Near the end of his first full professional season, which he split between the Wheeling Nailers and Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL, Chris Kushneriuk couldn't shake the nagging pains. He thought it was just the regular wear and tear of hockey, but it was when he finally visited a specialist that the then-25-year-old received the news no one wants to hear.
Kushneriuk was diagnosed with Stage 4 testicular cancer, which had over time spread to the lymph nodes in his abdomen as well as his liver. When the cancer grew resistant to his chemotherapy treatment, Kushneriuk pursued more drastic treatment courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Einhorn at Indiana University, who previously had treated Lance Armstrong. The treatment wouldn't be easy, and it certainly wouldn't be affordable.
That's when the hockey community suddenly banded together to show how far one man's hope and perseverance can go.
"At the time I didn't necessarily know how to respond to the situation. I'm the only person I've ever known who has had cancer," Kushneriuk told NHL.com. "My attitude through the whole thing was I wanted to be surrounded by people who knew I was going to get through it and really supported that attitude and frame of mind. My faith was my rock. Those are the two biggest things for me getting through it."
Kushneriuk had been a team captain his senior season at Robert Morris University and managed to bring that winning attitude on the ice to his battle against cancer. But he had no way of covering the costs of chemotherapy and surgical procedures, which would exceed $300,000.
Thanks to the support of coaches, teammates, friends, family and fans, Kushneriuk found a way to pay for the treatment.
"Chris was a hard-working, determined leader. For those reasons, he was captain for our team in his senior year," RMU coach Derek Schooley told NHL.com. "The guys went out and sold bracelets. We gave them each 10 bracelets to sell and guys were coming back for 20 to 30 more. It really enthralled Robert Morris' campus. The whole community got behind it."
But the efforts to help Kushneriuk went way beyond the blue "Krush Cancer" bracelets. Robert Morris held a charity auction at the annual Three Rivers Classic tournament in Pittsburgh, soliciting equipment and funds from a number of Penguins players, including Sidney Crosby and Deryk Engelland. Kushneriuk's extended hockey family also dove headfirst into the effort to help.
Staff and players in Wheeling and Bakersfield also got involved, holding charity events and raffles while setting up websites where people could donate to Kushneriuk's cause. Minto Arena in Kushneriuk's hometown of Ottawa hosted a "Krush Cancer" charity game that saw NHL players Claude Giroux, Marc Methot, Erik Condra and Erik Gudbranson participate. In a matter of months, the entire hockey world had rallied behind Kushneriuk.
"It just started as a little thing in the locker room. Then we said why not get the fans involved?" said Ben Farrer, one of Kushneriuk's Wheeling teammates. "He was very spiritual. All along he would just say, 'Pray for me, I'm going to get through this.' I never heard once that he had any doubt, which is unbelievable."
"He was always positive, always sure that God was going to work things out for him," said Gary Piganell, a volunteer chaplain with the Nailers who was in constant contact with Kushneriuk. "I'm sure he had his down moments, but he never stayed there. Whenever we talked to him, even if he called concerned over a test, he was always positive."
It wasn't long before Kushneriuk's attitude started inspiring people across the hockey world, perhaps none more than the team at RMU. The Colonials dedicated the 2012-13 season to their former captain and enjoyed the finest season in the program's nine-year history.
They were eliminated by Connecticut in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs, but RMU posted a school-record 20 wins. The high point of their season came at the annual Three Rivers tournament. With a 1-0 win defeat of Miami, RMU won the tourney for the first time. During the championship celebration, Kushneriuk's jersey was brought onto the ice.
A few months later, there was more good news.
After several rounds of chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and other surgical procedures, Kushneriuk announced via Twitter on Aug. 6 that he officially was cancer-free and cleared to start playing hockey again. As they had throughout his battle, the hockey community responded with waves of support.
"It seemed like a lot more people in the hockey world cared than I thought. It was pretty amazing," Kushneriuk said. "I was getting such nice messages from people who were happy for me. But also from people who needed that hope, who were going through a similar challenge in their life."
Two months removed from his big announcement, Kushneriuk has spent much of his time getting back in shape in the hopes of catching on with a pro team. He acknowledges that there will be doubts about his ability to get back in playing shape, but said he's buoyed by the belief that so many people have shown in him.
Like the players, coaches and fans in Bakersfield and Wheeling, and at Robert Morris; the volunteers at Hockey Ministries International who helped strengthen his faith; and Hockey Coaches Care, the official charitable foundation of the American Hockey Coaches Association. There's George Nerallah at Grecco Fitness in Ottawa, who helped him feel "alive again." And his mom, Lise, and girlfriend, Christiane, who held his hand through the ordeal.
He said he still is trying to figure out the best way to thank everyone for their help and support. He's hoping to start by getting back on the ice and continuing with the Krush Cancer Foundation, which he still is in the process of putting together.
"I've come an extremely long way from being bedridden to considering the idea of playing professional hockey again," Kushneriuk said. "I still want to play more than anything. I want to leave the game on my own terms, not on cancer's terms."
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