NHL Seattle's assistant general manager Ricky Olczyk serves as a hockey executive and attorney. He values preparation and due diligence in both roles, whether the task is scouting players or reviewing contract language.
But nothing prepared Olczyk for when he heard the news in August 2017 that his brother Eddie was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer.
"That was very tough at the start," says Olczyk. "It was the first time going through anything of that nature, someone close having cancer and at that level.
Olczyk considers his brother "to be one of my best friends." The Olczyk family unit of mom Diana, dad Ed and brothers Ricky, Eddie and Randy is tight-knit. Lots of great meals and laughs and expressions of love in that group. Yet Ricky, like most of us looking to support and comfort a loved one facing cancer, wasn't sure at first what to say or to how to proceed in communicating with Eddie.
So Olczyk, the hockey exec and lawyer, researched, talked to contacts, scoured the internet, and read up.
"You don't know exactly what to say or how to say it," says Olczyk. The people who have gone through it said, 'be yourself, treat your brother like you've always treated him."
For "Edzo" and Ricky O that meant "I would bust his chops and he would bust my chops back."
Part of supporting someone is reading the signals.
"You'll pick up, people said, when the person wants to talk, when they don't, the good days, the bad days," explains Ricky. "We communicated every day, verbally on the phone or in person or texting."
There would be moments when Ricky invited his brother over to his place, but Eddie would say, "nah, I'm tired." Other times, Eddie would come visit only to leave 10 or 15 minutes later because he wasn't feeling well.
"He just wanted to get out and feel human again [during the six months of chemotherapy]," says Olczyk about his brother.
In his new book, "Eddie Olczyk; Beating the Odds in Hockey and Life" (Triumph), the former NHL star and NBC Sports announcer offers perspective on how we can support anyone hearing a cancer diagnosis or undergoing treatments aimed at killing cancerous cells. These treatments also result in fatigue, nausea, not feeling anything like your true self and numerous other side effects.
"I learned just how difficult it is for some people to talk to someone going through cancer," writes Olczyk. "I understand it's not an easy conversation to have with somebody you love and respect, but in today's world it's easy to communicate with somebody-text, email, Twitter. If you don't reach out to somebody you know in this situation, it makes it worse for them … I would urge to reach out and say something. It could be as easy as saying, "I'm thinking about you and I'm praying for you."
The book, co-authored by journalist Perry Lefko, is a must-read for any hockey fan or person looking for renewed faith in the human spirit. It is especially insightful for understanding the mindset of someone facing cancer.
"When people called and said they didn't want to bother me, I told them they weren't bothering me," writes Olczyk. "I needed to talk to somebody. I wanted to hear from somebody. I wanted to communicate with somebody. I want people to know it means a lot when they reach out. It helps someone get through a day because the days are so long."
Eddie Olczyk is one of the NHL ambassadors this month for the league's "Hockey Fights Cancer" annual initiative in November. But the former Blackhawks star-a Chicago kid who was drafted in the first round by his hometown team and scored in his first game as an 18-year-old-set his sights on encouraging people to get screened for colon cancer even when he was still undergoing exhaustive chemotherapy doses.
"Eddie's always felt strongly his cancer diagnosis and treatment be shared with our entire fan base," says Jay Blunk, executive vice president of the Chicago Blackhawks franchise, which these days employs Eddie as an announcer in the broadcast booth with Pat Foley. "His purpose of recovering on a public stage, sweeping away any privacy, was to help others."
Foley was one of those friends who decided to be himself with his partner in the TV booth. He vowed to never get off the phone with his pal without making him laugh at least once.
Another challenging part of a cancer diagnosis and ensuing treatment is looking for ways to comfort the patient's parents. For his part, Ricky Olczyk says both his mother and father were "rocks" during the process.
"My mom is the typical Italian mother … if anything happens to her babies," says Ricky, emotional (the "Italian in me" he quipped later). "My parents and I had good heart-to-heart talks. We said we would support [Eddie] any way we could. We prayed a lot."
Olczyk says he would quietly observe his mother "break down several times" at the kitchen table in the family home.
"She would be thinking and praying," said Olczyk. "She tried not to let anybody else see her."
Olczyk says his sister-in-law Eddie's wife-also named Diana-was another "rock" and perhaps most influential in her husband's recovery. At one of his lowest moments, Eddie Olczyk writes that his wife stood face-to-face with him: "You've got to fight for me, for the kids [daughter Zandra and sons Eddie, Nick and Tommy], for the many people who love you and are counting on you. If you don't have the ability right now to do this for yourself, look around and do it for us."
Diana Olczyk reflects on her perspective in the book: "I think going through chemo treatment and just seeing how it affected [her husband] physically and mentally, you need someone to give you a shake. I think all of us every now and then fall into a dark place where you go, woe is me, but you've just got to find the fight."