and quickly became an invaluable and popular asset. Most interns spend one season with the Monarchs; Atherton returned for two more.

"He just loved the Monarchs," said his mother, Karen. "He had a passion for the team, and he loved the players, and he loved being there. He loved everything about being at a Monarchs game. He loved wearing a suit and being up in the press box. He just loved the place."

During last year's Mullets in Movember event, as he was battling cancer for the second time in his life after fighting through it as a high school student in 2008, Atherton was on the ice for a pre-game ceremony honoring cancer survivors and those battling the disease.

It was one of the last games he would work before his illness worsened.

"When he was on the ice for Mullets in Movember last year, he was pumped. He was coming off the ice, and (Monarchs defenseman) Nick Deslauriers was, like, 'What are you doing?'" recalled Kim Mueller, the team's vice president of public affairs.

"Some of the guys didn't know (he was sick) because Jim wasn't one to announce it to everyone. He just wanted to be Jim. Him being on the ice — he truly cherished that moment because he was with the team, and it opened the eyes of some guys that didn't know."

Atherton built close bonds with several Monarchs players, including Justin Johnson (now playing for Bridgeport), known as a tough guy on the ice but one of the team's nicest people, and captain Andrew Campbell.

"Jim was always one of the guys at the rink with the biggest smile on his face. I always stopped (to talk with him), and we'd shoot the breeze for a few minutes and ask how each other was doing," Campbell said. "When he was getting sicker, we'd text back and forth when he was in the hospital. The way he battled through and always kept a smile on his face, it was pretty inspirational."

In September of last year, the Stanley Cup was due to visit Manchester, courtesy of the Monarchs' parent club, the Los Angeles Kings, who had won the National Hockey League championship three months earlier. Atherton was determined to be there, even though he was hospitalized for treatment at Massachusetts General in Boston.

"He literally checked himself out of the hospital to go to the Stanley Cup party," Mueller said. "He didn't want to miss anything."

He made the trip with his father, Lee, and the two men got to spend a few minutes with the Cup.

"The Stanley Cup meant so much to Jim," Mueller said. "He was a huge Bruins fan and Kings fan, and the fact that (those teams) had won it back-to-back was so important to him. He brought his dad, and it was a special father-son moment."

In mid-March, knowing he didn't have long to live, Atherton had a choice to make: tickets for him and his family to attend a Bruins game in Boston or a Monarchs game in Manchester?

"I thought he would choose the Bruins, but he chose the Monarchs," Karen Atherton said. "And when we got to the game, it was really like family there. He seemed to know everyone. He was in his element when he was there."

Unbeknownst to the Athertons when Jim was offered his choice of games, the Monarchs had reserved a suite for the family. Jim's younger brother, Phil, was especially moved by the experience, their mother said.

"Phil said he didn't realize how involved Jim was until that night," Karen said. "But when he saw all those people interacting with Jim, he was in awe. It was heart-warming, the support and care that they all gave (Jim)."

In severe pain during the hour-long drive from his home, Jim seemed visibly comforted by being back in the arena, Mueller said.

"When we took him up to the suite, it was like night and day," she recalled. "When we wheeled him up to the front where he could watch the game, he lit up like a Christmas tree. It was like he was feeling no pain."

SNHU President Paul LeBlanc was there to present Atherton with his diploma, and a steady stream of visitors dropped by the suite to say hello.

After an hour or so, Jim said he was tired and ready to head home. Before he left, Mueller made sure several Monarchs who didn't dress that night got a chance to say goodbye. One of them, Johnson, broke down in tears.

Atherton died the following night, surrounded by his family at home. With him was one last gift he'd received at his final game: a replica Stanley Cup championship ring from the Kings.

"It was as if he had been given a real Stanley Cup ring," Mueller said of Jim's reaction. "I don't think that ever came off his finger."

Seeing Karen Atherton in tears, Mueller tried to lighten the moment, telling her, "It's just a replica."

"It doesn't matter to him," Karen replied, smiling in return. "He won the Stanley Cup."