Flyers goalie Steve Mason handed Jackie Lithgow his stick Tuesday. Wayne Simmonds wrapped his arm around the 19-year-old and gave him encouraging words. Several players, including Mark Streit, Brayden Schenn, and Michael Del Zotto, and coach Craig Berube told Lithgow he was welcome to visit the locker room anytime.
"Epic," Lithgow said in a low, barely audible tone while sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the locker room at the team's Voorhees practice facility.
Lithgow was attending Bloomsburg University when he was assaulted almost nine months ago. He left the hospital Tuesday for the first time since his grueling rehabilitation began. He returned to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Center City later in the day and isn't expected to be discharged until Nov. 25.
But for a few hours, Lithgow and his family got a reprieve from an ordeal that began Feb. 23, when the teenager was critically injured breaking up a fight. Lithgow was punched by a Kutztown football player at an off-campus Bloomsburg fraternity party. His head struck the pavement and he went into a coma for about a month. He suffered serious brain trauma.
"He was a peacemaker," said Jim Lithgow, Jackie's father.
Angel Cruz, 21, pleaded guilty Monday to one count of simple assault.
"We got the whole backstory on it, and it angers you," Simmonds said. "To see what happened to him, it's unfortunate that some people have such low regard for someone's life."
Since the incident, Lithgow has had at least six skull operations, and suffered meningitis and MRSA. He has begun to regain some function, and in time, the hope is that he will be able to talk and walk after extensive therapy.
"He's slowly progressing. It's a long road," Jim Lithgow said. "Our saying early on with him was that it's a marathon, not a sprint. He's getting stronger each day . . . and his speech is coming back.
"We hope to get him back to college - that's our goal."
Jackie and his parents, Jim and Lisa; his 25-year-old sister, Lindsay; and his occupational therapist at Magee, Paula Bonsall, were guests of the Flyers on Tuesday. They watched practice and met with the players and coaches afterward.
"This just jump-starts him," said Jim Lithgow, fighting back tears. ". . . To see his face. That's what it's all about."
The family lives in Boiling Springs, Pa., outside Carlisle, about 125 miles from Philadelphia.
"I grew up in Warminster, and I brainwashed them to be big Philly fans," Jim Lithgow said. "I was around when Clarkie and them [were winning Stanley Cups] and I've been a big Flyers fan ever since. All Philly sports teams, really."
Jackie Lithgow wore a Simmonds No. 17 jersey in honor of his favorite player.
"Good choice," Schenn told him. "He's my favorite player, too."
Lithgow, who watches Flyers games on TV, had a huge smile as he talked with several players.
"Oh, my gosh. He's been looking forward to this," said Jim Lithgow, adding that former Flyer Todd Fedoruk, a club ambassador, arranged for his son to meet the team. "It's going to pump him up. We were hoping he would get strong enough to do this, and we have to thank Magee for helping us out."
Jim Lithgow said that his son "lit up like a lightbulb" at the arena Tuesday and that he is committed to regaining function. "He played basketball and has done sports, and he knows what it takes to get there," he said. "He just has to start over again, and he's doing a great job."