HEIDELBERG, Germany – “I feel well, I feel no pain.” German national team goaltender Robert Müller is usually positive and at the same time reserved when asked about his disease. He doesn’t want to burden anyone with his problems. Neither his club, nor his fans. Not even his own family.
However, his inner life is much different than his positive attitude. It is even worse than the public knew until Müller asked his doctor to make all the details known, being tired of answering medical questions.
Müller is a well-known hockey personality in Germany. Internationally, the 28-year-old has appeared in nine World Championships (six of them in the top division), two Olympic Games and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
It was November 2006 when the Bavarian went to the doctor, complaining about migraine symptoms. His friends noticed changes in his personality at the same time. Müller became calmer, lethargic, had epileptic seizures. The reason was found after further examination. Müller had a brain tumour. Most of it was removed after a surgery. And it didn’t take more than two months until Müller was back on the ice. He could even play the full 2007-2008 season. Not for Adler Mannheim, where he lost his number-one spot. He was loaned to bottom team Füchse Duisburg and later found Kölner Haie as his new top club.
The Cologne-based team welcomed him with open arms and a warm heart when they were looking for a new goalkeeper after their number one Travis Scott left for Russia. Müller’s comeback was a sensation. Cancer could affect his personality but neither his talent as a netminder nor his will.
He had a good 2007-2008 campaign with Kölner Haie. He avenged against Adler Mannheim in the quarterfinals including a 5-4 overtime win after 168:16 minutes in the second-longest hockey game ever played after the NHL record from 1936 (176:30 minutes). A game with six overtime periods and with 100 shots on Müller’s goal. With him as their number-one goalie, the Sharks came even into the playoff final, which was won by Eisbären Berlin, 3-1. The 28-year-old was the best goalkeeper of the DEL playoffs with a 93.5 save percentage. A few days after, he even played in the 2008 World Championship in Canada. He was put in the net for three games including the surprising 4-2 win over Slovakia with 36 saves.
It’s enough stuff for a Hollywood movie but unfortunately, the story turned away from a happy end as the tumour grew again. In August 2008, Müller underwent the second brain surgery. The tumour was as big as a baby’s fist. It hasn’t disappeared after the first surgery. And it won’t after the second. 16 therapies, combined of radiotherapies and chemotherapies, he has had since August but the cells have become resistant against any method. It became clear that Müller won’t win the fight against the enemy in his head.
Müller’s doctor, tumour specialist Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Wick of the University Hospital of Heidelberg, fulfilled his patient’s wish to make all details of the state of health known as Müller released him from medical confidentiality. The full truth was published in this week’s edition of the news magazine Der Spiegel. Müller has a Glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive and incurable fourth-degree brain tumour. It happens to two or three cases per 100,000 people.
“Robert Müller is already beyond the median survival time,” Wick said. “It became clear already after the first surgery that we can just extend his life time. His frontal lobe is full of tumour cells.” Half of the affected persons die after one year from the time of the same diagnosis. Only three percent survive more than five years.
The bad news was a shock within the German hockey community as Müller managed to hide how terrible the situation really is. Müller himself doesn’t like to talk about. “I never liked to talk about my feelings and it can’t change the diagnosis,” he told the magazine.
Despite the bad news, Müller’s courage to face life continues. He clings to what is most important to him. His family – his wife, his four-year-old daughter and his one-year-old son. And hockey. He didn’t ask his doctor for how long he will live, but when he can play hockey again.
He started to practise with the team in October and aims for a comeback this month. Kölner Haie made clear that Müller is their number one and Canadian Frank Doyle has to live with a temporary contract as Müller’s replacement. It’s until end of November. If Müller needs more time, Doyle can stay for another month. And the Haie management doesn’t think of a non-comeback.
With only seven wins in 19 games, the Sharks are in need of a personality like Müller. The fatally ill fighter who never gives up and strives for a second comeback. Not thinking about the far future, like the 2010 World Championship in his home arena, not feeling the invisible enemy in his head, just being himself. The puck is one of the last things he can stick to, escaping from the diagnosis and questions he doesn’t want to hear. Hockey is his elixir.
“It’s a guy someone should write a book about. He’s an unbelievable guy who reassures everyone despite his own suffering. He never let you feel how serious his illness is just to not burden anyone with it,” his teammate Andreas Renz told Bild.
The fitness level and the movements are not there yet. “It’s a long way and I don’t know if I can make it,” Müller says, fighting for his ambitious goal – to be back again.
A first step will be done on Friday. Müller was named backup goalie for the road game on Friday against his former club Füchse Duisburg after the previous backup Stefan Horneber had broken his ankle in the Tuesday practice. “I’m happy to be back with the team for the warm-up and to be at the bench for the first time, even though it’s a pity that it happened because of his injury. I hope Horni gets well soon,” Müller said before being on a game sheet for the first time since the 2008 World Championship in May. “It’s getting better step by step.”
Jim Koleff dies of cancer
LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Cancer. It can happen to anybody. Eight days before Müller’s shattering diagnosis, the Swiss hockey community mourned the death of Jim Koleff. The Hamilton-born Swiss-Canadian with Bulgarian roots left his marks in Swiss ice hockey since 1978, the year he was the scoring leader in the minor league IHL and he became a pro in the Alpine country. After his playing career, he was one of the most successful coaches of the National League A in the ‘90s with EV Zug and HC Lugano. He won the Swiss title with Lugano in 1999 and led the team to the final-four clubs of the 1999-2000 European Hockey League. He also was among Hockey Canada’s coaching staff for several exhibition tournaments.
Koleff had an unseen enemy. His cancer was diagnosed for the first time in 1992, then again 1994. He seemed to have won the fight until December 2003, when he was coaching the SCL Tigers Langnau and had to start therapies again. In January 2007 he returned on stage and wanted to lead Lausanne HC back to the National League A as a sport director. He showed his joie de vivre when he was at the Spengler Cup in December 2007 as an assistant coach of Team Canada and to his friend Sean Simpson.
A few weeks later, he suffered another setback he didn’t recover from. He fought like the lion on the chest of his players but he could only see two exhibition games since the chemotherapies started again. He was still forming his team from the hospital with his mobile phone up until three days before he lost his life.
It became clear why he was so committed to hockey when family, friends and fans were saying goodbye last week in Lausanne’s arena. Thousands of people were there, some national team players even went one day later by car to Germany for the Deutschland Cup to not miss Koleff’s farewell. Hundreds of roses flew onto the ice to pay last respects to Koleff, who died at 55 years.
Jim Koleff with his wife Regula during the 2007 Spengler Cup in Davos. Photo: swiss-image.ch/Andy Mettler