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MORE THAN JUST A GAME: DANNY AND CESAR BATTOCHIO

Thursday, April 15th
MORE THAN JUST A GAME: DANNY AND CESAR BATTOCHIO

As a goaltender whose professional career spanned nearly a decade, Rush goaltending coach Danny Battochio is no stranger to adversity. Playing over 250 games for the Rapid City Rush in a legendary career, he was relied upon as his team’s last line of defense, expected to make the big save, engineer playoff runs over the course of a campaign, and give his team every chance possible to win.

Those challenges are limited to strictly on-ice performance. What most people never see are his challenges off the ice that come in tandem with life as a professional athlete. Currently, it’s being a father to three boys and a loving husband to his wife, Jami.

With “Rush Fights Cancer Night” looming this weekend against the Allen Americans, Battochio reflects on arguably one of the toughest challenges of his life.

“It was the summertime of 2009, I’ll never forget it. My dad, Cesarino ‘Cesar’ Battochio, was diagnosed with lymphoma,” Battochio recalled. “He started getting these bumps everywhere, and while they weren’t painful, he still felt the need to get checked by a doctor. Turns out, it was lymphoma. It was then I realized that my dad was going to fight cancer.”

Lymphoma is cancer of the lymphatic system, essentially the body’s “germ fighting” network.

“My dad had practically just begun retirement,” he explained. “He used to work for big mining company in Sudbury that was actually based in Brazil. They began to make some organizational changes and essentially handed him a severance package, which more or less said ‘Thanks for all you’ve done, enjoy retirement’. About a year into the retired life, he gets this diagnosis.”

It is never easy to receive news of that magnitude regarding a cancer diagnosis of a loved one, but this news came at an impressionable time for the young Battochio. He had just graduated from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia with a degree in criminal justice, and had signed his first professional hockey contract to play with the Rapid City Rush, then a second-year franchise in the Central Hockey League.

“I knew what my plan in life was, but it was definitely still difficult. There’s never a ‘good time’ to get news like that, especially when it involves a loved one like my father,” Battochio added. “If there’s a silver lining to it, I was at least home when we got the news, and I could be with him for a few months before I began my professional hockey career.

“It’s new territory too. You don’t understand at first when you learn of the diagnosis,” he continued. “The first questions that come to your mind are ‘What is this?’ and ‘What’s happening?’ You try to learn about lymphoma, and what the normal outcomes are. It’s a stage of shock, then understanding, and you try to take it all in. It’s certainly overwhelming, especially for my family. On top of that, you have no idea what’s going through my dad’s mind as well. There was certainly a lot to process in that moment.”

This diagnosis was not Battochio’s first experience with this insidious disease. As a young child, his “nonno”, Italian for grandfather, on his father’s side of the family was diagnosed with and passed away from colon cancer.

Eventually, Battochio came to Rapid City to begin his professional career as a goaltender. Being so far from his home in Lively, Ontario, a 20-hour, 16-minute drive over nearly 1,300 miles away from Rapid City to be exact, was challenging to say the least. However, he had the comfort of knowing family was close by to support and assist whenever necessary.

“Having my mom and my brother, Randy, was big for me,” Battochio said. “It was tough being far from home, but knowing they were both there gave me some peace. My brother and mom were so great though. They helped out with treatments, getting my dad to and from them, and just generally making sure he was alright. I would have appreciated the opportunity to be there, but I was so glad I had them to help him with his battle on the home front.”

Battochio made his professional debut at home on October 23, 2009, suffering a 5-4 loss in relief against the Arizona Sundogs. The next night, he earned his first win as a professional in his first professional start, a 4-3 win with 40 saves on 43 shots. After starting 3-3-1 in 8 appearances, the young rookie net-minder caught fire. From November 25, 2009 to January 19, 2010, Battochio went undefeated in 12 consecutive starts, vaulting his personal record to 15-3-1 in 21 games. His efforts earned him a spot on the 2010 CHL All-Star Team that took on the South Texas All-Stars comprised of players from the Laredo Bucks, Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, and Corpus Christi Ice Rays. Battochio played the third period of the game, stopping 14 of 19 shots in a 9-4 South Texas All-Stars win.

Throughout the course of the season, Battochio constantly checked in back home to hear updates on his father’s fight against lymphoma. On two occasions, around Christmas and shortly after the all-star break, he got the opportunity to go back home to Lively, Ontario to be with his father.

“Chemotherapy is harsh, there’s no doubt about that. It takes such a toll on the patient and even on the support group around the patient,” he added. “I was there for his first treatment before I came to Rapid City and got to see more of the effects when I visited home throughout the season. Those patients that go through chemo take a beating. He was very weak after treatments. Between a loss of strength, sudden weight loss, and other visible signs, my dad really was in a world of hurt. I was just so grateful that I was able to see him and be with him.

“I remember coming home for Christmas, and wondering if something more, something unexpected at the time, was going to happen. I just had this feeling that I had to be there,” he continued, emotionally. “I think it helped the both of us. It helped my dad get through a rough patch with treatment, but it helped me as well. One of the scariest parts of watching someone in a battle for their lives like that is the fear of the unknown. Cancer is such a wild card because anything can really happen. It can spread within the same system, in his case the lymphatic system, or it could metastasize to other organs, and so on. There were always so many questions that stemmed from other questions and concerns. Could he beat this? Then let’s say he did beat this lymphoma, would it come back? They just seemed to exponentially pile up, so to speak. It’s a constant grind to learn and educate yourself as much as possible.

“The most courageous part about my dad was he never complained. Ever,” Battochio added emphatically. “He was never the type of person to expect sympathy or draw attention. He was so brave. You could tell it ravaged him. He took his treatments, and the chemo practically demolished him. Yet, he was always just so calm. If he was tired, he’d recognize that and rest. If he wasn’t, he was always positive and took every day and was grateful to have it. He never complained once. He could’ve been hurting, and he could’ve been in serious pain on a consistent basis. You’d never know, because he’d still tell you he was okay. He truly was a warrior.”

With any normal season in minor professional sports, specialty nights are scattered throughout the schedule, whether themed on movies, military appreciation, or cultural significance to the surrounding area. Prior to that season, Battochio, throughout his major-junior career with the Ottawa 67’s and his Canadian college career with St. Francis Xavier University, had never played in a game with this particular theme.

“Back in those days in the early to late 2000’s, we never really had specialty games. If we did, it was super rare,” Battochio explained. “Come to think of it, I never really grasped the idea of a specialty game, whether it was a theme or a special jersey night, until I turned professional and came out to Rapid City. That’s when I first experienced the cancer awareness game.”

Upon a closer look at the schedule, Battochio realized the young, second-year franchise was slated to put on their second-annual cancer awareness game, at the time named “Pink at the Rink”.

The rookie net-minder clearly took notice, and that game forever changed his perception of his father’s fight for his life.

“Like I said, I had never played in many themed games growing up through major-junior and college,” he elaborated, “but the first time I played in this game…it’s so hard to put into words. The first time I put on that pink jersey and took the ice for warmup, you could just feel the power in the building. It was more than just a game.

“It’s no secret that we all know someone affected by cancer, whether it’s, in my case, watching a loved one go through it, or someone personally battling for their life like my dad did,” Battochio continued. “Everyone is affected, but everyone is also so strong at the same time. It’s a moment like that where you realize we’re all in this fight together. Let’s play a game and let’s battle. You bring that extra passion that night. It’s not just another game, it’s so much more. These people can fight for their lives, so let’s fight for them on and off the ice. It was a very special moment, and a very powerful game.”

The second-annual “Pink at the Rink” game was played on February 12, 2010 against the Odessa Jackalopes. Miguel Beaudry, the first goaltender signed in Rush history, originally started the game, but Odessa jumped out to a red-hot start, scoring four power play goals through the first period and a half of the game that skyrocketed them to a 5-2 lead over the Rush. After Odessa’s fifth goal at 7:56 of the second period, Battochio came in relief of Beaudry.

“We were getting pummeled at the beginning, and after the fifth goal, Head Coach Joe Ferras looks at me and says ‘Batts you’re in’. All of a sudden, I’m now playing in a game that has a whole new meaning for me,” Battochio said. “In an instance like that, down 5-2 and cold off the bench, you have no time to think. You just go out there and do. Yes, I was trying to get my team back into the game, and of course I was trying to win. But all the while, I recognize that I’m now playing in this powerful game where hockey takes a back seat. Add in the fact that I’m always thinking about my dad and his battle with lymphoma, and it was a very emotional appearance for me.

“On the knob of my goaltending stick, I put his initials, ‘CB’, right after he got his diagnosis”, he continued. “It was a constant reminder that no matter how bad things got, you always had another game and another day. I also put it there because that way he was always with me when I was out on the ice in games or practice, or out on the bench. He was definitely with me that night when I came into the game.”

From 16:31 of the second period until Colt King’s empty-netter to seal the game with 5 seconds remaining, the Rush scored five unanswered goals, including two shorthanded tallies to come from behind and win 7-5. In 32:04 of relief, Battochio stopped all 11 shots he saw. He also got a great deal of help in front of him: Rich Hansen had two goals, an assist, and a +3 rating, Blaine Jarvis had a goal, an assist, and led all skaters with a +4 rating, and Scott Wray had a pair of assists.

“That game put so much in perspective about both hockey, life, and battling cancer,” Battochio emotionally stated. “Think about it: we were knocked down, reeling 5-2 and had no business winning the game when I came in. Then we start scoring. We fought back. It goes to show you when you’re kicked down, you can get back up and fight. That’s what life, especially battling cancer, is all about. You go down, get up and dust yourself off, and fight. Coincidentally, we did all of that on that ‘Pink at the Rink’ night and won the game.”

Following the emotional win, the season continued on its magical course for Battochio. He eventually finished the year with a 28-5-4 record in 42 games, which still stands as a Rush franchise record for most wins in a single season by a rookie goaltender. His efforts eventually earned him CHL All-Rookie Team and Rookie of the Year honors and helped power the Rush to a Northern Conference Regular Season Championship and a first-round bye in the 2010 CHL Playoffs.

As the year progressed, Cesar Battochio was still battling lymphoma back in Ontario. Every three weeks, he’d begin a new chemotherapy treatment. He would cycle through three or four treatments, followed by some time off from chemotherapy for his doctors to observe how the cancer reacted to his treatments.

Throughout Battochio’s hockey career, his parents always made a point to come out and watch him play, whether it was in junior or college. However, due to the nature of Cesar’s treatments, he could not make it out to watch his son play in person that 2009-10 season, especially on a team like this that had a chance to accomplish something special. Despite his absence in person, he still watched and listened to the Rush games from afar.

The Rush were on a war path, blazing through the playoffs with great performances. They swept the then-Missouri Mavericks in the Northern Conference Semifinals in four games, and defeated Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs in seven games to win the Northern Conference Championship. As the Rush continued to beat their opposition out of the playoff bracket, Battochio received great news that his father’s treatments started to take effect, and he was beating cancer.

“It was so crazy how coincidental it was. We played great, and he kept getting great news,” Battochio reminisced. “Eventually, we all rode this wave of positivity into the CHL Finals. My, what a special time that was on both fronts. I got to play for a championship as a first-year professional on such a special team, and my dad was slowly, but surely, beating cancer.”

Battochio and the Rush were four wins away from the Ray Miron Presidents’ Cup Championship and had the expansion Allen Americans standing in their way. The Rush carried a 3-2 series lead heading into Game 6 of the CHL Finals, which was slated for May 4, 2010 in Rapid City. Allen took a commanding 3-0 lead into the first intermission, but the Rush were undeterred, coming back to tie the game at 3-3 with 3:06 left in regulation. Two overtime periods were necessary to determine a victor. With 32 seconds left in the second overtime, Scott Wray deflected a Les Reaney shot off of his chest and in to win the Rush the 2010 CHL Championship. In 99:28 of game time, Battochio stopped 46 of 49 shots on net.

Amidst the chaos of 5,119 fans losing their minds, hoisting the cup for a victory lap, and planning the celebration of a lifetime, Battochio’s mind was on one person, and one person only.

“My dad made sure to watch every game even though he couldn’t be there. Because of how long double overtime went, our game ended just shy of midnight here in Rapid City,” Battochio recalled. “It was 1:30, almost 2 am over in the eastern time zone, so he stayed up, despite going through chemo that day, just to watch us win the championship.  I’ll never forget it. We were celebrating, going absolutely crazy on the ice and in the locker room. It was chaotic. The first thing I did when we got back into the dressing room was go in the back stall, grab my phone, and I called him.

“I remember breaking down with him. I told him we did it and I wished he could be there for it,” he said fondly, holding back tears. “It was a very special moment talking with him. For all he was battling through, and for all I experienced in his fight and in my first year as a professional, that was the best moment for me: talking to my dad, telling him how much I loved him, and recognizing his courage in his fight against lymphoma. I’ll never forget it.”

Cesar’s battle with cancer continued shortly after the Rush won the championship in 2010. It wasn’t until 2012 that his family received the triumphant news they’d been hoping and praying for.

Cesar Battochio survived and beat lymphoma.

“Receiving that news…it had to be one of the best days in life for my family,” Battochio said, emotionally. “It was the culmination of so much courage and determination from my dad and my family. He battled so hard. I’m always grateful for the life lessons he taught me as I grew up, but watching his fight taught me even more about life. His approach was to just put on his work boots and do whatever was necessary to beat it. Life is so precious, and he never took a day off in his fight. He was always positive, never complained, and appreciated each day for what it was. He still does that to this day. I’m happy to say he’s been cancer free since then, but always takes his precautions and goes to his routine checkups to make sure it hasn’t come back. Thankfully, it hasn’t, and I hope it stays that way for the rest of his life.”

Fast forward to this weekend, where the Rush host their newly branded “Rush Fights Cancer Night”. Over time, this game has taken new meaning for Battochio, whether he continued to play for the Rush or observe from the broadcast booth or stands since his retirement from hockey in 2016. The team’s annual game begins tonight, as fans are invited to paint the names of loved ones on the ice who may have been affected by all forms of cancer. Rest assured, Cesar Battochio’s name will be out there, surrounded by countless other courageous people from our community of Rapid City and all over the world who have fought for their lives just like he once did against this disease.

“This game and the energy it brings…it’s impossible to put it into words,” Battochio concluded. “Leading up to and throughout the game, the power that is within the building and our locker room is unmatched. I’ve seen this game countless times in our building, I’ve painted my dad’s name on the ice since we started that tradition, and I’ve seen just as many iterations of this game and the tributes for it traveling on the road against our rivals over the years. It goes to show you even further that everyone is affected by this. It’s not just confined to Rapid City. Cancer is everywhere. After retiring, I got to watch this game from afar and it added even more perspective to the power of this game, seeing fans, hearing their stories. It’s remarkable. It’s a special game, and I can’t state how proud I am to be a part of the Rush organization and help in any way I can in this fight against cancer and use my father’s story to inspire others going through their fight for their lives.”

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