Murray, others fighting cancer with brave faces


Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray. (Pawel Dwulit/CP)

There’s the steely-eyed determination of a 20-year-old returning to the ice just days after having a tumour removed.

Then there’s the courage of a proud man discussing the fight of his life in an effort to keep others from having to endure the same battle.

And then there’s a voice unlike any other in the NHL, returning to the broadcast booth to call a period.

This is hockey fighting cancer at a time when the fight is all too real.

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What Olli Maatta, Bryan Murray and Rick Jeanneret have reminded us this week is that cancer is a disease that strikes without concern for age or ability. It isn’t fair, yet they’ve all managed to display a fighting spirit that this great game is known for.

Maatta had his thyroid gland removed a little more than a week ago, but was back skating with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday. The Finnish defenceman plans on cutting the original four-week recovery period in half and could return to the lineup as soon as a visit to Montreal next week.

“I want to come back tomorrow,” he said Thursday. “But I’ve got to take it easy first. I have to make sure I’m 100 per cent and can help the team when I come back.”

Maatta hasn’t blinked since a small tumour was discovered during training camp. He’s in just his second NHL season but has shown great maturity despite the obvious concern that comes when you hear that you have cancer.

For Murray, the fight is much more serious.

The 71-year-old general manager of the Ottawa Senators learned in June that Stage 4 colon cancer had spread to his liver and lungs. He candidly discussed his battle in a TV feature that aired Thursday night and said: “There is no cure at this point for me.”

Murray’s motivation for allowing a camera to follow him to the hospital was quite simple: A routine colonoscopy would have detected the disease much sooner, but he never bothered to have one. He doesn’t want others to make the same mistake.

While he’s scaled back some of his day-to-day duties, Murray remains on the job. His focus now is on getting treatment and extending his life as long as he can.

“It’s a battle, there’s no question,” Murray said. “There’s a lot of emotion involved in it. There’s a lot of down days. You try not to have too many. There are a lot of good days and you try to have more of them.”

In the case of Jeanneret, this promises to be a special weekend. The longtime voice of the Buffalo Sabres recently learned that his throat cancer had been successfully removed and will call the first period of Saturday’s game against Toronto.

It’s the first time that fans of the team will hear his distinctive voice on a broadcast since Jeanneret was diagnosed. Last week the 72-year-old appeared at pre-game ceremony on “Hockey Fights Cancer” night in Buffalo and received a deafening ovation (watch below).

“I’m approaching Saturday’s game with a great deal of trepidation, and just hope I’ll get stronger and better with each ensuing outing,” said Jeanneret. “Success would certainly help to wipe out some of the recovery memories, as did the incredible reaction of the fans before the Edmonton game.

“One period seems right to begin with, and I’m hoping the stamina will be there to get me through it.”

While the NHL’s official month-long campaign against cancer officially wraps up on Sunday, the real fight will continue. Seeing Maatta join Toronto’s Phil Kessel as cancer survivors competing on a nightly basis will remind us of that — as will hearing Jeanneret’s voice and seeing Murray watch over his Senators.

They’ve all set an example of how to approach a scary situation with dignity.

“It doesn’t surprise us,” veteran Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis said of Maatta. “He’s so mature, so professional, about the way he approaches everything. Yes it’s a big thing, but the way he handled it made it easier for everybody else around him to help him handle it.”

That might be the highest compliment of them all.

We are talking about the youngest player on the Penguins roster and he’s behaved in a manner that his veteran teammates are taking cues from. To speak with Maatta now is to speak with a young man that remains undeterred.

“It’s really good that we found it early,” he said. “It hasn’t really bothered me before, it’s not going to bother me again. It’s just another bump in the road. I got over it.

“I can start playing hockey again.”

We can all find a little comfort in that.

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