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Hockey Fights Cancer

Jets rally around massage therapist during cancer battles

'He's a fighter,' forward Perreault says of Al Pritchard, who's survived two surgeries

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Al Pritchard has a sharper focus than most on Hockey Fights Cancer month in the NHL.

The Winnipeg Jets massage therapist, who has battled kidney cancer and thyroid cancer in the past five years, was moved as most people were when he saw cancer patients Sam, 4, Drea, 6, Owen, 10 and Amara, 14, drop their pucks in a special Hockey Fights Cancer pregame ceremony before the game between the Jets and Columbus Blue Jackets at Bell MTS Place on Saturday.

But he knows there is so much more to every story.

 

[RELATED: Complete Hockey Fights Cancer Coverage]

 

"That just breaks your heart, and to hear the P.A. announcer who's telling you everything they've been through," Pritchard said. "When those kids come in, it means a lot to me because I've been through it. But not even in the same stratosphere as them. That young, battling so hard and oblivious to pain already... they shouldn't have to go through that in a whole lifetime."

Pritchard, the 41-year-old from Roland, Manitoba, 55 miles southwest of Winnipeg, has been the massage therapist with the Jets since 2011. He is all in for the fight against cancer after undergoing a successful partial nephrectomy, losing one-eighth of his kidney in 2014, then a successful total thyroidectomy during training camp this season.

He'll be on medication for the rest of his life to make up for his thyroid, but he was able to return to work to start the regular season.

For Hockey Fights Cancer month, Pritchard said he's thrilled to see how the Jets and the entire NHL have embraced the cause.

"No one can sit back and not have a story about it anymore," Pritchard said. "So, when these players put on ... a jersey or something, people notice. And if it can raise money for research, well, that's overwhelming and it's great that the owners and teams and players are so supportive, from the tape on sticks to the jerseys to stickers on helmets.

"It makes you proud that you can move money to people to help the fight against cancer. And not only for the cure, because maybe it's not a tangible thing in our lifetime, but even if it's just helping with money for somebody who needs gas to get to a chemo treatment or wigs for people, anything that can help, that's so awesome. Because once you have cancer, you'll spend any amount of money on things to try to get better or save a person. So, when I see these families come in to drop a puck and hear how long they've been battling, you know that mom might have quit her job or dad is maybe working double time, you know it's hard on them."

Before his own cancer diagnoses, Pritchard had already been hit hard by the disease. When he was a teenager, his older brother Michael was diagnosed with sarcoma and died when he was 28.

"With my past history with family and friends, there are not a lot of good stories I have to share about cancer," he said. "I hate the disease. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. It's one of those things that you don't have a lot of family or friends that have made it through and I'm very fortunate I didn't have to have the radiation or the chemo and be down and out for months and years."

He also said he's fortunate to be surrounded by an exceptional family, including his wife Rachel, son Nicholas, 12, and daughter Addison, 9, and by remarkable friends and co-workers.

In 2014, and again this season, his colleagues on the Jets medical and training staff, the players and coaches showed their support by wearing gear sporting a special logo with the words "Pritch Strong" circling a cartooned jet.

The Jets also attached stickers with that logo to their helmets.

"It gives you such a warm feeling a great feeling, and I swallowed and tried not to cry," Pritchard said. "It meant somebody went out of their way. It was a very humbling moment for me, proud, too, that so many people cared and stepped up to make that come together in such a short time. There aren't any words that can really say what it means. Very blessed to have people around me that are so good to me."

He is as good to them, forward Mathieu Perreault pointed out.

"He's a fighter, this guy," Perreault said. "Nothing fazes him. And these guys do everything for us. Pritchy massages guys every day. He makes the shakes, unpacks the bags on the road and sets up the room and helps the trainers with all that. They're on it non-stop, so that we can come and prepare and focus on playing hockey. They do so much for us."

Jets captain Blake Wheeler said Pritchard is a reminder about what strength really is.

"[He] is one of the most colorful, entertaining, outgoing, outspoken guys in our family," Wheeler said. "Rarely has a bad day. Even when he's gotten the really tough news, he's one of those guys that you wouldn't know it and [he] doesn't wear it. Conducts himself no differently than any other day. 

"When you talk to him and kind of peel back a couple of layers, he shows how tough it is. He's got two kids and a wife and those are the things that really pull at you from his standpoint. What he says is that I don't think he's really worried about himself or cares about himself anymore, he's worried about how his kids and his wife are going to react. Regardless of his cancer scares, he's a special part of our group and a guy that gets a laugh and we wouldn't be the same without him."

Before his surgery in late September, Pritchard said he made a point of having a great summer with his family, a mix of day trips to the lake and simply camping out in their newly finished basement.

"They (his children) are at the age that they still want to hang out with dad, so dad really wanted to hang out with them," he said. "It's a tough thing to tell your family you had cancer once. They were so young the first time, I don't know if they really knew what was going on. But to tell them again, they shouldn't have to go through that once. It's said a million times that your wife is your rock, but I leaned on her so much. She didn't need this either, and I've put her through so much stress for the last five years with these health issues."

But somehow, life on this side of his own two battles has been sweeter.

"You feel like a winner," he said. "Everything's a little bit better. Food's a little bit better. The air's a little bit better. Work is better. I think I could pretty much do anything now, if I could beat it twice. I think, 'Is it going happen again?' If it does, I'd just go after it the same way, with the support of your wife and your kids and your close family and friends."

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