By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – The thought of retiring from hockey never entered Kirk MacDonald’s mind.
Not when he was first diagnosed with testicular cancer. Not after his fourth surgery for the disease. Not after the 6-foot-2, 210-pound forward lost 75 pounds because the tumor grew so large that it pressed against his stomach and didn’t allow him to eat solid foods.
Even during his darkest days, MacDonald kept to his two-fold plan: Beat cancer and return to hockey. His doctors, however, doubted the latter.
“Every time I asked one of them about playing again, they would give me a look like I was crazy,” MacDonald said.
Those doctors should look at MacDonald today. Three years after beating cancer, the 24-year-old rookie is one of the best players on the ECHL’s Florida Everblades. He has 34 points (14 goals) in 43 games this season.
Those statistics are impressive for any player but especially for one who spent 65 consecutive days in the hospital in 2005 after he suffered complications from a nine-hour surgery.
“He’s come so far, so fast. It’s phenomenal,” Blades forward Jarret Lukin said.
MacDonald’s mother, Nancy, can’t help but think about those trying times when she watches her son play for the Blades via the Internet from her Victoria, British Columbia home.
She often gets emotional.
“He looks so strong out there,” Nancy said.
Toward the end of the 2004-05 season with the Rensselaer (N.Y.) Polytechnic Institute hockey team, MacDonald’s back started to ache.
The pain got worse each day but MacDonald continued to play. He was RPI’s leading scorer, and playing through injury is what hockey players do.
After the last game of his junior campaign, he went to a doctor to see about his back. A CT scan provided shocking news: He had a 7 and 1/2-inch testicular tumor.
“I was mad,” MacDonald said. “It’s scary.”
Things got even scarier when he suffered complications after a nine-hour surgery in August 2005. Because he suffered an infection in his stomach during the operation, he could only eat through a feeding tube for the next two months.
“When you see somebody that you love wasting away and there’s absolutely nothing you can do for them it’s hard to be positive,” Nancy said. “But I have to say I never doubted he would get through it.”
Nancy didn’t doubt because her son had a strong work ethic and a personal goal.
“Kirk wanted to get back to his friends and play hockey,” Nancy said. “There was no way around it.”
When he was finally cleared to walk out of the hospital on Oct. 5, 2005, MacDonald weighed 132 pounds. He had lost almost half his body weight.
“If you’ve seen pictures of people in concentration camps, that’s kind of how I looked,” MacDonald said. “I was all skin and bones.”
MacDonald’s recovery began once he returned home. Even though he could barely walk up the steps of his house that day, he pushed himself to do something physical each day like walking around the block.
After sitting out the 2005-06 season, MacDonald returned in time to play in RPI’s first game the following campaign, against the University of Denver.
“When they announced Kirk’s name in the starting lineup, I cried for 15 minutes,” Nancy said. “I couldn’t believe we got through it and he was playing again and that we survived.”
MacDonald said his battle made him “grow up quick” but he’s happy in the sense that he learned some life lessons.
“It’s all about perseverance and working hard,” MacDonald said. “It’s about believing in yourself. Whatever you do in life, I think if you put your mind to it you can do anything.”