Rozner: Family, friends helping Blackhawks great Eddie Olczyk in his fight against cancer
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There is every minute of your life before the phone call.
And everything after.
The shock too shattering to define. Words painfully inadequate.
You remember the ring of the phone and little else.
Time stops. The world goes quiet. An earthquake would not wake the echoes.
For many, it's the unexpected loss of a loved one.
For Eddie Olczyk, it was the death of his youth, the realization that he had become one of those other people, the ones something happens to when they least expect it.
There is everything before learning he had cancer -- the hockey, the horses, the kids and the very large life -- and on a dime a hockey stop at full sprint, spraying snow onto the glass and beginning the fight of his life.
Fighting for his life.
"Aug. 4 at 7:07 p.m.," Olczyk says matter-of-factly. "It was a few days after they took 14 inches out of my colon and a tumor the size of my fist.
"I was in bed at home recovering from surgery. The phone rings and on the TV it says, 'Northwestern Hospital.' Probably not a good call at 7:07 on Friday night.
"My wife was standing next to me and I let the phone ring five or six times.
"She goes, 'You gonna answer that?'
"I was like, 'I know what the call is. My life just changed.'
"Doctor said, 'It's Stage 3 colon cancer and they're recommending chemo.'
"I was scared."
Barry Rozner | Staff Photographer
Eddie Olczyk is a big man. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he was the most skilled of the "Clydesdales," playing on a line with Troy Murray and Curt Fraser early in his Blackhawks career. In more than 1,000 NHL games, he preferred his hands to his fists, scoring 342 goals, but he logged 17 NHL fights.
As was often the case on the ice, this is not a bout he saw coming.
Thursday, July 27, was just another summer day in paradise. He worked out, played some horses, spoke to his kids, made some plans and went about living a wonderful life.
Nobody had it better than the Olczyks.
But for about a week he had been experiencing occasional stomach pain, enough that with wife Diana out of town he intuitively asked close pal Dom Porro to spend the night at his Northwest suburban home.
"I went from being constipated to waking up in the middle of the night vomiting. Dom took me to the hospital," Olczyk said. "They said, 'You have a blockage in your colon. We'll give you an enema and you'll be home in two hours.'
"I said, 'Great.' "
But after a CT-scan, the itinerary quickly changed. Olczyk saw it in the doctor's face. There was a large tumor.
A few hours later, on Friday morning, he was transported to Northwestern Memorial Hospital and by Saturday night doctors had inserted a stent in his colon to relieve the backup, prepping him for a five-hour surgery Monday.
In 72 hours, he went from studying the Racing Form without a care in the world, to flat on his back with a knife in his belly.
"They feel like they got it all," says the 51-year-old Olczyk. "But they can't be 100 percent sure. If I was an older fella, they probably would have sent me home and said, 'You're good,' and not put me through the rest of it."
The rest of it began six weeks later. The rest of it is chemotherapy.
"Dr. (Mary) Mulcahy, the oncologist, came in and said, 'I am here to cure you, not treat you. That is my goal.' That got my attention," Olczyk said. "Once I was diagnosed, we had an hour meeting where she explained everything. My wife was listening, but all I heard was, 'I'm here to cure you.' "
"Therapy" doesn't seem an appropriate portion of a word for what cancer patients endure. Olczyk receives two hours of chemotherapy every other Monday, and then 48 hours at home with a pack attached to a chest pump. A nurse comes by on Wednesday to remove it.
One shift at a time
Hockey players have a clock in their head. It's how they know when to take the shot or get rid of the puck in the corner before the opposition tries to take away the scoring opportunity -- or remove a limb.
Olczyk has a calendar in his head now. He knows when that Monday is coming and what the rest of that week will be like, looking forward to the following Monday or Tuesday when he can ride the bike again, sweat out the poison and start to feel alive.
And then Monday comes again.
"When they told me six months of treatment and in the middle of February we'll reevaluate, I'm like, '(Bleep), I can't do it,' " Olczyk said. "I had my first treatment September 11 and got home at 4:30 in the afternoon.
"That night, I was over the toilet bowl three or four times. I said, 'No way. Can't do this for six months. I'm done.'
"My wife talked me off the ledge."
Like any great athlete after a defeat, Olczyk reset and broke it down into baby steps. You can't win the Stanley Cup in one day. It's one shift at a time. Put your head down and skate hard for 200 feet. Get off the ice. Do it again.
"I began setting goals," he explained. "Do some games. Breeders Cup. Thanksgiving. Seeing my daughter (Alexandra) graduate from Alabama.
"All of a sudden it's Christmas and December 26 is my eighth of 12 treatments."
Two periods in the books. One to go.
"Instead of looking to the end, the scan at the end of February, where hopefully I get a clean bill of health, in September I started making small goals," Olczyk said. "It helped a lot."
Two Mondays a month, Eddie Olczyk walks into a standing-room-only waiting room and sees the same people. They all have tickets to the same match. They know why the others are there. They learn each other's names. They share their journeys. They share a bond. They're a band of brothers in a ferocious battle.
Some stories are worse than others. This has an impact beyond the capacity of most people, unless they have seen it up close.
"I'm standing there talking to guy in a Blackhawk hat and a Blackhawk shirt," Olczyk says, "and he's Stage 4 and he doesn't want to know when … "
He's going to die.
"He doesn't want to know the timetable. He's just gonna live every day and take his chemo every week," Olczyk says, now wiping tears from his eyes. "That's been the hardest thing.
"I thought there were a lot of things in my life that tested my mental toughness. Getting traded from my favorite team, getting fired, whatever. Doesn't matter.
"Going through this and meeting people who are on a different level than I am and have pretty much accepted their fate, it hits you in spots you didn't know existed.
"When I did Hockey Fights Cancer with that little 9-year-old girl who has muscle cancer, and she's not gonna make it, not gonna be around much longer … "
Olczyk reaches for a tissue and stares at a beautiful portrait of his family above the fireplace, a few feet from a brilliantly decorated Christmas tree, the shining ornament a tiny No. 16 Olczyk jersey.
"I can live with the side effects," Olczyk said. "I can live with the vomiting and the neuropathy and the headaches and the bloody noses and the sleeping 13 hours a day, but you start thinking and you drift into oblivion.
"I've been to places I don't want to go back to. You think about a lot of things. You ask, 'Am I going to die? Is it going to come back?'
"They feel good about my chances, but you're sitting there talking to some people and they know it's not gonna end well. Your heart goes out to them.
"My wife is sitting there listening, fighting back the tears. It's draining."
But each time he laces up the skates, Olczyk finds that he still has the desire to win.
"The longer I've been in it," he says, "I think I've gotten tougher."
Using all of his skills
The longer I've been in it. Spoken like a true athlete.
It's like going from obscure kids' summer camps in an irrelevant hockey city to playing junior hockey far from home. The Olympics. Being drafted third overall by your hometown team. Being traded. Winning a Stanley Cup. A 16-year career. An NHL head coach. The best national color guy in the history of the game, and a spot undoubtedly waiting for him in the Hall of Fame.
Not to mention hitting a monster pick-6 and landing on the NBC broadcast handicapping all the biggest races.
One step at a time. Learning a little every day. Overcoming and adapting at each level, climbing and achieving.
You don't reach the top without extraordinary physical, mental and emotional skills.
Now, Olczyk is using them all to fight cancer.
To beat cancer.
Nodding to the picture of his family, Olczyk says, "I'm fighting for them now.
"I'm fighting for them more than I am for myself, because …, " Olczyk said, swallowing hard before starting again. "Because that's what you do. Nothing matters more to me than them.
"I draw from my hockey experiences for sure. The adversity, people telling me I'd never make it to the NHL, some kid from Niles. Nobody comes out of Chicago. Americans don't make it to the NHL.
"In that era, you had to have toughness. It was a mean league. You knew there was someone on the ice every night looking to end your night. Head shots, shots from behind.
"Always someone looking to grab you out of a pile and beat you to a pulp. You didn't score goals by accident, without having courage. You draw on that at times in your life and this is certainly one of those.
"But I earned respect as a player when I realized how important team was, and not wanting to let anyone down.
"Initially when I got sick, I felt like I let everyone down. If everyone around me is happy and healthy, I'm happy. But all of a sudden people are hurting because I'm sick and that made me feel terrible.
"I let my family down. I let the Hawks down. I let NBC down. It's never been that way. I had to overcome that thinking.
"But not one time have I said, 'Why me?' I'm glad it's me. If it was anyone else in my circle, I could not get by. Knowing what I know now, seeing somebody that I love … "
Shaking his head, Olczyk says, "I could not watch them go through it. It would devastate me.
"Telling my kids was really hard. My youngest son, Nick, was on his way to Colorado College. Freshman. He said, 'Dad, I can't go.' I'm like, 'You gotta go. I'll be OK.'
"I'm glad that they're not around to see me go through this."
The one who has been there every minute is his wife, Dianna, who had cervical spine fusion in three discs just weeks before Eddie got sick, and then blew out an ACL three weeks after his surgery.
"We spent more time at Northwestern … " Olczyk laughs. "My wife has been incredible."
To climb this mountain is like carrying the mule on your back. It's difficult enough in private, but Diana has had to watch Eddie do it in public, something he believes he was meant to do.
He doesn't have to sit for an interview. He doesn't have to expose these very personal details. He doesn't have to open the door to his bathroom and allow you to peer in.
He chooses to.
"I've had hundreds of people tell me they're now going to get a colonoscopy," Olczyk says with pride. "If I can save one person's life, or keep one person from having go through what so many of us are going through right now …
"This thing has been festering in me for 10 years. Don't wait until you're 50 for a colonoscopy.
"I mean, thank God I got sick. Where I would be a year from now if I didn't? I know that if it spread, if we didn't find it, I would not be around here much longer."
Olczyk is now another visible face of cancer, but he's willing to suffer publicly to save lives. In the process, he has reached many conclusions.
"You learn a lot about yourself," Olczyk says with a knowing smile. "I've thought a lot about my mortality, my legacy, about people.
"Someone asked me, 'Are you surprised by how much support there has been from all walks of life?' From hockey to horses to everyone in Chicago, to the thousands of people I meet, I'm not surprised because that's what good people do.
"I know there's a lot of bad in this world, but there's way more good than you hear about. There's greatness out there and sadly it doesn't get talked about. I see it every day.
"It inspires me."
It's the right Monday to sit with Eddie Olczyk. It's a sunny, surprisingly warm winter day. The two black lab puppies are playing and the house is bursting with Christmas from top to bottom.
Olczyk feels good. He is optimistic and excited.
He is the Hawks after they survived "the test of our lives" -- as Joel Quenneville so aptly described it -- against a physical Anaheim team in 2015, recovering from three series deficits to reach the Cup Final.
There is no parade in the works, but Eddie can see the final game on the calendar.
"There's a lot to look forward to," Olczyk says. "The plan is put this in the rearview mirror. My last treatment is Feb. 19.
"Get a scan a couple weeks later. Start looking at the schedule. Get ready for the stretch run and playoffs. Get back to work."
And, of course, Christmas.
"Everyone was home for Thanksgiving for the first time in 14 years and it was great," Olczyk said. "Christmas will be emotional."
This, coming from a man who can cry at a horse race.
"Guilty," Olczyk says with a laugh. "But everyone will be home. The house will be full. All the kids and my brothers and my parents and my father-in-law and little kids and puppies.
"It will be emotional, but the positive energy and the noise will be great. I don't need quiet ever again.
"Look, I'm in a good spot considering what I have. No guarantees, but we feel confident that we got it all."
Strength in numbers
Olczyk can't possibly mention or thank everyone who has called or written with support. He has a large team of enforcers who have his back, from the Hawks to the NHL to NBC. He gets hundreds of letters a week and reads every single one. He meets dozens of people every day who offer kindness and prayer.
"I couldn't do it by myself. No way," Olczyk said. "I am so grateful for the outpouring. I can't even begin to explain how much it means to me."
A humble man is floored by the realization that so many people care, but then a humble man doesn't see himself as others do. Eddie Olczyk is caring and loving, respectful and charitable, friendly and approachable.
He never knew he had millions of friends, but he has earned them all with a life well-lived.
And what was it Clarence wrote to George Bailey at the end of the movie?
"No man is a failure who has friends."
Ask Eddie Olczyk, on Christmas or any other day, and he'll be happy to remind you.
He really does have a wonderful life.
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