When the New York Islanders held their annual Hockey Fights Cancer night at Barclays Center on Oct. 30, they hosted several children bravely fighting for their lives or in remission from the disease. Right wing Cal Clutterbuck wanted to do everything he could to help provide a distraction, even if only for a few hours.
He met each child individually after the Islanders' 5-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs and took pictures. He signed autographs. He gave them pucks and other memorabilia.
"I think it's important to get over the massive elephant in the room; how they're feeling, how they're doing, just bypass that whole thing and just not even bring it into the conversation," Clutterbuck said. "Just let them be distracted for 15 minutes."
Naturally, as any parent would, Clutterbuck thought of his young daughters, Harper and Willow.
"I couldn't even imagine my kids …" Clutterbuck said.
His voice trailed off. Understandably, he couldn't come up with the right words. The thought of either of them having to endure such a battle is painful to even think about.
"You don't even know what to say," Clutterbuck said. "You see kids like that, you just want to help them smile for a day. It's a testament to the potential for human strength. Their parents are there and they're fighting as hard as they can fight, as every parent would be. But it's tough to be on the outside looking in at that."
Clutterbuck has experience watching someone he cares deeply about fight this disease. Five years ago, while he was playing for the Minnesota Wild, doctors discovered his mother, Jocelyne, had tumors in her salivary gland. Several surgeries were required due to the tumors' close proximity to her lymph nodes, but they kept recurring.
"It was difficult," Clutterbuck said. "I think it's one of those things where first you hear it and you think the worst, and then you start getting more and more positive as the results come in and you talk to the doctors. But it's an up-and-down road; it's good one day, and it's not good another day.
"I think just the biggest thing is the attitude that most people have that are actually in it themselves. That's the most inspiring thing about it."
Still, concentration was tough to come by on game nights. While Clutterbuck had a job to do, his heart and mind were with his mom in southern Ontario.
"It's tough. It's always in the back of your mind," Clutterbuck said. "It's kind of a constant level of unsettled feelings when you're just around and things are going well and you're distracted, and then all of a sudden something pops back into your head. It dulls your mood a little bit instantly. But I think with the years that have gone by, you learn how to deal with it.
"It definitely makes you appreciate the things that they have done for you. I went through the whole cycle of having kids myself, and you realize what true unselfishness really is. Definitely, there's been a period of realization."
Cancer continues to affect thousands of families each day, including Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson, whose wife, Nicholle, recently was diagnosed with the disease. After taking a short leave of absence, Anderson returned to the Senators and made 37 saves in a 2-0 win at the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday, before leaving Ottawa again on Thursday.
Clutterbuck admitted it was difficult watching on television while Anderson was in tears on the ice, his teammates consoling him with a bear hug one at a time.
"It seems people are getting diagnosed earlier and earlier and younger and younger," Clutterbuck said. "You never want to see that. But I think the initial shock wears off and you become very positive toward what you're going to do to beat it.
"I think it was good for him to go out there and be in his element. Honestly, as a hockey player, there's nothing more familiar than being around here. You get some news like that sometimes, and you just want to be somewhere that feels comfortable. It was a great night for him and some tough news, but hopefully things will work out."
Much like how things are going for one of the most important people in Clutterbuck's life. He's proud of the way his mother has fought, her ability to face her condition head-on, and her willingness, strength and bravery to do whatever is needed to overcome it.
"I have confidence in my mom that she's doing everything she can to be well, and she's doing a great job," Clutterbuck said. "She's in a good place right now, and we're all happy about that.
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