Although Cody Hodgson’s NHL career ended much sooner than he’d hoped, his love for the game he first played as a boy in Haliburton, Ont., is as strong as it’s ever been.
Hodgson retired from pro hockey last fall when he was just 26 years old following several disappointing seasons.
The once highly touted prospect, who went 10th overall in the 2008 draft to the Vancouver Canucks, simply couldn’t play at the level he once had.
Through those final years in his short career, he suffered from shortness of breath, blackouts and heart arrhythmia. Sometimes his body would shake for no apparent reason. He was tested for a wide range of ailments, including brain and lung cancer.
Finally, after what would be his final NHL season with the Nashville Predators, he underwent a muscle biopsy and was subsequently diagnosed with malignant hyperthermia, a genetic disorder that can be triggered by prolonged physical activity.
With the diagnoses, doctors told Hodgson that his career was over.
“It’s upsetting,” Hodgson says now. “But I was fortunate to play at all.”
Still, his ailment has been difficult to process. Hodgson grew up in the quintessential hockey family in Haliburton, surrounded by lakes and trees and old NHL vets. When he was about five years old, he met Matt Duchene — another local kid — and the duo started their rise towards the NHL together, playing for the Huskies at the old Haliburton Arena downtown, where his father and grandfather had played before him.
Hodgson’s family eventually moved to Markham when he was eight, but kept a cottage in Haliburton, where generations on both his parents’ sides had laid their roots. He spent his summers there, where he continued to play with Duchene on a summer travel team until he was 13. The pair would work out together, and then bike to Duchene’s house — a hilly ride that took more than an hour on a mountain bike — where they would shoot pucks for hours.
Their NHL dreams were fostered by local legends who had made it to the Big League, and offered advice and support for the young stars.
“That’s the thing about Haliburton — everybody supports each other,” Hodgson says, “We grew up with Bernie Nicholls there. Ron Stackhouse, Glen Sharpley — it was a pretty unique experience for us growing up.”
Hodgson often trained at a gym owned by Stackhouse, who spent most of his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He got his skates profiled and sharpened by Sharpley, a Minnesota North Stars alum, who owned a local sporting goods store. After practice he’d grab a bite at McKeck’s — a family-style restaurant owned by Walt McKechnie, who’d played 15 seasons in the NHL.
“Some people grow up thinking the NHL is a far-off dream that can never be attained. But we got to see them, get advice, and pick their brain really whenever we could. And they were full of advice. They loved to help out.”
One bit of advice he often received from the guys like McKechnie and Stackhouse: “’Make sure you enjoy it, because it goes by quick,’” he recalls being told many times. “It’s very true.”
From those early days on the Haliburton Huskies, Hodgson went on to find success in minor hockey, where he played on teams with future NHL players like Alex Pietrangelo, Michael Del Zotto and Steven Stamkos. He starred with the Brampton Battalion in the OHL, winning OHL and CHL player of the year honours in 2008. And he represented Canada at the World Juniors.
After getting drafted, things started to change. When he was 19, Hodgson suffered a serious back injury that could have ended his career.
Then, after just one full season with the Canucks, he was shipped to the Buffalo Sabres, where the symptoms of his undiagnosed ailment took hold and he wasn’t able to play the way he once had. In 2015 he scored just six goals and 13 points in 78 games for the Sabres. The team bought out his contract and he played his final season with Nashville.
But his commitment to the game was still there after his retirement. And he was able to put it to good use when the Predators asked him to help run their youth-development program.
Today, he works in communities across the southeast in states like Arkansas, Kentucky and Georgia, trying to promote and build hockey at the grassroots level. The NHLPA provides equipment for the kids, free of charge. Most of the young people he works with have no experience in the game, so he teaches them everything from scratch.
“It’s really fun to [meet] kids who can barely stand up on skates — and then six weeks later they’re doing drills with all the other kids and playing in games,” he says. “It brings me back to when I started playing hockey.”
With his malignant hyperthermia in check, Hodgson will spend the rest of the winter travelling across the south helping sharing the game and offering advice, much the way those other NHL players did for him back when he was a kid in Haliburton.
He took their advice, then — and he plans to pass it on.
“I knew it could be over at any time,” he says. “I made sure I enjoyed it.”