Ol­czyk con­tin­ues fight

Hockey, golf an­a­lyst over­com­ing can­cer

Woonsocket Call - - SPORTS - By RICK MAESE

Ed­die Ol­czyk re­mem­bers the ex­act time: 7:07 p.m. He was ly­ing in bed, re­cov­er­ing from surgery. Doc­tors had just re­moved 14 inches of his colon and a tu­mor the size of a fist. The house phone started ring­ing and the in­com­ing num­ber flashed on his tele­vi­sion screen.

“It was North­west­ern Hos­pi­tal,” Ol­czyk re­called. “Look, with my ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing a hockey player and be­ing a dad, you know any phone call at past 7 o’clock from the hos­pi­tal, it’s not a good call.”

He let it ring and ring. “Aren’t you go­ing to an­swer it?” his wife asked. “No, I know what’s on the other line,” Ol­czyk said.

He fi­nally picked up and his worst fears were con­firmed: colon can­cer, they said. Stage 3. “And just like that, ev­ery­thing kind of stopped,” he said. “But at the same time, things also started go­ing re­ally fast: How was I go­ing to tell my kids? What does this mean? Am I go­ing to live?”

Ol­czyk, the for­mer hockey player who’s now an an­a­lyst on NBC’s cov­er­age of both hockey and horse rac­ing, is telling this story 10 months later, sit­ting in the stands at Cap­i­tal One Arena in Wash­ing­ton be­fore a hockey prac­tice in the mid­dle of one of his busiest and fa­vorite weeks of the year. Less than a year af­ter a di­ag­no­sis that at times felt like a death sen­tence, he’ll cover two East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals games be­tween the Cap­i­tals and Light­ning in Wash­ing­ton be­fore head­ing to Bal­ti­more for Satur­day’s broad­cast of the Preak­ness Stakes.

The 51-year old Ol­czyk is can­cer-free and has re­sumed a busy work sched­ule. His hockey anal­y­sis is well-re­garded, and his Preak­ness picks highly an­tic­i­pated. (He did, af­ter all, hit the tri­fecta with his Ken­tucky Derby picks two weeks ago, the sec­ond time in four years he’s nailed the race’s top-three fin­ish­ers.) But get­ting to this point was a long road.

Doc­tors were hope­ful they’d suc­cess­fully extracted the can­cer­ous por­tion of his colon but strongly rec­om­mended fur­ther treat­ment. The on­col­o­gist didn’t know Ol­czyk’s his­tory hand­i­cap­ping horses when she said, “Look, if you wanna take your chances and gam­ble and not take the chemo-,” Ol­czyk re­called. “I said, ‘You’re talk­ing to the wrong guy if you want to get into gam­bling and odds.’ Is this more like Jus­tify or like Ex­ag­ger­a­tor a cou­ple years ago in the Preak­ness?”

He chuckles now. In truth, back in Au­gust, he barely heard a word the doc­tor said. He was still re­cov­er­ing from surgery and couldn’t even be­gin chemo­ther­apy until Sept. 11. He con­fronted the fear the same way he was able to grind out a 16-year play­ing ca­reer, fol­lowed by a suc­cess­ful run broad­cast­ing in the booth and a stint coach­ing on the bench: He im­me­di­ately started plot­ting out goals.

Ol­czyk went to an Of­ficeMax and bought an over­sized cal­en­dar. He put big black Xs on ev­ery other Mon­day - chemo­ther­apy ap­point­ments - and then be­gin mark­ing off im­por­tant dates and mile­stones he could look for­ward to: hockey games he wanted to work, hol­i­days, the Breed­ers’ Cup, his daugh­ter’s grad­u­a­tion.

NBC en­cour­aged him to take what­ever time he needed, but Ol­czyk promised his bosses he’d be back full-time by the NHL play­offs and the Triple Crown. He wasn’t cer­tain, though, how much he’d be able to work be­fore then.

Chemo­ther­apy in­volved two hours at the hos­pi­tal ev­ery other week. He’d leave wear­ing a fanny pack that would con­tinue to de­liver treat­ment for 48 straight hours, one slow drip at a time.

“Ev­ery minute the pump goes and you hear that sound - it sounds like a hairdryer go­ing on for a split-sec­ond,” Ol­czyk said. “When you’re sit­ting by your­self and you’re feel­ing aw­ful and that’s all you hear over and over, you’re think­ing, ‘How in the world am I go­ing to get through this?’”

The first few treat­ments were es­pe­cially rough. He was knocked out for days. There was nausea and vom­it­ing. He had nose­bleeds and a blood clot in his leg. His sense of taste dulled, his fin­gers and feet were hit with neu­ropa­thy and he oc­ca­sion­ally lost chunks of hair. Later he’d de­velop a her­nia re­lated to his ini­tial surgery. And as a re­sult of the drugs, he gained 40 pounds and was sud­denly big­ger than he’d ever been in his life.

There was a psy­cho­log­i­cal toll, too. Ol­czyk felt he was let­ting down his fam­ily and friends, let­ting down NBC and let­ting down the Black­hawks, for whom he reg­u­larly broad­casts games.

“Af­ter the sec­ond or third treat­ment, I re­mem­ber telling my wife, ‘I’m done. I can’t do this,’” he said. “And she just kind of looked at me and grabbed me by the short hairs and said, ‘Fight for me, fight for our kids and fight for the peo­ple that love you.’”

He kept con­sult­ing the cal­en­dar and re­al­ized there was a pe­riod late in each treat­ment cy­cle when he felt bet­ter. He started iden­ti­fy­ing some hockey games he could work for the Black­hawks, and later for NBC.

“He’s a hockey guy. When you step into a rink, there’s spe­cial smell, a sense, a feel. Ed­die needed that nor­malcy,” said Sam Flood, NBC’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. “His fam­ily had taken him to rinks through­out his life; he has so many mem­o­ries. So it was a re­minder of how spe­cial life is. I think that helped in­spire him to work harder, suf­fer through what­ever pain the chemo and the treat­ments were send­ing his way.”

Ol­czyk even­tu­ally made it to 14 games this sea­son, about a third his usual work­load, each one a wel­come es­cape.

“I just had to get the hell out of the house. Just think about some­thing other than the drugs and ev­ery­thing else,” he said. “I don’t mean to be dis­re­spect­ful by say­ing this, but it was a great dis­trac­tion. It took me away and helped pass the time. It was pretty sooth­ing, you know?”

Fi­nally, on Feb. 21 at 9:04 a.m. - of course, he re­mem­bers the ex­act time - Ol­czyk was un­hooked for the last time. He un­der­went a fi­nal scan and three weeks later - March 14, 5:04 p.m. - the phone rang again. He ea­gerly an­swered it this time.

His scan was clean. Ol­czyk was in tears as he shared the news with fam­ily, friends and col­leagues. The play­offs were ap­proach­ing, the Triple Crown was around the cor­ner and Ol­czyk was ea­ger to take on a big­ger work­load.

Whether he’s at a track or a rink, an air­port or a ho­tel, he en­cour­ages peo­ple he meets not to wait on a colonoscopy. He’ll need to un­dergo check­ups ev­ery three months for the next cou­ple of years, but he’s al­ready dropped 25 pounds. “I don’t need the Vase­line to jump into my pants any­more,” he joked.

Ol­czyk was ex­cited that a bit of sched­ul­ing serendip­ity al­lowed him to work hockey in Wash­ing­ton and horse rac­ing in Bal­ti­more this week. More than any­thing, he’s happy for the nor­malcy.

Photo by Jonathan Newton

For­mer NHL for­ward Ed­die Ol­czyk, right, who is now a hockey and horse rac­ing an­a­lyst, is cur­rently can­cer free af­ter go­ing through a round of chemo­ther­apy. Ol­czyk had 14 inches of his colon re­moved.

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