Fighting back and winning
by Lucas Aykroyd|21 NOV 2020
The U.S.'s Phil Kessel, who overcame cancer as an NHL rookie, was named Best Forward at the 2014 Olympics and owns two Stanley Cup rings.
photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images
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Staying healthy is always central in hockey, but right now, we’re not focused on fractured hands or neck strains. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted sports worldwide, including the cancellation of numerous IIHF tournaments.

Admittedly, getting time off has had a silver lining for some individuals. For instance, NHL players had time to heal from injuries prior to the NHL playoffs.

Still, nobody wanted it to be this way. In the midst of a global health crisis that has taken a huge human toll, we can all use some inspirational examples.

So let’s look at 10 hockey heroes who overcame serious health obstacles and enjoyed both NHL and international success.

1) Jason Blake (USA)
OG: 2006, WM: 2000, 2009

Money isn’t everything. That stark reality hit Jason Blake in 2007. Coming off a career-high 40 goals and 69 points with the New York Islanders in 2006-07, the swift-skating American winger had just signed a five-year, $20-million contract with Toronto when he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia.

Even though Blake immediately received a treatment program that enabled him to keep playing, it wasn’t easy. He lost 12 pounds in his first month on a drug called Gleevec and battled depression. Yet this 2006 Olympian persevered. In 2009, Blake wore an “A” and scored four points at his second career Worlds in Switzerland as the U.S. finished fourth. He retired in 2012 with 486 points in 871 career NHL games.

2) Bobby Clarke (CAN)
WM: 1982

In his 1970s heyday, Bobby Clarke was highly unpopular with fans of opposing teams. Russian fans despised the gap-toothed centre from Flin Flon, Manitoba for slashing Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle in the 1972 Summit Series. When Clarke captained the Philadelphia Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, supporters of the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens not only felt they’d been robbed of what was rightfully theirs, but also lambasted the style of the “Broad Street Bullies.”

However, Clarke got respect for winning three Hart Memorial Trophies as league MVP while living with type 1 diabetes. He was diagnosed at age 13. Despite having to stay on top of his insulin injections and dietary restrictions, he earned 1,210 points in 1,144 career NHL games.

3) Kevin Dineen (CAN)
OG: 1984, WM: 1985, 1987, 1989

Long before he coached the 2014 Canadian Olympic women’s hockey team to the gold medal in Sochi, Kevin Dineen earned a reputation as a robust NHL forward who could skate, score, hit, and fight. He peaked as a pro with 45 goals and 89 points for the 1988-89 Hartford Whalers. A member of the unforgettable 1987 Canada Cup team, Dineen also played for Dave King’s 1984 Olympic team in Sarajevo as a 20-year-old. He brought home World Championship silver medals from Prague (1985) and Stockholm (1989).

It’s remarkable that Dineen forged a 21-season NHL career while battling Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease. Now coaching the San Diego Gulls, Anaheim’s AHL affiliate, the 56-year-old has been profiled in publications like Crohn’s Advocate.

4) Max Domi (CAN)
WM: 2016, WJC: 2015

When you’re the son of former long-time Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer Tie Domi and you led the Montreal Canadiens in scoring in 2018-19, the spotlight is inescapable. At age 25, Max Domi has already had more success than some players do in their entire careers. The #12 overall pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2013 was named Best Forward and a tournament all-star as Canada won the 2015 World Juniors in Montreal. He also scored in Canada’s 6-0 quarter-final win over Sweden en route to gold at the 2016 Worlds in Moscow.

Diagnosed as diabetic at age 12, Domi is an author as well. Last year, he published No Days Off: My Life With Type 1 Diabetes and My Journey to the NHL, co-written with Jim Lang. Partial proceeds from sales of this memoir go to JDRF, which funds type 1 diabetes research.

5) Patrik Elias (CZE)
OG: 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, WM: 1998, 2008-09, 2011

Patrik Elias is one of the true greats in New Jersey Devils history. The two-time Stanley Cup champion retired as the franchise leader in regular season points (1,025) and playoff points (125). Not everyone remembers, however, that Elias achieved an incredible personal comeback prior to his last three Olympics (bronze in Turin 2006) and Worlds (bronze in Bratislava 2011)

While playing in Russia during the 2005 NHL lockout, the Czech star contracted hepatitis A from contaminated food. He spent three weeks in the hospital and 10 months in rehab before hitting the ice again. Today, having retired from the NHL in 2017, Elias leads a healthy and productive life at age 44. He served as a Czech assistant coach at the last two World Juniors.

6) Theoren Fleury (CAN)
OG: 1998, 2002, WM: 1990-91, WJC: 1987-88

Theoren Fleury’s 2010 autobiography Playing With Fire (with writer Kirstie McLellan Day) recounts his tumultuous journey to NHL stardom. It included abuse by his junior coach and drug and alcohol addictions. But those weren’t the only roadblocks the diminutive, scrappy winger faced.

Fleury had already won World Junior gold (1988) with Canada and a Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames (1989) when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 1995. Yet he persevered and went on to capture Olympic gold (2002) in Salt Lake City. He left the NHL in 2003 with an average of better than a point per game in the NHL regular season, NHL playoffs, and Worlds. 

7) Phil Kessel (USA)
OG: 2010, 2014, WM: 2006-08, WJC: 2005-06

Despite owning two Stanley Cup rings (2016, 2017) from his Pittsburgh Penguins days, Phil Kessel had an extraordinarily challenging start to his pro career. Less than a year after he led the 2006 World Juniors in Vancouver with 11 points, testicular cancer sidelined the American sniper just two months into his Boston Bruins rookie season of 2006-07. Amazingly, after undergoing surgery, Kessel returned to the lineup with just 11 games missed.

Since then, the current Arizona Coyote’s international highlights include 19 points in 21 career World Championship games, a 2010 Olympic silver medal, and Best Forward and tournament all-star honours at the 2014 Olympics.

8) Saku Koivu (FIN)
OG: 1994, 1998, 2006, 2010, WM: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2003, 2008, WJC: 1993, 1994

Saku Koivu earned many cheers during his Montreal Canadiens career, but nothing tops the nine-minute ovation that greeted his return to the line-up on 9 April, 2002. The savvy, determined centre from Turku had missed nearly the entire season with Burkitt’s lymphoma. After Koivu won his fight with this rare form of stomach cancer, the captain took his game to the next level. He registered new career highs with four goals and six assists in 12 playoff games that spring.

While Koivu totalled 832 career points in 1,124 NHL games before retiring with Anaheim in 2014, his greatest accomplishments came in a Finnish uniform. Koivu was a catalyst when Suomi won its first Worlds gold in 1995. He also medaled at all four of his Olympics, including the famous silver medal in Turin 2006. He was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2017.

9) Mario Lemieux (CAN)
OG: 2002, WM: 1985, WJC: 1983

Arguably the most talented forward of all time, Mario Lemieux had to overcome a multitude of health issues in his prime. “Super Mario” captained the Pittsburgh Penguins to two consecutive Stanley Cups (1991, 1992) despite his bad back. In 1992-93, he was on pace to score more than 200 points – a feat only ever achieved by Wayne Gretzky – when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January. Although he missed two months due to radiation treatments, the towering Montreal-born centre roared back to win the Art Ross Trophy with 160 points.

In IIHF competition, Lemieux’s most famous feats include scoring twice in a 3-1 win over the USSR at the 1985 Worlds in Prague and captaining Canada to its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. In non-IIHF play, he’ll forever be remembered for converting Wayne Gretzky’s set-up for the late 6-5 winner against the Soviets in Game Three of the 1987 Canada Cup finals.

10) Olli Maatta (FIN)
OG: 2014, WJC: 2011-13

It’s hard to believe Olli Maatta is just 26 years old. He’s been through so much already. More steady than flashy, the Jyvaskyla-born blueliner got a rare opportunity during his rookie NHL season of 2013-14 when he joined Finland’s bronze medal run in Sochi. He was just 19.

However, a reversal of fortune followed. The Pittsburgh Penguins announced in October 2015 that he’d undergo surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from his neck. Maatta courageously returned to action only two weeks after the procedure. He played an important role in Pittsburgh’s last two Stanley Cup victories before being traded to Chicago last year for Dominik Kahun and a fifth-round draft choice. In October, the Los Angeles Kings acquired Maatta in exchange for prospect Brad Morrison to add veteran experience to their blue line.