Cancer can affect anyone at anytime, including sports figures. In our ongoing series Super Surivors, we look back at those who've battled cancer and survived. Here's a look at those in the NHL.
Super Mario was at the peak of his powers when cancer interrupted his career and endangered his life. Lemieux was on pace to threaten Wayne Gretzky’s seemingly untouchable records of 92 goals and 215 points in a single season when he made a shocking announcement on Jan. 12, 1993: He had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and would be undergoing intensive radiation treatment. His remarkable return later that season — he still led the NHL in scoring despite missing two months of play — earned him the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication. It was perhaps the most gratifying and hard-earned award of Lemieux’s decorated career. “Notwithstanding Gretzky’s abiding majesty, posterity will never forget that no athlete, not even the sainted Lou Gehrig, has ever before Lemieux been struck down by a deadly disease at the very moment when he was the best of his sport at the best he ever would be,” wrote legendary sportswriter Frank Deford.
The first European player to captain the legendary Montreal Canadiens, the Finnish center was six seasons into a decorated 18-year career when he received the diagnosis of Burkitt’s lymphoma, a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, in 2001, which forced him to miss the vast majority of the 2001-02 season. Much like fellow center Mario Lemieux — who was among the well-wishers who buoyed Koivu’s spirits following the diagnosis — Koivu made a remarkably rapid return to the ice, playing in the season’s final three games despite being expected to miss the entire season and earning the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication. Koivu continued to play at a high level until his retirement following the 2013-14 season, finishing with 1,124 career games played and 255 goals — the majority of those coming after his return to the ice from cancer.
Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup champion, but his most important victory came in his fight against cancer, which threatened to end his career before it had really begun. In December 2006, shortly into his rookie season with the Boston Bruins, Kessel was diagnosed with testicular cancer, but only five days later, following surgery, he was declared cancer-free and returned to the ice for the Bruins on Jan. 9, missing only 11 regular-season games. The right winger is a three-time NHL All-Star and has been a key contributor to the last two Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins teams. In 2017, he was ranked as the fourth-best active U.S.-born player in the NHL. Entering the 2017-18 season, Kessel was one of four players with an active streak of 600 or more consecutive games played — a remarkable tribute to his determination and grit.
Coming off a season in which he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the first playoff appearance in franchise history, Cullen was in the 12th season of a successful NHL career when persistent flu-like symptoms led to a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A difficult course of treatment included a bone marrow transplant that compromised his immune system, as well as an incident of cardiac arrest. In April 1998, Cullen was declared cancer free and immediately began training for a comeback, playing in four of the Lightning’s first eight games of the 1998-99 season. His speed and strength diminished, Cullen elected to retire, but like Lemieux, Koivu and Kessel, he was honored with the Bill Masterton Trophy for his courageous return to the ice. The International Hockey League (now defunct) renamed its Comeback Player of the Year Award the John Cullen Award.