WINNIPEG — Al Pritchard was due for some good news.
The Winnipeg Jets massage therapist had battled two different types of cancer during the past five years and this was supposed to be a relatively routine check-up.
His thyroidectomy — the surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid gland — had been a success and things had been under control for quite some time.
While having an ultrasound done, Pritchard had a nagging and uneasy feeling.
Because he’s had so many ultrasounds and scans, Pritchard knew how long things were supposed to take.
When the clock kept ticking, he suspected something might be amiss.
“This one was a pretty big one because we had gone in for a routine ultrasound and got a little bit of a scare,” said Pritchard.
“They’ve got it down to a 10 or 15-minute ultrasound and this one had been 23 minutes, then 25 and 30, and then they had left the room and come back in and worked on it a little bit longer. Then I had laid on the table for about 25 minutes and got up and they walked me right down into the surgeon’s office. I was wondering what was going on. The surgeon walked in and they said, ‘you’ve got a blood clot in your neck.’ I was like ‘What?’ This is right in my neck. It’s close to your brain and everything like that. But it wasn’t a big deal. I talked to the surgeon and to my doctor and they said it was in a really good spot, it was really small and it was going to dissipate on its own.
“It was one of those things where you think: ‘Why does everything keep happening to me?’ You’re trying not to feel sorry for yourself, but you’re wondering, ‘Why can’t I go a little bit of time without bad news?’”
Pritchard is one of the most positive people you will ever meet and that fact is even more impressive when you consider what he’s endured during his lifetime.
First, the good news.
During his recent one-year check-up, Pritchard was told by his doctor that he was cancer-free, which brought a serious sense of relief.
On that same call, the earlier prediction from his doctor that the blood clot would dissipate had also come to fruition.
Another reason to celebrate, even though it’s impossible to put your guard down when you’ve been touched by the disease.
“He’s given me a clean bill of health,” said Pritchard. “We will obviously see him yearly for ultrasounds and bloodwork and stay on that for the next three-to-five years, but he says that as far as things go, that it shouldn’t come back and we’re in the clear there. He’s happy with how things have gone and confident with the way we’re heading.”
Pritchard grew up in the small town of Roland, a farming community that is 95 kilometres west of Winnipeg. Like most youngsters, dreams of playing in the NHL raced through his head.
Pritchard wasn’t the most talented player on his team, but he ensured those around him had a smile on their respective faces and enjoyed themselves. He knew what his role was and he embraced it fully.
“When I was young, I was always the loudest. That’s probably from my dad. He was loud and boisterous. He was an auctioneer and I wanted to be that guy,” said Pritchard. “When I played hockey, I was a bigger guy on the team and I liked to take care of my teammates, get into the corners and be the big, burly guy. In the dressing room, I always wanted to be the guy making everyone laugh. I was joking and bringing everyone’s spirits up.
“I was always trying to help make everyone laugh and make everyone smile because I thought that would make them happy. I never wanted to see anyone sad. Everything is better when we’re happy, we’re laughing and we’re smiling. That’s just who I am.”
Pritchard is still known for keeping things light around the rink.
“He’s one of the guys you feel comfortable around right away. He’s so easy going and outgoing, he’s loud and he’s making other people laugh,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “He brings this energy about him every time that you’re at the rink. There’s some positivity coming out of him. He’s a bit of the class clown. When you come in the room, he immediately puts you at ease.
“He’s so worried about putting a smile on other peoples’ faces that you don’t even really notice the hardships he’s been dealt and the things he has to go through. It’s amazing. He’s been dealt a tough hand batting cancer twice — and he lost his brother to cancer early in his life — and none of those things seem to affect him in a negative way. That just shows what kind of person he is. He’s selfless and he’s an awesome guy.”
Life changed dramatically for Pritchard when he found out as a teenager that his older brother Mike had been diagnosed with sarcoma cancer in his back.
“When my brother got sick, there was a time to get serious,” said Pritchard. “Any time that a doctor came in, you would get serious and take the news and you would wait for the news to sink in. But when the time was right, you would try to bring up the spirits again in the room and try to get him thinking a little bit more positive by trying to get a giggle or a laugh out of him.”
Pritchard eventually accompanied Mike to Mexico for some alternative treatment. Those five or six weeks together were a combination of moments Al will always cherish and other painful times he won’t soon forget.
“Once it got a little bit more sombre at the end, it was harder,” said Pritchard. “You would try, but it was one of those things where sometimes it was harder. Every day I went to see him and I was trying to be his bedside nurse. I was trying to bring the laughter and bring the joy into his world. I felt that was all I could do because in the last three or four months of his life, it was going downhill. There was nothing else I could bring to him.”
Losing his brother in 1998 at the age of 28 was a monumental loss for Pritchard and his entire family.
“It was tough. I was so young and immature and yet, you’re going through something that is so advanced and so over my head. You’re losing your brother at 18 years old,” said Pritchard.
“He’s dying and you’re trying to be strong about it. Meanwhile, you don’t even know that it’s going to affect you for the rest of your life. You’re trying to be strong, but inside, you’re dying yourself. It was terrible. It was the worst thing that could ever happen to me at the time in my life. You’re trying to figure out what you want to do.
“At 18, you’re trying to live the best of your life. You want to be celebrating. But you’re watching your idol go through the worst of his years and the worst time of his life. He should be getting married and having kids. It was absolutely gut-wrenching. And he was just in absolutely excruciating pain and then pain went to numbness and the numbness went to grey and the grey went to death. It was awful. It was three months of absolute hell watching him go through that. It was terrible.”
Pritchard would have his own cancer battle to deal with in 2014.
After initially thinking it was nothing other than back pain, Jets athletic therapist Rob Milette mentioned to Pritchard’s doctor that there had been some cancer in his family.
Following a series of tests, Pritchard was informed he had a cancerous tumour in his kidney.
That news was tough to take, especially since Pritchard had also lost an aunt, his father-in-law and a high school friend to the disease. He was scared, not only for himself but for his wife, Rachel, and their children, Nicholas and Addison.
But Pritchard quickly regrouped and focused his energy on being positive and battling the disease the best he possibly could. After surgery on Feb. 20, Pritchard’s recovery was smooth enough that he was able to return to work after approximately six weeks.
His positive demeanour and fighting spirit came in handy once again in the summer of 2019, when news of thyroid cancer was given to him by his doctor.
This time, Pritchard had surgery on Sept. 20 and was back in time for the Jets’ season opener at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 3.
Having the support from the hockey community and specifically from the Jets organization, from the close-knit training staff to the players to the coaching staff to management and even the ownership group, is something Pritchard has never taken for granted.
The Jets wore “Pritch Strong” decals on their helmet last season to show their support, and the organization put together an encouraging video for him to watch before he went into surgery last September.
In many ways, the rink became a sanctuary — a place where he didn’t have to think much about the battle he was waging.
“For sure. You get to go to work every day, you put on your shorts and your T-shirt and you can be yourself. You go into those rooms and it’s just the guys,” said Pritchard.
“Everyone knows everyone, you know where your space is and you know who you are. Everyone knows who I am and what they’re going to get every day. That’s what it is. Whether I was sick or I wasn’t, they know what I’m going to bring to the table every day. If it wasn’t that way, if it wasn’t right, then they would come talk to me.
“I try to get close with all the people that I surround myself with. We’re with each other every day and they become family. It’s great to have them and to know that they’re there.”
Pritchard went to massage therapy school and while he hoped to one day work for a professional sports franchise, his dream of making it to the NHL didn’t really factor in when he accepted a volunteer position helping the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
Following five seasons, Pritchard got a promotion.
In May 2011, the announcement was made that the Jets were relocating from Atlanta, and Pritchard was hired to work for them.
He still has to pinch himself when he thinks about being with the organization from the beginning of the 2.0 version, and that he’s preparing for a 10th season.
“It’s amazing how quick that it’s gone. It’s the little things that make things so much better,” said Pritchard. “If there is anything out of my story that can help anyone in any way, and if anyone is to say that I’m inspiring to them in any way, that would be unbelievable.”