CIS goalie Dylan Tait facing cancer head on

Dylan Tait, goaltender for the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns. (Daniel Wood)

Dylan Tait was hitting the hay back on a Friday night in early November. A few hours before, he had been in net for the University of Lethbridge and stopped 31 shots in the Pronghorns’ 5-3 win over the University of Regina. It was his fifth game of the season and first win. He knew he had the start the next day in a back-to-back set, knew he needed a good night’s sleep.

Dylan was about to doze off and shifted in his bed when he felt a weird sensation around his groin. Maybe it’s not so alarming for a goaltender who regularly has to drop into a butterfly or do the splits to make a save. This time, though, Dylan knew it was something more than a pull or a strain. He felt around and found he had a lump on his testicle.

“I called the Alberta health hotline and spoke to a nurse,” Dylan says. “She gave me a list for the symptoms of testicular cancer. I checked off each one. She told me that it’s the most common form of cancer in my demographic, men 15 to 34. Needless to say that I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night.”

Dylan didn’t mention his physical worries when he showed up exhausted at the arena the next day.

Predictably, he wasn’t as sharp and ended up getting pulled after giving up four goals.

Then he let the team doctor know.

By Monday, he was diagnosed and on Wednesday surgeons removed his testicle.

Within a couple of weeks, Dylan heard back from oncologists -- the cancer had spread and he began a schedule of chemotherapy.

"It’s been tough at times and I’ve had to drop down to three classes," says Dylan, who has earned CIS Academic All-Canadian honours as an undergrad in kinesiology and psychology. "My professors have been pretty understanding and supportive."

Dylan’s status as a local hero was already established before he was diagnosed and began his fight against cancer. At a bantam tournament in Kamloops, he made 63 saves for the Lethbridge Triple-A team that beat the powerhouse Vancouver North Shore club 4-3. On the basis of that game, the Kelowna Rockets scooped him up in the fifth round of the WHL bantam draft. It looked like he was on a fast track to major junior hockey, maybe even the pros. But over the next few seasons, that fast track seemed to hit a dead end and he bounced from Junior B to Junior A teams across the west.

When he finally got a call-up by the Kootenay Ice, he practised with the team but didn’t make it into a game. At 18, he was tired of the politics of the game and hung up his skates, deciding he’d rather try coaching peewee than continuing to hope for a call that may never come. When he gave up hope, the call finally came from his hometown team, the Lethbridge Hurricanes. It turned out that both of the Hurricanes’ goalies had gone down in a couple of days and the team was scrambling to find replacements.

"I was with the peewees at a tournament in Camrose on a Friday night and I saw that there were a bunch of calls from home," Dylan says. "My father said, 'Get on a plane and get back here. You’ve got to be on the ice for the game-day skate at 10 a.m.' I hadn’t played in at least six weeks, but I just went." The Hurricanes appreciated Dylan stepping in and the next season, at 19, he made the roster and played in 27 games. He decided to pass on a chance to play as an over-ager, tried out for the Pronghorns and has been with the team ever since.

While Dylan hasn’t been on skates since his diagnosis and while he’s been receiving chemotherapy, life has moved on off the ice. Over New Year’s he became engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Kendra Sutter, daughter of Rich Sutter, one of the twins in Viking’s sprawling hockey clan.

"Kendra’s dad, his twin brother Ron and my father [Gord] were linemates with the Lethbridge Broncos," Dylan says. "I’ve known her since we were little kids. It took me years to work up the nerve to ask her out -- even though everyone in our families knew how much I liked her. We’ve been going out for years now, so in December I asked Rich if I could ask her to marry me and he gave me his blessing."

Dylan’s chemotherapy sessions have been longer and become more intense in this month. He has to down fistfuls of drugs that cause nausea, fistfuls of anti-nausea drugs and still other fistfuls of prescriptions that allow him to take the anti-nausea drugs’ side effects. Still, he plans to come out to his teammates’ final game of the season, a home tilt against the University of British Columbia on Jan. 30. After the game, his teammates are staging a fundraising team head shave in support of Dylan and to raise awareness of testicular cancer.

"I just hope they don’t do it on the ice," Dylan says. "That would be pretty messy to clean up. Still, it’s important to get the word out."

How you can help:
Dylan Tait's fundraising page
University Of Lethbridge Men's Hockey Head Shave page
Dylan Tait Tribute Fund -- Set up by the Tait family

In fact, word of Dylan’s condition might already be saving someone’s life -- in the Pronghorns’ dressing room, no less. A few weeks back, the Pronghorns’ trainer, Brennan Mahon, realized that he had a growth on testicle that was diagnosed as a tumour. Mahon had the testicle removed and he’s awaiting biopsy results.

In the face of health worries that would crack most people, Dylan remains remarkably upbeat and is looking forward to a graduation, a wedding and another season with the Pronghorns.

"I’m just thankful that I have one year of eligibility left," he says. "I’d hate to have getting pulled from that game against [the University of] Regina be my last CIS game."