Hockey Players Aren’t Tough

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Anders Lee, Left Wing / New York Islanders - The Players' Tribune

Here’s my 26-year-journey of overcoming adversity: I broke my leg once. It was last year, right before the playoffs.

Yeah, tough break … That’s all I got.

At the time, it was mentally devastating to miss out on our run. But in the grand scheme of things? It was nothing. One broken leg. Maybe a few other dings and bruises over the years, a couple setbacks, but that’s really it. I had surgery, I rehabbed like crazy and my leg healed. Then I got to play in the NHL again.

Hockey players are known for being tough. We play with broken ribs, lose teeth and don’t miss a shift, get stitches mid game, and come back as soon as possible from anything that keeps us off the ice. But, at the end of the day, we play a game for a living. All our broken bones and bruises heal.

My friend Fenov Pierre-Louis doesn’t play hockey, but he’s the toughest guy I know. He’s on a whole different level.

Fenov is 16 years old and has Stage IV neuroblastoma. In the seven years since he has been diagnosed, he has gone through multiple surgeries. He’s had countless radiation treatments. He’s gone through chemotherapy, immunotherapy and stem cell transplants. And he does it all with a smile on his face. So when I hear people refer to me as tough because I play hockey, I think of Fenov and kids like him.

I am not tough. I am just very lucky.

I had no idea how lucky I was until I saw a video of Fenov giving a speech last October. It was at an event in New Jersey for an organization that I hadn’t heard of: The Jam Kancer In The Kan Foundation. I was blown away by the way this teenage kid walked up to the microphone in front of everybody and started talking very matter-of-factly about how he was dealing with Stage IV neuroblastoma. I had never seen a child command an entire audience with such poise. The way he spoke wasn’t morbid or depressing. It was one of the most inspiring things I had ever seen.

In his speech, Fenov talked about watching his mother cry when he was diagnosed. Then he talked about how he went through chemotherapy, radiation, stem cell treatments and countless surgeries….  

“… all with her there by my side.”

And then he pointed to his mother in the audience, and he smiled. Everybody was fighting back tears, but he was actually smiling. (Watch it for yourself and see how “tough” you are.)

I was amazed. I had found my purpose, I had found “it.” I just had this feeling come over me: I somehow have to find a way to be a part of this cause, to help this kid and kids like him.

I’ve since become friends with Fenov, and whenever we talk, I’m awed. He never mentions the battle he goes through every single day. Instead, he talks about what he’s learning in school (despite all of his treatments, he’s an Honors Student), his dreams of working in the medical field when he grows up, and how he wants to design prosthetic limbs one day.

He’s been battling cancer ever since he was nine years old, but all he ever talks about is the future, and all the positive things he wants to do. That’s courage.

A few months into the season, we brought Fenov out to an Islanders game. Scheduling was difficult, because his fight against cancer is a full-time grind. Two weeks before the game, he was in total isolation for five straight days, receiving doses of radiation to hopefully slow the growth of his cancer — doses so high that everything was a risk for contamination. That meant no computer, no phone, no textbooks, nothing. He also had to throw away the plates and utensils he used for each meal, and even the special mattress he slept on.

But we still got him out to our game against the Capitals a week later. I met him right before we went out for warmups, and presented him with his own Islanders sweater, with PIERRE-LOUIS on the back.

You would have no idea that this kid was sick if somebody didn’t tell you. He looked and sounded amazing. We even had a little extra surprise for him after the first intermission. He got to ride on the back of the Zamboni as it cleaned the ice, in front of thousands of fans. When we watched the video in the locker room with Fenov and his family after the game, I was amazed by his infectious spirit. It was incredible. He had a huge smile on his face the entire time, and he was waving and blowing kisses to the crowd. One week he’s going through his radiation treatments, the next week he’s blowing kisses to an arena full of people.

During the grind of an NHL season, it can be easy to lose perspective on life. But when you meet kids like Fenov, it makes you realize how lucky you are. When you walk through a hospital and see kids’ rooms completely decked out in Islanders gear, it suddenly hits you how much joy the game brings to people.

You see that something as simple as a group of guys winning or losing has the power to literally make sick kids feel better, even if it’s only for a moment or two. As players, we know hockey is a business — there’s so much pressure to win. But you don’t ever hear kids talk about stuff like that. To them, sports are everything but a business. They look at us as superheroes, which still blows me away to this day.

I’m just a regular guy who happens to play hockey. That’s probably how most hockey players would describe themselves. All those mornings I spent practicing when I was a kid in Minnesota … I never really imagined a kid looking up to me and telling me that I was his favorite player.

Then it happens. You’re standing there and some kid just blurts it out before you’re ready. It’s so simple, really. You don’t even have to do anything.

“You’re my favorite player.”

It’s something that you never forget. A kid always means it when they say it. So it’s really hard to know what to say back. It brings you back to your childhood hockey days when hockey was just hockey.

Moments like that always put things into perspective for me, and make me want to do something more, and everything clicked when I met Fenov. His attitude made me realize how much I had taken for granted in my life. All through my childhood I dreamed about being able to play professional hockey, and here was a kid whose dream was to be healthy so he could grow up and help other people. When I heard that, I felt like I had to do something. Kids shouldn’t have to dream about being healthy —they should dream about being police officers, astronauts, teachers, or even hockey players.

During the down time I spent recovering from my broken leg last spring and summer, I did a great deal of research into starting my own charitable foundation. I had been thinking about it for a while, but there’s a lot that goes into doing it right, and I didn’t know the first thing about it. I had seen the great works my former teammate Matt Martin and other athletes had done with their foundations, how they decided where to focus their energies, the events they used to raise money, and knew I had to find my own way.

I didn’t just want to put my name on something without a purpose, without meaning something to me. It needed to hit home. Once I saw Fenov’s speech, and learned more about the Jam Kancer In The Kan Foundation, I knew I had found my platform. Kan-Jam is a game we played all the time when I was going to school at Notre Dame, and in the backyard at home in Minnesota. The game is easy enough: You toss a frisbee while your partner tries to deflect it into a sort-of trash can and score a point. It’s a blast, and the best part is that pretty much anyone can throw a frisbee. I wanted whatever I did to be all-inclusive, and Kan Jam is exactly that.

Last weekend at the Barclay’s Center on the Brooklyn Nets’ practice court, we kicked off the first annual Anders Lee Kancer Jam. Even after a tough overtime loss to the Blue Jackets, every single one of my teammates showed up and stayed for hours. It says a lot about the guys in our room and how much they care about the community. (Unreal, boys. Thank you.)

All of the proceeds from the Kancer Jam are being donated to children being treated for cancer at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center on Long Island, which is one of the hospitals that our Islanders’ team visits every year.

The event was a lot of fun, and thanks to our fundraisers and donors we raised nearly $100,000 on the day. But the best part? Everybody there got to hear Fenov make another amazing speech. Now they understand what I’ve been saying all along: with all due respect to my Islanders teammates, the pound-for-pound toughest guy I know is none other than my friend Fenov Pierre-Louis.




For more information on the Anders Lee Kancer Jam, click here.

 

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