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Today's story comes from Stuart Miller-Davis, a recent graduate of Carleton University's Bachelor of Journalism program. It's a personal essay about how an iconic hockey franchise served as a coping mechanism for cancer treatment. That's Stuart in the cover photo in the hospital during his cancer treatment, with a hockey jersey his friend gave to him. As you'll soon read, the jersey and the team who wears it served as a vital distraction during a difficult time. ✈️
My parents could tell that something was wrong. My balance was off – even for a four-year-old – and I’d been having headaches. Then one night, after my dad finished reading me a bedtime story, I was climbing up the ladder to the top of the bunk bed I shared with my brother, and I fell. The next thing I remember was the emergency room at Kingston General Hospital.
It was there that doctors found an aggressive primary central nervous system tumour called Medulloblastoma, most commonly diagnosed in children. It required immediate surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation. I remember only a few fleeting moments from my treatment: Having the staples taken out of the back of my neck after my surgery and a constant cold feeling. “It was hard to watch him throw up several times a day and to watch him grow thinner and thinner,” my mom recalled. “His younger brother was two and a half at the time and his job was to get a bucket for throwing up.”
While being treated at hospitals in Kingston and Ottawa, I tried hard not to focus on my cancer, a force I could scarcely understand at that age. Instead, I found solace in counting the goals of my favourite player, Mats Sundin. Sundin was a towering 6'5" centre and played a terrific offensive game, bolstered by a heavy shot. He wore number 13 on the back of his jersey. On the front, the brilliant Maple Leaf logo and a captain’s C, marking him as the leader of the storied franchise.
Every time we went to the hospital for my radiation treatment, I would proudly wear my Toronto Maple Leafs jersey. Afterwards, I’d return to my grandparents' house and, on my good days, I'd play hockey in the driveway. On the not so good days, I would have to crash back in bed with a hockey book in hand.
Hockey became an obsession.
In the final year of my undergraduate degree (and well before the COVID-19 pandemic made such trips impossible), I visited the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, the renowned Ottawa pediatric hospital and research centre where I was treated nearly 15 years ago. I wanted to learn more about how distractions like my fixation on the Maple Leafs can be important for young patients. “It absolutely helps with anxiety,” said Dr. Donna Johnston, chief in the division of hematology and oncology. “When [kids] are scared, they get more nauseous. They start crying. They can have more pain. And if you can distract them you can make them more comfortable. You can lessen the pain.” She talks about how distraction forms a part of the hospital's treatment plan for brain and spinal cancer, when a mask is needed to target the radiation to particular spots in the head and neck. At the Ottawa General Hospital, where radiation treatments are done, one of the radiation therapists paints masks for the kids. “We had a child that was four, who had a Spiderman mask, and he would transform himself into Spiderman,” Johnston told me. “He didn’t need sedation for radiation because of that.”
It reminded me of the Maple Leafs goalie mask I would wear for my own radiation treatment. Ed Belfour, nicknamed “Eddie the Eagle”, wore a mask to fight off shots, and I wore mine to fight cancer.
After my conversation with Dr. Johnston, I went to another room in the hospital – complete with a playroom with a little kitchenette – and was introduced to Maryse Deslauriers, a Child Life Specialist. Deslauriers said distraction is her main job at the hospital. “We’re helping [the children] to get through the procedures...and giving them coping skills for later in life, too.”
Being a Leafs-obsessed kid in Ottawa Senators territory during my treatment, I got a lot of ribbing. A friend who shared my passion for the Blue and White had gifted me a Leafs jersey, and when I wasn’t wearing it, it lay across my bed. Not a day went by without someone making a slight on the Leafs and what I was going to do when the Senators came to visit the hospital. But I was discharged from the hospital before the team visited, and narrowly avoiding seeing the Leafs’ Ontario nemesis made me the happiest kid in the world.
But for many patients, that very same visit will do what Mats Sundin and the Leafs did for me. “They all get excited to see these professional athletes who they see on the TV coming in to spend a moment of time with them,” Deslauriers told me. “It might be the first time they’ve smiled because they’ve not felt great and just had chemo and not feeling up to doing any kind of activity, but [former Senator] Erik Karlsson walks into the room, and their eyes light up.”
Shortly after finishing my treatment, me and my family were invited to watch a Leafs game and meet the team. On the trip, our family was treated like royalty. We had a room at the Park Hyatt and when we arrived, there was a gift basket filled with candy and a white Leafs jersey emblazoned with STUART MILLER-DAVIS in giant blue lettering on the back, which still hangs in my closet today. The following day, we got a full tour of the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena) and took photos on the Hockey Night in Canada set. At practice, the team was skating, shooting, and passing the puck from end to end, but my eyes were glued on the player wearing number 13: Mats Sundin. When practice ended, we were shuffled into the dressing room of the greatest team in the world – in my eyes, if not necessarily in the standings.
Matt Stajan, then a 22-year-old sophomore player, introduced us to his teammates hanging out in the team lounge. But, there was one player in particular I was looking for. When we entered the dressing room, Sundin walked out of the showers with a towel around his waist. I was in shock, partly due to the size of him, but also because I was standing just a few feet away from him. From Mats Sundin. That night, the Leafs fell to the visiting New Jersey Devils, but that doesn’t matter to me now. After years of being the focal point of my distraction, I met my hero in the Leafs dressing room. To this day it remains the greatest moment of my life.
My obsession with hockey and the Maple Leafs deepened during the year I spent in and out of hospital, split between Kingston and Ottawa. I couldn’t lace up my skates and jump on the ice, but I lived and breathed hockey. I would spend hours poring over videos of the best to ever lace up skates on the Hockey Hall of Fame website. My mum remembered the time I spent on the site when my weakened immune system kept me from attending school. “I think he was pretty advanced in his ability to read and alphabetize because of that website,” she said. Friends and family began calling me the “living hockey encyclopedia” because I shared every little factoid with them, whether they liked it or not. It was early in my elementary school years that I began telling everyone I was going to be a sports journalist. When I was stuck in hospital I counted on those storytellers to bring me my distraction. I wanted to provide the same escape for another kid like me. Cancer may have kept me away from the rink, but it could never really keep me away.
Both hockey and my cancer journey – now almost 15 years in the rear-view mirror – are inseparable parts of me. I’ve had two eye surgeries. I’m 5'4" – much shorter than both my dad (6'3") and my younger brother (6'0"). “I think he’s been a quiet fighter ever since his illness. Don't underestimate him,” my dad said of my treatment. My mum told me that the bond between my brother and I was forged during those years. “They have the strongest bond between any siblings I know.” But the most enduring impression is a deep passion for hockey that, although I didn’t know it at the time, was undoubtedly a critical part of my recovery. ✈️
✍️ Stuart Miller-Davis is a recent graduate of the Carleton journalism program and a sports nut. When not at home or in class, he can be found at the hockey rink or the football field or the basketball court. Stuart is now based in Montreal and writes for the Ottawa Sportspage.