Updated March 26, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. PT
EDMONTON -- "I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for."
Those were the words of baseball legend Lou Gehrig in his farewell speech on July 4, 1939. Gehrig, diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), died less than two years later.
Also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS is a specific motor neuron disease that causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles. According to the ALS Society of Canada (ALS Canada), more than 200,000 people around the world are living with ALS, including approximately 3,000 Canadians.
Among them is Danny Getzlaf, a longtime Ducks fan diagnosed with ALS in November 2017. Gehrig's quote hits home for Danny, who treats every day like it is his last. A native of Saskatchewan, Danny is - you guessed it - related to Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf. Danny lives in nearby Morinville, Alberta with his wife, Linda, and both were in Edmonton on Sunday to catch the Ducks-Oilers game at Rogers Place.
Wearing a classic Getzlaf-worn white Mighty Ducks jersey with No. 51 on it, Danny gave some insight on his relation to the Ducks captain.
"I had my sister do a little bit more research," he says. "My great grandfather - he was one of the two brothers that came over from Russia - they split. I'm off one family and [Ryan's] off the other family. Never met him. My dad died in 1979 when I was 13. He had a heart attack in my arms. I grew up not knowing any of the Getzlafs. This is what attracted me, when [Ryan] started playing for the [Western Hockey League's] Calgary Hitmen. He's not a direct cousin, but it's off the bloodline."
After all these years, Danny and Ryan had never met. "My dad died even before Ryan was born," Danny says. "Any reunions I had a chance to attend I never attended because I had no one to go with. I don't know the history to talk to people about it. I'd love to meet him, but I don't want to make it this whole 'cousin' thing. That would make him feel awkward. But if you look at him and his brother [Chris - retired Canadian Football League player], I kinda look like them. I'm a little bit heavier these days. [Laughs]."
Danny certainly has the height. Standing 6-foot-6, you can't miss him, especially with his Mighty Ducks jersey. The iconic photo of him sitting amongst a sea of Oilers fans in Game 3 of the Second Round last spring was the Ducks' most-liked Instagram post of 2017. It didn't take long for Danny to find out he was making the rounds on social media. "We were sitting in our seats at the time and someone actually texted us the photo," he says. Linda, who works in real estate, says one of her clients texted her the photo.
"When I look at that photo of me with all the Oilers fans, and now since I've been diagnosed with ALS, I'd like to think those people aren't against me, but they're there supporting me," Danny says. "Sports is one thing, but mankind is a different thing. I'd like to treat it that way."
It began with a doctor's appointment on August 28, 2017. Danny says he was just joking with his doctor saying he couldn't move his big toe. It was far more serious.
"Five days later, [my doctor] got me to see a neurologist at the hospital," Danny recalls. "He didn't even pay attention to my toe. He noticed my hands were starting to waste away and all the muscles in my left arm. From there on, it snowballed. By October 31, I was basically diagnosed."
He got the verbal confirmation in late November. He has seen eight neurologists, all of which, he says, confirmed the diagnosis. The news hit hard for Danny and Linda.
"We didn't sleep for a week," Linda says. "It was such a shock."
ALS is a frightening disease. According to the ALS Society of Canada, approximately 80 percent of people with ALS die within two to five years of being diagnosed.
"You just don't know when it's going to happen," Linda says. "One day he can wake up and his legs aren't working properly. I know a lady's daughter who had problems with her foot in January. By the summer, she couldn't function very well and by October she was in a wheelchair. By January of the next year, she was immobile and couldn't talk. They gave her a month to live."
While there is no cure for ALS, a few treatment options are available. Danny says he is taking a drug that, on average, gives a person another 2-3 months. "That's a lot of 'I love yous' and a lot of hugs," he says. "My dad died in my arms. He never had the opportunity to say 'I love you.' He got a couple grunts out, but was he trying to say 'I love you' or was he just in pain? I get to talk about my journey. I get to see another Ducks game."
He has even begun the process of banking/recording his voice in the event he loses it for good. "No guarantee I'll lose my voice because everybody is different," he says. "They can't promise me that I'm not going to lose my voice. I have the traditional one that starts in my limbs. It's amazing that your mind still works and your body slowly diminishes."
'We Play it Day by Day'
That is how Danny and Linda approach each day. Danny, a true hockey guy, broke it down in hockey terms.
"I'd like to treat it like a hockey playoff game," he says. "You give it your all today and enjoy the day because you don't know what tomorrow will bring. If you lose the series, you're out. Tomorrow, my health might change so drastically, I might never see another game. You never know."
Linda adds, "We have to think of the future in some context, financially, and things like that. Not think so far in the future like when he can't walk or when he can't do this or that. We're not going that far ahead. Today is today. We play it day by day."
Danny says he finds inspiration watching Ryan and the Ducks on a daily basis as he continues his battle with ALS. "Every day there is going to be a change," he says. "Ryan can change the game in the blink of an eye.
"Even if they're down one or two goals in the last two or three minutes, they seem to pull it out," he says. "I just have to think of that with my journey - to have that drive they have. Every day there is going to be a change, every week or every year - I'm hoping years."
Little did Danny know, his goal of meeting Ryan was about to become a reality.
During the first intermission of Sunday's game, Danny was surprised with two guest passes (one for him and one for his wife) to meet Ryan after the game outside the Ducks locker room. Overcome with emotion, Danny and Linda broke into tears.
After the Ducks pulled off their thrilling comeback victory in overtime (they erased multiple deficits in the third period), Danny and Linda were escorted downstairs. Minutes later, Ryan came out to introduce himself. The moments were captured below.