Canadiens’ Gallagher inspired by mother’s courageous fight against brain cancer

Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher. (Graham Hughes/CP)

BROSSARD, Que. — They are the words that immediately come to mind when I think of Brendan Gallagher: competitive, courageous, defiant, strong.

We’re talking about a scrappy, undersized player who gritted his way through four seasons in Canada’s toughest junior league (the WHL) before making the unlikely jump at age 20 into the world’s best league. He was a fifth-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2010, and he’s spent every day since relying on these traits to author an unlikely — and mostly successful — NHL career.

Through it all, Gallagher has bounced off every hit, rebounded from every injury, and faced every fight with chin up and hands cocked. 

I probably wasn’t alone in thinking he got that combativeness from his father, Ian, who, as his longtime strength and conditioning coach, has been highly influential in pushing him through the boundaries of what should be physically possible for a player generously listed at five-foot-nine, 183 pounds.

But in speaking with Gallagher after the Canadiens practised on Wednesday, he was unequivocal about inheriting his relentless drive from his mother, Della, who is currently depending on her own competitiveness, courage, defiance and strength in a fight he, Ian and the rest of their family wished she’d have never been faced with. 

Now, nearly 31 months after being given anywhere between six and 18 months to live, Della Gallagher is punching back as hard as she ever has and inspiring Brendan in unprecedented ways.

As Brendan’s sister, Bree, recently divulged, Della has been dealing with stage-4 cancer of the brain known as Glioblastoma. As part of an initiative to help expand research and treatment available to Canadians, she detailed the events that led to her mother’s diagnosis.

It all started with a car crash on Aug. 20, 2021, Brendan confirmed. 

Della Gallagher was driving to Edmonton from her mother’s house in Provost, Alta., when she suffered a seizure. 

She was then rushed to a hospital in nearby Lloydminster and then airlifted to the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton.

It was there that Brendan, his brother (Nolan), his brother-in-law (Nick) and Ian met Bree and sister Erin after flying from in from B.C. When they arrived, Della was resting in a medically induced coma.

“We were kind of standby at that point,” said Brendan. “We kind of thought she was having a stroke. That’s what we were told. She was having seizures, we thought she was having a stroke. We arrived in Edmonton and were just waiting in the hospital, where it was probably 11-12 at night when we finally saw her. 

“I got to hold her hand in the hospital bed, and it got pretty real at that point.” 

Della woke up the next day.

“It was pretty evident she didn’t have a stroke,” Gallagher said. “She was sharp, a little woozy from the medication, but she was there and with it, so it was just a matter of trying to figure out what had happened.”

When the Gallaghers did, they were devastated.

But Della’s refusal to be defeated buoyed their spirits.

“When it was all first going down at the hospital, her attitude was such a positive one, and that’s the attitude she’s had her entire life was to kick some ass,” said Brendan. “It’s pretty inspiring to see… The fight she has in her is pretty special.”

It began with surgery at U of A Hospital, where Della had once worked in her early days as a nurse. It continued with chemotherapy and radiation treatment and is ongoing thanks to her remarkable resiliency and some revolutionary medical interventions at University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.

“We had a lot of incredible people reach out with information,” Brendan said. “I think they’re doing an incredible job. They have things that are hopefully able to get out to everyone (in Canada eventually). They have trial drugs from clinical trials, and they have stuff they’ve been working on that’s gotten to a point where it’s going okay for her. You don’t want to get too ahead of yourselves, but I think they’re doing a fantastic job. We just continue to listen to the advice they’ve given us and hope for the best.”

It’s been a trying process, to say the least. 

It started just weeks after Brendan finished playing with the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final, and it has naturally affected him both on and off the ice since.

“I’ve struggled with it at times,” he said. “Especially the first year, there were some tough times. 

“I think having (fiancée) Emma at home is huge for me, being able to talk to her. Especially being away from the family — you call back as much as you can, but it’s been tough.”

Throughout, the support from friends, family and the Canadiens has helped.

Coach Martin St. Louis, who lost his mother, France, in May of 2014, has regularly checked in, which Gallagher said is “a part of our relationship I’ve really appreciated.”

And he’s thankful to his teammates, who have mostly helped keep him focused on hockey.

One of Gallagher’s closest ones, Jake Evans, has been impressed with his resolve to do exactly that under such challenging circumstances.

“I don’t know how I would be handling certain situations like that, and he just keeps battling right through it where you wouldn’t even know anything’s really happening until afterwards, when he’s frustrated,” Evans said. 

“I just know he’s been a really great son to his mom, and a great brother to his family,” he added. “He tries to keep it under wraps for the most part, but from what I’ve seen, and just chatting with him about it, they’re all sticking together really well and he’s a big part of that.”

Funding some of Della’s care in the United States is just one way Brendan has done it.

“It goes without saying, the least of my worries was that,” he said. “We’re very fortunate. I think she’s done everything to give me the opportunity to live my dream here, and it goes without saying (helping financially) was the easiest thing to do.”

For the person who showed him the value of hard work and gave to him his most enduring and cherished quality, Gallagher would do anything.

“I think every kid takes a little bit from both their parents, but my mom is the competitive one. I get that from her,” he said. “They’re both incredibly hard workers, but my mom is so competitive. I think she’s worked for everything her whole life, and she played baseball growing up. She played basketball, too, but we like to make fun of her because I don’t know if the Provost basketball team was all that competitive. But she was a good baseball player and moved down to Edmonton and played. 

“At Christmas time, we play games like Jeopardy or something like that, and she’s a cheater [laughs]. But it’s because she’s incredibly competitive, and that’s something I have taken from her.”

Giving back — not only to Della, but also to others suffering in Canada — is something all the Gallaghers are committed to. 

Bree and Nolan, inspired by former Navy Seal and motivational influencer David Goggins, are running a marathon on May 5 in their bid to raise funds for Brain Cancer Research through the beginning of Brain Cancer Awareness month, while Brendan, Erin and Ian are also doing what they can to raise awareness.

Again, the hope is that, through initiatives like these, more varied treatments for this disease become readily accessible to Canadians and end up extending lives.

“In Canada, our public healthcare system is unbelievable,” Brendan said. “When my mom needed it, they were there, they picked her up, they airlifted her, she got everything she needed in Canada. I think when you’re fortunate enough to go private in the States, some other things are more available. 

“So, the goal is to have that available for everyone here. Without it, we’re pretty sure we might not have our mom right now. Both the Canadian and American healthcare systems have worked wonders for us, and the goal is to get this stuff available for everyone who needs it. That would be fantastic.”

Should you wish to support the Gallagher family’s campaign, you can do so by visiting this website.

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