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Keep On Fighting: How And Why Hockey Fights Cancer

Photo by Patrick Dodson, New Jersey Devils

Since 1998, the NHL has been battling for a greater prize than the Stanley Cup: a cure.

When he was 14 years old, Brian Boyle’s father, Arthur, was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, a kidney cancer. Although a successful surgery caused the cancer to diminish, it returned eight months later, bigger than before, in Arthur’s lung. Believing he had only a few months to live, Arthur’s brother and a family friend took him to a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina called Medjugorje, which is often thought of as a spiritual site.

The journey must have helped him somehow, because when he returned to the United States, his cancer had completely disappeared. 

Arthur was able to go back to his wife and thirteen children again, but in September 2017, cancer struck the family once more. This time, it was Brian, a 32-year-old NHL forward who had recently signed a contract with the New Jersey Devils, who was diagnosed with leukemia.

Boyle isn’t the only hockey player to battle cancer. Pittsburgh Penguins teammates Olli Maatta and Phil Kessel have both had their own scares with the deadly disease. Maatta underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his neck in 2014 at age 20, while Kessel had surgery in 2006 in response to a case of testicular cancer when he was only 19. 

Players aren’t the only ones affected, either. Chicago Blackhawks broadcaster Eddie Olczyk was diagnosed with colon cancer in August 2017 at the age of 51. Sadly, his fellow broadcaster Dave Strader of the Dallas Stars lost his battle against bile duct cancer on October 1, 2017 at age 62, less than two months after former Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray died of colon cancer at age 74.

Hockey Fights Cancer is the league’s way to raise money for a cure for the disease, as well as to raise awareness for it. The initiative began in 1998, when the NHL and NHLPA (NHL Player’s Association) each donated $50,000 to start a fund that would be used to combat cancer. In its early years, the initiative was often tied into the annual NHL All-Star Game, and certain game-used gear and other paraphernalia were auctioned off to raise additional funding.

While traditionally held during the last two weeks of October and the first two weeks of November, for the 2017-18 season, Hockey Fights Cancer month has been shifted to the entirety of November. Players will wear special lavender warmup jerseys and decorate their sticks and helmets with lavender decals for various games throughout the month. 

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(Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators, photo by Getty Images)

Charitable organizations that Hockey Fights Cancer works with include The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, The Movember Foundation, The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Additionally, the initiative has partnered with Cigna health insurance for a movement called Every Save Counts, in which Cigna donates one dollar to the Hockey Fights Cancer fund for every save an NHL goalie makes during the season. 

Since its inception, and as of 2015, Hockey Fights Cancer has raised more than 14 million dollars to search for cures. 

In numerous cases, NHL teams invite cancer survivors and those still battling the illness, particularly children, to their games and to meet their favorite players. Recent examples include the New York Islanders inviting an eight-year-old boy fighting lymphoma to skate with them during practice on October 17, and the Anaheim Ducks honoring a 19-year-old battling her third case of cancer at center ice for their home opener on October 5. Or, at a Boston Bruins game on October 19, where one young fan got to drop the ceremonial first puck:

For many hockey stars, even those without the disease, the fight is personal. Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk’s mother survived cancer, as did the younger brother of Vancouver Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson. St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has an eight-year-old niece who’s a cancer survivor, as well. Nicholle Anderson, wife of goaltender Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators, underwent therapy for throat cancer from October 2016 to May 2017. She has since become cancer-free. 

More good news is that Boyle may be ready to play again as soon as this Wednesday, November 1, against the Vancouver Canucks. Just like Kessel, Maatta and past superstars like Saku Koivu and Mario Lemieux before him, Boyle isn’t going to bow down to cancer. 

He’s going to fight it. 

For more information about this ongoing fight, please visit

Edited by Kat Johansen, Vincent Choy.

As of 2017, the Springfield Thunderbirds were the AHL affiliate of which NHL team?
Created 10/30/17
  1. Boston Bruins
  2. Philadelphia Flyers
  3. Chicago Blackhawks
  4. Florida Panthers

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