Stanley Cup Therapy

There’s no Wi-Fi on the plane carrying me back to Los Angeles. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, but the first game of the Stanley Cup finals is starting — Rangers versus Kings. I’ve been a Rangers fan since I was able to form thoughts, watching Hockey Night in Canada from my childhood home just across the border in Vermont. Those were lean days for the Rangers. They weren’t bad, per se, but I was born into the longest Stanley Cup drought in NHL history. I know I’m not supposed to, but I keep tapping the airplane mode button on my phone in hopes of catching an errant signal from the ground that’ll update the NHL app and tell me what’s happening in the game.

Before the wheels hit the tarmac, I’m checking the score. Tied after three periods. Maybe things are looking up after all. On the bus to Union Station, I learn that the Rangers fell in overtime. I think about calling my father. He’s probably bummed out over the loss, exhausted from all the chemo, and about to fall asleep.

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There are few rules in our family. Not to out him, but Dad is a pothead. Mom calmed down when she had my older sister, but there are tales of her riding through Grecian isles on a motorbike. Because of their easygoing approach to parenting, my sister and I were wild-children, begging bums near our home in Vermont to buy us six-packs of hard cider and smoking Camels with the bad kids. My sister became a crusty punk in New York. (She still lives in her converted squat, but has since become an accountant.) Just be nice — that’s all they asked of us. Be a good person, respect others, and don’t get caught with more than an ounce. “Don’t be stupid” were my father’s exact words.

The other rule is that we are inexorably tied to hockey. Dad loves to tell the story of how he danced around the house with my sister in his arms after Mike Eruzione ripped his miracle snap shot past Vladimir Myshkin in 1980. My mother started the first women’s hockey team in Vermont, and my sister played for the state’s first girls’ team. I was on the ice by the time I was 3, and despite being undersized during my high school career, I earned a reputation as a hard-nosed defenseman with an accurate shot from the point. My senior year, I played mostly garbage time because the coach didn’t believe I could hang with the big boys, but I earned a letter on a team that won a state championship.

Before an old drinking buddy turned him on to the Rangers in the 1970s, my dad didn’t give two hoots about hockey. But his love developed just in time to have his hopes shattered in the 1979 Stanley Cup finals, when the Habs whipped New York in five. After that, the Canadiens became the most hated team in our world. Patrick Roy’s last name was only pronounced with a mocking, guttural vomiting sound: “Waaaaaggggghhhghghghghgh.” Claude Lemieux was more despised in our household than he was throughout the NHL. Bob Gainey? A loser. Stéphane Richer? A jerk. Vincent Damphousse? Hated. Guy Carbonneau? The most hated. Not even Guy Lafleur or Ken Dryden could escape Dad’s scorn.

More than hating the Canadiens, of course, we had to love the Rangers. One of my most distinct memories of my father revolves around the team’s 1994 championship. The Rangers had just beaten the Vancouver Canucks for their first Cup in 54 years, which to me represented more than a lifetime of suffering. Brian Leetch, a fair-haired defenseman from Texas, was our hero. Dad, with his Vermonter need to nickname everything, called him “Leetchy.” And of course we loved Mark Messier, and Mike Richter, the goalie Dad referred to only as “the Richter Scale.”

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“Blood cancer.”

Those were the words my mother said to me over the phone, the ones that brought me back to northern Vermont 20 years after that triumphant Rangers season. I had barely heard of multiple myeloma. When I walked into Dad’s hospital room, his arms were thin and he was in a near-vegetative state. He hardly recognized me. I couldn’t deal. My face was dripping tears.

Dad had landed in intensive care after his myeloma went undiagnosed over the preceding months. The disease weakened his bones and caused lesions, and at some unknown juncture, the lesions compressed his T11 vertebra, causing it to fracture and begin leaking calcium into his bloodstream. Over time, this led to a severe case of something called pancreatitis, so that when doctors flipped him over to give him a biopsy, his “angry” pancreas said, “No effin’ way” (Dad’s words), and shot fluid into his lungs.

As I stood over him in the hospital, I thought of how Dad would look a lot more like Messier after he started his chemo. If he started his chemo. His pancreatitis had to heal first, and then he had to start breathing on his own. The hematologist had no idea when that might happen.

“Am I dying?” Dad asked me.

“Are you kidding me? You’re going to live to 90.”

I laughed, but it wasn’t real. My dad is a stubborn old goat, but hooked up to those machines, he looked scared. I’d never seen him look that way before.

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When I was a child, we would tape Rangers games on the VCR and watch them in the morning. Back in ’94, I remember when Stéphane Matteau buried a wraparound past Martin Brodeur in the conference finals. Over cereal, we watched the third period, and then the first OT, and by the second OT I was late for school. When Matteau banked the puck off Brodeur, dad high-fived me a half dozen times and we did a victory dance. Dad: a laughing, burly Vermonter, elated by his team’s success. Mom: petite, a teacher, shaking her head because she understood the Rangers were more important than eighth-grade homeroom.

I’m 32 now, a writer in Los Angeles. Dad opted for retirement this past year at age 62, after decades of construction and carpentry work, and also after ripping both his quadriceps while carrying woodworking equipment (a chop saw and a mitre box) down an icy staircase. He briefly worked for the state — as a consultant who helped low-income families devise ways to winterize their homes — but that didn’t last, so instead he planned to live out his days fishing, smoking grass, and reading.

Then it all went to shit. A few months ago, he slipped on ice again while carrying firewood into the basement. He bruised his ribs something awful, he told me over the phone. “When I played hockey, I broke a few ribs and it hurt like hell,” I said. “But you’ll turn a corner and it’ll start to feel better.” It never did. The pain got worse.

By the time his brother and fishing buddy came over to the house to watch Game 2 of Rangers-Canadiens in this year’s Eastern Conference finals, Dad had been hurting for a few months. He was relying on my mother to help him get dressed and even help him to the toilet. But that day was worse. His brother noticed Dad could barely get up from his recliner. Instead of cracking jokes, Dad grimaced through pain, grunted monosyllabic answers, and barely paid attention to the game. The Rangers won and took a 2-0 lead in the series, which should have had him ramped up.

I watched that game from Los Angeles. The next day, I got the call from my mother: “Blood cancer.”

The following morning, my mom picked me up at the airport and we rushed to the hospital, where Dad was hanging on for dear life. My mother had to ask him what we should do if his heart failed, if the doctors had to perform CPR. His bones were so weak at that point that compressing his chest might have shattered his rib cage. He could barely muster a head shake. No CPR.

So we huddled around him and waited for his condition to turn one way or the other. It was Mom, my sister, my aunt, some family friends, and me. The Rangers this season gathered around Marty St. Louis in a similar way after his mother died suddenly after a heart attack. Dad’s potential deathbed happened to be on the same University of Vermont campus where St. Louis starred for the UVM Catamounts. When St. Louis’s teammates rallied around him after his loss, it helped him play some of the best hockey of his career.

Dad made it through that night, and the next, and the next. Little by little, he regained his strength. They moved him from ICU to the oncology ward. First his humor returned (my mom brought him some ice he’d practically begged for, and he quipped, “Ice, ice, baby”), and then his cognizance. Finally, they controlled his breathing, and a mix of ketamine and hydrocodone reduced his back pain from a 10 to a 6. He stabilized enough for my sister to return to work.

Over the next few days, a carousel of doctors and physical therapists explained what had happened and what was to come. We learned that multiple myeloma attacks plasma cells, and that although it isn’t curable, it can be managed with chemotherapy; that Dad is considered young for this disease; that the chemo would weaken his immune system. During this period of gradual recovery, the Rangers had backed into a 3-2 series lead over the Canadiens, and the series had gotten chippy. In Game 1, Chris Kreider crashed into Montreal goalie Carey Price. Ex-Ranger Brandon Prust retaliated the next game by breaking Derek Stepan’s jaw with a late hit. Dan Carcillo earned a 10-game suspension for bumping a ref on the next shift. P.K. Subban slewfooted Derek Dorsett. Dorsett head-butted Mike Weaver in a Rangers loss in Game 5. And John Moore knocked Dale Weise out of the series with a dirty hit later that game. Finally, the world was catching up to the hatred Dad and I had long felt toward the Canadiens.

Dad couldn’t watch the previous games, and he smiled when I said I could stay to watch Game 6 with him. The TVs in the oncology ward hung from branches that looked like robotic arms, dangling right in front of patients’ faces. It was there, I on the right wing, and my dad’s brother (a Montreal fan!) on the left, that we watched the Rangers clinch the conference finals.

The game was tame in comparison with the rest of the series. No one from either team seemed eager to take a stupid penalty that might put the series in jeopardy. The Habs didn’t play with urgency, and the Rangers shut them down. When Dominic Moore scored in the second period, Dad let out a strained cheer. Montreal goalie Dustin Tokarski’s brilliant play kept the game close, but the series was nearly in the bag when my dad started to wince. I could see he was masking the pain, trying to hold out in case the doctors noticed his discomfort and sent us home before the Rangers closed it out. Finally, he’d had enough and buzzed his nurse. My uncle and I stepped aside, craning our necks to watch the final moments of the third period, while a night nurse hooked up Dad’s IV with pain meds and Ambien. As he drifted into sleep, the game clock ticked down to zero, and my uncle and I left the room. He was muttering about next year; I was trying to keep my emotions — high and low — in check as best I could.

The same day my dad started chemo, the Kings finished off the Blackhawks. The matchup felt right — my new hometown team facing my beloved Rangers. Later that week, Dad was cleared to leave the hospital. As of now, he’s in a rehab facility where, after 10 days in a hospital bed, he’s retraining himself to walk without a walker and wash himself. He’s pretty stoked I found a study in the International Journal of Cancer that links cannabinoids to the treatment of infected plasma cells in multiple myeloma patients. Finally he’ll get a medical marijuana card. Yet besides these little triumphs, he’s still got a long road ahead of him. There’s no telling how he’ll react to chemo, or if it will even work. If not, he’ll need a bone marrow transplant, which is a whole ’nother ball game. But for now, he’s out of the woods.

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The Rangers haven’t really held up their end of the bargain in the Stanley Cup finals, losing the first three games against Los Angeles. I’m back on the West Coast, assured that my parents will be able to manage and that Dad is poised to fight this cancer. I watched at home as the Rangers lost Game 2 in overtime. Aren’t these stories supposed to end with a miracle, with the end of agony, with the Rangers hoisting the Cup over their heads like Dad did my sister 34 years ago? With everyone doing victory dances like we did in ’94? Wouldn’t that alleviate some of Dad’s pain? Wouldn’t it help him fight just a little harder?

Probably. Sure, it’d be great to rejoice on the phone in the closing seconds, should the Rangers happen to pull off an epic comeback and win the Cup. The poignancy wouldn’t be lost on either of us. But in reality, if and when the Rangers lose, it’ll sting for a day, and Dad will get back to battling cancer, and we’ll be parked in front of the television next year, and hopefully many years down the line, watching the Rangers try again. Because as weird or strange or hackneyed as it sounds, no matter what’s in his blood, we will always bleed blue together.

Maxwell Williams (@okamax) is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Art in America, GOOD, Details, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.

Filed Under: NHL, Stanley Cup Finals, Hockey, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Mark Messier