VANCOUVER -- Defenseman Erik Gudbranson lives in the moment for the same reasons those moments might become emotional when the Vancouver Canucks have their Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness night against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday.
Gudbranson was 11 years old when his youngest brother, 6-year-old Dennis, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Dennis is cancer free now, a 19-year-old student at Concordia University in Montreal, thanks to a bone marrow donor who saved his life. But his battle had a lasting impact on Erik, whose job as the oldest sibling was to take care of the other two at home so Dennis could focus on getting better.
"It just made me grow up a lot quicker than I probably should have," Gudbranson said. "I have a very different outlook on life than most people do. I latch on to positivity. I think it goes a long way to be positive and to be hopeful, and it's made me appreciate the little moments. Just like my brother does, I live very presently. On a day-to-day basis I focus on exactly what I am doing at that point in time and enjoy it as best as possible and try to stretch out every single day for what it is. It's made me take on life like that."
It also gave Gudbranson a unique appreciation for the impact he can have as an NHL player.
Before getting the transplant, Dennis got a phone call from then Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, who had missed most of the 2001-02 season with a cancer battle of his own.
"I remember the feeling our whole family had when Saku called," Gudbranson said. "He was Dennis's favorite player and he took time out of his summer to call. It took him 20 to 25 minutes to talk to us and it made all the difference in the world.
"From my end, we're in a very powerful position. For someone in that situation smiles are hard to come by and if you can provide one, relieving stress and taking your mind off the current situation is the biggest thing you can do. It creates hope, it creates positivity in a very dark environment where the doors may seem closed and the light at the end of the tunnel might not be there. I have that understanding."
So does Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller.
Miller launched the Steadfast Foundation to support cancer patients and their families after his cousin, Matt Schoals, died in 2007 at the age of 18 from complications of a bone marrow transplant that followed an acute lymphoblastic leukemia diagnosis two years earlier.
"We saw him go through so many ups and downs, and we started to realize the mental side was a big part of it and wanted to help with that," said Miller, who has had "Matt Man" painted on the back of his mask ever since to honor his cousin. "You see what a family goes through and how it still deeply affects our family, and it's not something you are ever really going to get over, you just try to move forward. So we started fundraising to show Matt and other younger people he met in hospital that people are thinking about them and it grew from there."
Gudbranson has been involved with several cancer awareness and fundraising initiatives in the League, including growing an annual moustache to support Movember. In addition to Hockey Fights Cancer, he is most involved with the Canadian Blood Services National Public Cord Blood Bank, which preserves valuable stem cells from umbilical cords that can be used to treat leukemia and lymphoma but are otherwise treated as medical waste.
Helping to educate expectant mothers about the importance of preserving those stem cells hits home for Gudbranson because of what his brother went through. Dennis' cancer went into remission after six months of chemotherapy and an estimated 75 transfusions, but when it returned a few months later, the only solution was a bone marrow transplant. With no matches in the family, the Gudbransons turned to Canadian Blood Services. The odds of finding a perfect match were 1 in 40,000, but they found one in a woman in Newfoundland.
Erik knows how lucky they were, and he wants to improve the odds for others by preserving umbilical cords.
"I look at it like you have given one life already, you may be able to give two," he said.
Gudbranson knows cancer affects people in many different ways. His grandfather lost a battle with lymphoma and his billet dad from his junior hockey days in Kingston, Ontario, was recently diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer and only has months to live. For all those reasons, the NHL's annual Hockey Fights Cancer initiative hits home.
"I don't think there are many people on this planet that can say cancer hasn't affected them in some way, and I am really thankful the NHL and all the teams put such a big effort to promote this and get everybody talking about it and create that awareness and raise money," Gudbranson said. "I am very passionate about it because the hockey community is what pulled us through it; it really is."