Beast forward Auger opens up about comeback from cancer
There is no doubt that Brampton Beast forward Chris Auger loves hockey.
Selected in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks, the 29-year- old Belleville, Ontario native’s passion for the game has not only afforded him the opportunity to carve out a career in professional hockey, but to travel the world and enjoy life all while living the Canadian dream.
From his days as the captain of the Wellington Dukes in the Ontario Junior A Hockey League (OJHL) in 2005-06 through his college days at UMass-Lowell (NCAA) and into to his professional career where he won a Central Hockey League title with the Fort Wayne Komets in 2011-12, Auger always made sure to enjoy every moment.
Following his inaugural season as a member of the Beast, during which he led the team with 18 goals, the game he loved quickly became the last thing on his mind, as he found himself with a golf ball-sized lump in his throat.
Shortly thereafter, Auger was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, an uncommon form of cancer that attacks the body’s soft tissues.
Worried his hockey career could be over, Auger quickly began treatment at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, with his outlook as health first, hockey second.
“At first I thought there was no chance for me to play (the 2016-17) season,” Auger said.
“I had been in talks with teams and was up front about when I thought I'd be available to play. There just wasn't much interest from teams waiting for me to maybe be healthy.
Obviously my first goal was to beat it and get healthy, but close behind that was wanting to play at least one more season, and to be able to leave the game on my own terms, when I was ready.”
After countless follow-ups, consultations, surgery, and a gruelling 32 radiation treatments, Auger breathed a sigh of relief as he received some good news: the tumour was successfully removed.
“I was ecstatic, it was a great feeling,” Auger said. “Finding out the treatment and surgery had worked was a great day for myself and especially my family.”
Upon receiving his clean bill of health, it didn’t take long for Auger to start the long road back to playing professional hockey.
“Shortly after, I was given permission to start taking contact and full training to try and play,” Auger said. “I had never been so excited to just practice in my entire life.”
That summer, Auger’s former Fort Wayne Komets teammate and current Beast Head Coach Colin Chaulk signed Auger to an ECHL contract to rejoin the Beast for the 2016-17 season.
“I was so fortunate that Brampton was willing to sign me,” Auger said. “Especially knowing full well that I wouldn't be available until Christmas we thought at the earliest, and who knows what kind of shape I would be in, or if I could still compete at a level to help the team.”
Auger proved to himself that he could indeed still compete at a high level as he made his return to the Beast lineup earlier than expected. He suited up against his former club, the Fort Wayne Komets, on November 6 at the Powerade Centre.
“(Coach Chaulk) asked me if I thought I was ready to play,” Auger said. “Conditioning-wise, I was nowhere near ready, but mentally, I felt better than I had ever felt.”
The lack of conditioning didn't seem to affect him at all. Auger quickly resumed his goal-scoring form and turned in an inspirational performance, earning First Star honours with an eye-opening two-goal night to lift the Beast to a 5-4 victory.
“The game was everything I hoped it would be,” Auger said with a smile. “With my parents and family in stands watching, being able to score those two goals was kind of surreal considering I think I only played five or six shifts that game. I figured it was good karma for how everyone, including myself, handled going through the cancer and treatments.”
With the worst behind him, Auger was a mainstay in the Beast lineup throughout the remainder of the regular season and appeared in 62 games. He went on reach the 20-goal mark for the third time in his professional career, ending the season with 21 goals and 16 assists for 37 points. He also notched a goal and two assists in the Beast's first ever Kelly Cup Playoff run.
Very few knew about his battle with cancer, or how important that November night at the Powerade Centre was to him. A lot can happen between hockey seasons, but Auger proved that with some love and support from friends and family, plus an undying passion for the game of hockey, anything is possible with hard work and determination.
“I'd like to thank my parents and sister for helping me get through it,” Auger said. “They were there every day, along with my great core of friends encouraging and supporting me. Thank you to the team at Princess Margaret, including my doctors Dr. Gilbert and Dr. O'Sullivan. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by so many amazing people who truly care about me. I also want to thank the Brampton Beast for standing by me, and giving me a chance to do what I love.”