As the director of player personnel for the Minnesota Wild, Blair Mackasey spends most of his days at a hockey rink. He’s in charge of pro scouting for the franchise and his life revolves around ice arenas. So, it was with a cruel twist of fate that Mackasey was given the scariest news of his life at Xcel Energy Center.
Mackasey, who played one game in the National Hockey League with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1976–77 season, was in Ufa, Russia, scouting the IIHF World Junior Championship for the Wild. The day after the World Juniors wrapped, the NHL lockout ended on Sunday, Jan. 6 and Mackasey headed back to Minnesota for the start of the season.
As customary during the Wild’s training camps he underwent a physical, along with the rest of the team’s staff and scouts. Things with his physical went as planned, but when asked by team medical director, Dr. Sheldon Burns, if anything had changed from the last time he visited, Mackasey said that he had a bump on his throat. He took a CT (Computer Tomography) scan, and Mackasey, who really had no ill effects from his trip overseas, went along with his day preparing for camp.
Thanks to the lockout, Minnesota only had a week of training camp to prepare for the season. If the shortened regular season was a mad dash, training camp, with no preseason games, was a furious scramble. In order to get one game-speed experience, the club organized an Intra-Squad Scrimmage for the night of Wednesday, Jan. 16.
The Intra-Squad Scrimmage was played like a regular-season game, the works: National Anthem, television timeouts and a crowd of more than 13,000.
As Wild’s staff watched from the press box, the team skated with a smattering of players from the club’s minor league affiliate, Houston Aeros; Mackasey was called to the trainers’ room between periods. Dr. Burns delivered the life-altering news: he had throat cancer.
“It was not the ideal place to be told,” Mackasey recalled. “It’s not every day you get told you have cancer during a hockey game.”
Mackasey, who never smoked, said the cancer was caused by a virus and was the same type as former Denver Nuggets Coach George Carl, actor Michael Douglas and Sports Illustrated writer Michael Farber. Luckily, they detected the malady in its early stages. Burns told Mackasey that he’d have to go home for treatment. For a man who spent most of the season on the road scouting NHL teams and their minor league affiliates, one of his first thoughts was on how it would affect his job.
“He worried about missing games; we laugh about that now,” Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr said. “But it was a scary time. Bigger picture (work) doesn't mean anything.”
Mackasey, who also played minor-league baseball in the Montreal Expos organization, returned home to Montreal for treatment. There, he met with the Montreal Canadiens’ head physician, Dr. David Mulder.
While the Wild fought for playoff positioning during the regular season, Mackasey battled cancer. He went through 35 radiation treatments, Monday through Friday, for seven weeks with three large chemo doses every three weeks.
Mackasey found support in his family, his four children and wife Debbie. “He's as a stubborn of a guy as you can find,” Flahr joked. “He battled through it, his poor wife was probably miserable.”
He also found encouragement from the Wild organization and the greater hockey community.
“The mental aspect with cancer is as important than the actual physical side,” Mackasey said. “A lot of support from the hockey community, not just the Wild, who are great. I was getting emails, texts and calls from general managers. You work for different teams you compete against each other, but it’s a community. You see the same people and look out for each other. The support was overwhelming and I was very appreciative.”
Thanks to the NHL Center Ice Package, even when he was exhausted from the radiation treatments and chemotherapy, he was able to scout, although watching games on television doesn’t give the full perspective of the game.
“I was watching games every night,” Mackasey said. ”I saw pretty much all of our games down the stretch—I saw our last 20 games on TV. It’s nice when you get sick like that to turn on the TV and have a choice of 3-4 games to try and learn from.”
“His love of hockey got him there,” Flahr added. “Making the playoffs was exciting to watch. Hockey helped him get through it. Now he's getting stronger, he looks better and more positive going forward. He's excited to get going.”
With cancer in remission, Mackasey was in Saint Paul last week for organizational meetings as the team makes personnel decisions for next season. He still suffers from side effects including no taste and a lack of saliva, but he’s healthy and glad to be back in mix.
“It’s not a pleasant treatment,” Mackasey said. “But the cure rate is good so you can't ask for much more than that.”
All that Mackasey is asking for now is a clean bill of health and watching hockey games while scouting for good news—like the Wild piling up wins.