Cancer claims Buchtela at 20
by Derek O'Brien|26 JUL 2020
photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images
Ondrej Buchtela, a Czech defenceman who played at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, died on Friday after a battle with a rare form of cancer. He was just 20 years old.

Until this spring, Buchtela’s story was typical of an aspiring pro hockey player. Hailing from Usti nad Labem, he transferred to Pirati Chomutov at age 13 and went on to play 27 Extraliga games with that club as a teenager. Internationally, he represented the Czech Republic at several youth levels, most notably at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Poprad and Spisska Nova Ves, Slovakia, where the Czechs placed seventh following a quarter-final loss in overtime to Finland. 

In 2019/20, Buchtela played for 57 games for HC Benatky nad Jizerou in the Czech Republic’s second-tier pro league, recording nine goals, 16 assists and 46 penalty minutes. He played his last game on 7 March in Frydek-Mistek and then days later his season ended in the same abrupt fashion as most other players around the world. 

Two months later, however, he was diagnosed with cardiac sarcoma – a rare form of cancer that started in his heart and had metastasized to his lungs. 

“If you don’t think life can be turned upside down in two days and priorities can be completely shifted from the ground up, then I tell you they can,” he wrote as part of an Instagram post on 4 June, in which he went public with his condition. 

In the post, Buchtela explained that he hadn’t been training, rarely left home and was essentially wheelchair-bound. 

“You don't expect cancer at age 20, but when it comes, there’s nothing left to do but fight. There’s no time to feel sorry asking why me and not someone else,” the post concluded.
His odds weren’t good but his story touched the country. Czech hockey players past and present – among them Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek, Jakub Voracek and David Krejci – as well as former football goalkeeper Petr Cech donated money and items for auction that raised over 130 000 euros to help with his treatment. There was talk of a doctor in Italy who specialized in his condition and plans were underway to travel there. 

Unfortunately, the trip to Italy never occurred. Buchtela’s passing was announced Friday afternoon, again on his Instagram account, with a post from his girlfriend Anna, which read: “Don't worry about him, he will rise up for eternity.”

In the accompanying photo, written on Buchtela’s arm is the phrase zemři a povsťaň – “die and rise”.
The outpouring of grief was instant, with makeshift memorials appearing at many rinks where Buchtela had played. 
Boston Bruins prospect Jakub Lauko, a former teammate in Chomutov and the Czech national program, got a tattoo on his arm with Buchtela’s initials and number 4. “Now you will play with me forever,” he tweeted.
Just hours after the death was announced, an emotional moment of silence was held prior to a game in Brno between the Czech and Slovak national U20 teams, featuring several players who had played alongside or against Buchtela in the past. 

“Life is sometimes cruel. The serious illness that afflicted Ondrej caused a huge wave of hockey solidarity, and from the responses we received, I know that we will all remember him only in the best possible way,” said Tomas Kral, president of the Czech Ice Hockey Association. 

“On behalf of Czech hockey, I want to express my sincere condolences to his family, loved ones and friends.”