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Jason Blake case triggers memories of cancer battle for Saku Koivu

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Saku Koivu was reminded of his own battle with cancer when he heard that Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Blake had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.

The Montreal Canadiens captain missed most of the 2001-02 season with abdominal cancer, returning in time for the playoffs after chemotherapy treatments had helped send his non-Hodgkins lymphoma into remission.

Unlike Blake, who will be able to play while treating his chronic myelogenous leukemia, Koivu wasn't sure he'd survive his treatment, let alone return to play, and the experience still scars him.

"Every time you hear the word cancer or see someone who is going through it, it brings back the memories, it's part of me right now," Koivu said Tuesday in Montreal. "There's some positive things I took from that experience but there's also a lot of negative things as well.

"It's there, but it gets easier the more time you get away from the whole thing."

The 32-year-old said he would make a point of talking to Blake, if not by phone, than the next time the teams play Nov. 3 at Montreal.

"I don't know much about his case, but it's shocking and very emotional right now and it will take some time," said Koivu. "It took me a while to get over it and get on with my life. At this point, it's extremely important to have his teammates, friends and family around him to give him support."

Carolina Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour recalled when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers and head coach Roger Neilson announced that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma in December 1999.

"It was pretty devastating," Brind'Amour said in Toronto after the Hurricanes finished up their pre-game skate. "It sounds like they're a lot more optimistic (with Blake) than what he had. That's always the big thing, is he going to be all right? In Roger's case it was never optimistic."

Neilson continued to coach until Feb. 20, 2000 before handing over the reins to assistant coach Craig Ramsay ahead of a stem cell transplant. Brind'Amour said the Flyers managed to take it all in stride.

"You get used to it," he said. "At first you feel for the guy and what he has to go through. But how he approached it, Roger never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him and he approached it like everything was normal."

Neilson was later diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer, and he died June 21, 2003.

"What it does for everyone, whether you're a hockey player or not, it puts things back into perspective," said Brind'Amour. "The game is the game and it's not necessarily that big a thing."

Maple Leafs forward Darcy Tucker, meanwhile, is watching a teammate battle cancer for the second time in his career. In January 1998, he was traded from the Montreal Canadiens to the Tampa Bay Lightning, shortly after the team had learned that John Cullen had non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Cullen underwent chemotherapy sessions and had bone marrow transplants, returning to play four games with the Lightning in 1998-99 before retiring.

"It's different circumstances, John had to leave the hockey club and wasn't able to be around the guys," said Tucker. "(Blake) is going to need to lean on us and sometimes we're going to need to lean on him for information.

"He's a character person, he's added a lot to our hockey club and a dimension we haven't had in the past with his speed and tenaciousness," added Tucker. "As teammates it's great to have him around us, we wouldn't have it any other way."

Perhaps the most prominent cancer survivor in the NHL is Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, began radiation treatment in February 1993 and returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins a month later.

Hours after receiving his last radiation treatment, Lemieux flew to Philadelphia and had a goal and assist in his first game in two months. He went on to win his fourth NHL scoring title despite missing 24 games, more than one-quarter of the season.

Last season, Boston Bruins centre Phil Kessel missed a month after undergoing surgery for testicular cancer.

-With files from Bill Beacon in Montreal.

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