“I want to stay positive, and I want people to think positively about me.”
The Maple Leafs announced on Wednesday that, while undergoing treatment for another injury, Amirov was diagnosed with a brain tumour and will not play the rest of this season. The obvious reaction is to be extremely concerned for him, but Amirov wants none of that.
“There are many other people that have their own sicknesses or illnesses. I want to show by example that I can give people hope,” Amirov told Sportsnet.
Amirov thinks about Brian Boyle, who played in the 2018 NHL All-Star Game, receiving an enormous ovation after being diagnosed with a form of bone marrow cancer. Five months later, Boyle won the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to hockey.
“Stay positive because it can get better and it will get better, you have to have that mentality,” Boyle told NHLPA.com's Chris Lomon last November. “In my experience, cancer patients don’t want to feel like people feel sorry for them. Show the world what you have, what you’re made of, and be brave. And never quit. Never, ever give up.”
Amirov thinks of Oskar Lindblom, last year’s Masterton winner. Nine months after being diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in December 2019, Lindblom played for Philadelphia in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff bubble against the New York Islanders.
“When you see people getting inspired from you, sending you a text, sending you a DM on Instagram, you get even more positive because you know you’re helping people out,” Lindblom told Sports Illustrated in July 2020.
Amirov hopes putting some of his own skates or workouts on social media will similarly inspire others. He mentions it several times during the Zoom call.
“They can see what I am doing, they hopefully take some positives. I am positive. I want to feel that I can play in the best hockey league in the world.” (His agent, Dan Milstein, acts as a translator during this conversation.)
Amirov also thinks about Canadian snowboarder Max Parrot. Ten months after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Parrot was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He recovered to win a gold and a bronze at this month’s Olympics in Beijing.
“Every time I strap my feet on to my snowboard, I appreciate it so much more than before,” Parrot said earlier this month. “You’re smiling more, everything’s more positive.”
Amirov asked for — and received — Parrot’s contact information. He will reach out now that the Olympics are over.
Amirov thinks about another Russian, Alisa Kleybanova, who reached as high as No. 20 on the women’s tennis tour. In July 2011, Kleybanova announced she had stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In 2012, she announced her return by posting a 6-0, 6-0 “victory” over the disease on her website. Kleybanova got back into the top 100 after dropping to 549th. In 2017, she and fellow Hodgkin’s survivor Victoria Duval combined to win a doubles event in Texas.
That’s what drives Rodion Amirov: Boyle, Lindblom, Parrot and Kleybanova all refused to give up. They inspired others. That’s what he wants to do. And that’s what he’s going to do.
At this point in the conversation, Amirov pauses to say thank you. He thanks the Maple Leafs. He thanks his KHL team, Salavat Yulaev Ufa. He thanks them for their “unconditional support.” Both organizations are doing everything to get him the best possible care, and both kept news of his condition private until he was ready to reveal it.
To see Amirov in our interview, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong. He smiles often, laughs easily.
Toronto drafted Amirov 15th overall in 2020 with a pick acquired from Pittsburgh in the Kasperi Kapanen trade.
“I knew I was going to be taken somewhere around where the Leafs were going to be drafting,” Amirov said. “I was honoured to be drafted by them.”
“I knew two days prior to the draft when [GM] Kyle Dubas called and wanted to know how to pronounce his name,” Milstein laughed.
The left winger followed his draft year with nine goals and 13 points in 39 games in his 19-year-old season in the KHL. He was named best forward as Russia won the 2020 Karjala Cup, an international tournament also featuring the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden. He stayed in close communication with Toronto. It wasn’t uncommon to receive texts from Dubas, seeing how things were going. Salavat Yulaev beat Traktor Chelyabinsk 4-1 in the opening round of the 2021 playoffs before being swept by Eastern Conference top seed Ak Bars Kazan. When his season concluded, Amirov took a few weeks off before flying to Canada and skating with the Maple Leafs’ taxi squad last spring.
“After I was drafted, everything was Toronto Maple Leafs,” Amirov said. “When I came to Toronto, I saw it all first-hand. My ultimate dream.”
On May 31st of last year, Amirov was 8,400 kilometres from home, attending his first NHL game. Smiling at the memory, he’s moving his arms to illustrate walking the hallways:
“Somebody escorted me through the [concourse]. I came out in the stands, and I couldn’t believe it. I took out my camera and started recording, sending the videos to all my friends and family.”
As Toronto played Game 7 of its first-round playoff series against Montreal, Amirov visualized himself playing against the Canadiens.
“I was imagining what I’d do in this situation, or that situation,” he said.
The Maple Leafs planned for Amirov to play the 2021-22 season in the KHL and challenge for an NHL spot next season. On Sept. 29, during a 3-2 win over Avtomobilist, he suffered a collarbone injury and a concussion from a hit into the boards.
Three days later, Amirov turned 20. His recovery took nine weeks.
It is not uncommon for injured Russian players to go to Germany for diagnosis and/or treatment. Amirov went to Dusseldorf to be examined. He returned to action on Dec. 6 against Admiral Vladivostok with an assist in a 4-2 win, but only lasted two shifts.
That was followed by two more weeks off, before playing six games from Dec. 20-Jan. 3. He scored in a 3-2 win over Moscow Spartak on Dec. 22.
German doctors had seen something that concerned them and wanted Amirov to undergo further testing. Amirov felt good enough to play, and Omicron’s spread complicated travel. However, in the days after the Jan. 3 game, he experienced dizziness and blurred vision.
Once given clearance to enter the country, Amirov returned to Germany in late January. They received the official diagnosis of a brain tumour on Jan. 28. Understandably, he and his family needed time to process the results. But that didn’t mean he was going to stop training.
No chance. No way. Skating three times a week and workouts daily.
“After not skating for a while, being on the ice, it’s like you’re on your own plate,” Amirov said, a Russian expression akin to “being on your own pond.”
He just finished his first week of chemotherapy. Some of the medication gave him nausea, but otherwise he feels good.
“I’m living a normal life. I’m continuing to practise, to skate, to go to the gym. The doctors support [that] I continue on. I shoot, work on my hands, basically the same drills I would do normally, but by myself.”
Amirov is a member of a Protestant Evangelical church. He and his parents found a place of worship in Germany, and regularly attend mass.
“My faith in God gives me the strength and confidence to believe I will overcome,” Amirov said.
His father stayed with him. His mother just arrived, bringing Amirov’s Maltipoo, Shanya.
So much of our conversation is not about cancer. He talks about so many things any other young player would happily discuss, including favourite NHL players, past and present: first mentioning Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, followed by Igor Larionov, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon. We spoke of his time in Toronto, including a fishing trip and a day in Niagara Falls. At the end of his stay, restaurants re-opened for outdoor dining. He went for a meal with former NHLer Nik Antropov’s son and daughter and talked fondly about meeting a Russian waitress who served them.
Last summer, Amirov went to a beach where some of Milstein’s clients had previously visited.
“It was [Amirov’s] first trip there, he recognized the area where Datysuk, Kucherov and Vasilevskiy worked out,” the agent said, referring to videos that were posted on Instagram. “He was running, doing those same drills, saying, ‘Such-and-such was here.’”
He wants to do that again. He’s determined to do it again. In the videos he sent for this piece, and during our Zoom call, he looks like any other 20-year-old. That’s how he wants all of us to see him.
“Never give up,” he said to end our conversation. “The challenges you are given in life are for you to overcome.
“Always stay positive.”