But they left one small follower behind in Albany.
Zach "Bug" Bennett, 11, and his family are planning to move 700 miles to be near Zach's favorite group of puck-smacking guys. The team, now called the Charlotte Checkers, is helping.
Zach loves hockey. He loves the players, he loves the speed, and he really loves the brawling.
"He's a fighter," his father, Randy, told the American Hockey League. "Which is why he relates to the guys who spend the most time in the penalty box."
Zach's No. 1 opponent is neurofibromatosis, a chronic genetic condition causing tumors to grow on nerves. His mother, Danielle, also suffers from the condition. The 11-year-old has undergone 21 surgeries, including amputation of both legs.
He's been supporting the River Rats since he was 5. When he was stuck in the hospital in 2008, the team started supporting Zach.
"They visited him in the hospital," team Chief Operating Officer Tera Black told AOL News. "Mike Murphy, our goaltender, had gone to his house to play video games." Former River Rat Justin Peters, who tends goal for the Hurricanes, still e-mails Zach on a near-daily basis.
"They had this personal relationship with Zach that took the focus off of his illness."
Randy Bennett told the Charlotte Observer that the team helped Zach stay positive after his second leg was removed last year.
"They kept him going after his amputation," he said. "Hockey players are a different caliber of athlete. These are guys who'd come over, kick off their shoes and sit on the couch to play games with our son."
When the River Rats moved to Charlotte, Zach wanted to move, too. Randy and Danielle discovered a Charlotte medical center that offered specialized treatment for neurofibromatosis. They agreed to Zach's request and put their home on the market. The house remains unsold, so the Bennetts remain in Albany.
Charlotte businessman Michael Zahn owns the River Rats. After reading about the Bennetts' struggle to get their boy back to his team, the father of four started team staffers working on a fundraiser, with hopes of speeding the move.
Last week, the Checkers brought the Bennetts to visit their prospective hometown. With the help of sponsors, they provided an all-expenses-paid visit to the Queen City that included three Checkers' games, quality time with the players and a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The Checkers donated partial proceeds from Friday night's game and sales from a jersey auction to the family.
Randy is considering renting the Albany home to get the kids to Charlotte by the time school starts this fall.
Black had her first opportunity to see the players interact with Zach last week. She was amazed.
"I've been personally extremely touched by our players' ability to turn off the hockey side," she said. Roughhousing defenseman and fan favorite Zack FitzGerald made a particularly strong impression when he said goodbye to Zach.
"He's one of our enforcers," Black said. "He's known for his physical play on the ice and has the most penalty minutes on our team.
"FitzGerald comes up to Zach on his last night with the team, and he said, 'Brothers don't shake hands, buddy, brothers give hugs.'"
After a squeeze from one of the league's biggest bruisers, Zach headed back to Albany. With a little real estate luck, he'll be back before next season's first face-off.
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