|Fernando Pisani overcame ulcerative colitis to return to his role as a top-six forward for the Oilers. Fernando Pisani highlights|
"I would have bet my house on the fact that he wasn't coming back this season," Horcoff told NHL.com.
Pisani, who was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2005, suffered a major flare-up of the condition this past summer. His body stopped absorbing food or fluids, and he lost 30 pounds and six pints of blood. He needed blood transfusions and spent most of the summer in and out of the hospital.
Despite all that, Pisani recovered to not only live a normal life, but return to his role as a top-six forward for the Oilers. For his perseverance and dedication, the writers who cover the Oilers made Pisani their nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.
"It was at the point where if I took a sip of water, I had to run to the bathroom," Pisani told NHL.com. "When I was sick I couldn't drink or eat or leave my house. I was having to stay close to a bathroom. I was losing blood every time I went to the bathroom, losing weight and energy. It came to the point that walking up the stairs at home zapped me. It was no way to live. It was frustrating.
"You go from being an athlete, so strong and so confident and so on top of the world, and in a matter of weeks, I went to where walking down a hallway was just a task for me."
Frail and gaunt, Pisani asked teammates not to visit him in the hospital. But like good friends, they ignored him and came anyway.
"When he was at his worst, he really didn't want anybody to see him because he was not looking for pity," Horcoff said. "He didn't want that. He wanted to deal with it himself. But his closer friends saw him at the hospital. When I saw him at that point, he had lost 30 pounds, pale white. He looked like a ghost. That's when it hit home with me.
"It took a lot to go in there and talk to him and lift his spirits."
And there was a lot to lift.
The only known cure for colitis is surgery to remove some or all of the colon. It's a difficult procedure that sometimes can leave the patient with permanent need for a colostomy bag. Not only would Pisani's NHL career have been over, his life would have been changed permanently. At just 31, that path was unacceptable for Pisani. He had plans for a life that included the NHL and a certain quality of life with his wife, Heidi, and their children.
"The one doctor said surgery is inevitable, it's something you're going to have to deal with and cope with and I said no, that wasn't an option for me," Pisani said. "I knew what it entailed and it would change my life and livelihood. That's when I switched doctors, and I remember this very clearly because when I went to see him (the new doctor), he looked at me and I was very frail and gray, no color, motionless, and he said we have one real kick at this and he hit me with a bunch of meds … and I had five or six days to see how I reacted and from there if I didn't respond, I was looking at surgery.
"I was seeing surgeons, they were coming in every second day. They didn't want my body to deteriorate too much. If it deteriorated too much, I wouldn't have been healthy enough to go through the surgery. It was a pretty scary time. … I was sitting in the hospital, and you pray and hope the meds kick in and you hope you don't have to go through that."
Pisani started the new drug regimen in September, and fairly quickly a light went on.
"I felt better," he said. "I saw some improvements. It wasn't enough to say I was out of the woods. It was more where I was able to eat food and keep it in my body."
When Pisani felt strong enough, he began spending time with teammates around the rink. Even though there was no timetable for his return, his gear was left in his dressing room stall, ready for him to put it on at any time.
It wasn't easy for Pisani to work his way back into hockey shape. All the weight loss left him with no stamina, and he had to measure his workouts to make sure there was no further flare-up with his disease.
"I couldn't push my body to see how I'd react because I didn't want to have any setbacks," said Pisani. "It was a process. Every day was seeing how I felt and hoping for the meds to kick in. Just assess it from there."
Progress was slow, but Pisani began skating with the team in November, and amazingly played his first game Dec. 2. He's played all 47 games since then, totaling 11 goals and 18 points while averaging 16 minutes per night.
Pisani said he's the same player who scored back-to-back game-winning goals in the 2006 Western Conference Final against Anaheim and again in the Stanley Cup Final against Carolina.
"I don't think I've had to change too much," he said. "For the most part, I'm still the same player. I just need a little more time to recover as far as not having the base to work from. I feel I'm back to normal."
One man's normal, though, is another's miraculous. And inspirational.
"When he finally did come back four months after that, it was a miracle," said Horcoff. "He hasn't been just playing; he's been playing important minutes.
"For him to come back in December was a huge lift for us. And he's a huge piece for us off the ice, as well. The way he handles himself, he's a professional, a good example to have around our locker room."
Pisani shrugs off that kind of talk.
"It's not a glamorous disease," he said. "It's very personal. If I had my way I wouldn't want to talk about it with people. But it's the situation I'm in and I've accepted it. I don't know if guys look up to me. I don't know if guys look up to me as an inspiration.
"It's great that people recognize the hard work that goes into playing the game of hockey. Just nice to see people recognize where I came from and how much hard work I did just to play this year. … It's nice to see you get recognition for working hard and overcoming obstacles. You appreciate when people recognize you work hard to do something you love."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.