Cancer gives Blackhawks fan-favorite Eddie Olczyk a new perspective
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The visitation for Frank DiCristina Sr., former owner of the Southwest Ice Arena in Crestwood, was winding down last month and the funeral home was beginning to empty.
“And Eddie walks in,” said his son, Frank.
Eddie Olczyk — the former Blackhawks forward, Olympian, coach of the Penguins and now popular broadcaster — arrived to pay his respects. He wanted to say thank you to “Mr. D” — the man who always saved ice time for him as a kid.
Olczyk talked to everyone. He looked at old photographs. And together they relived “old times,” said Frank DiCristina, the rink’s current president.
“He stayed about an hour,” DiCristina said, “which was incredible because of the day that he had.”
Olczyk’s day began at Northwestern Memorial Hospital for chemotherapy to treat his colon cancer. His usual morning appointment was moved to the afternoon. He needed to maximize his energy — Nov. 27 was too important to him.
Olczyk, 51, wanted to drop the ceremonial puck at “Hockey Fights Cancer Night” with 9-year-old Lauren Graver, who has a rare form of muscle cancer. Before the Hawks played the Devils at the United Center, Olczyk wanted to stand with Graver and other children fighting cancer.
And the kid from Brother Rice inside Olczyk also wanted to honor “Mr. D.”
With a portable pump in his pocket supplying 48 more hours of chemotherapy, Olczyk dropped the puck, gave Graver his purple jersey, then left the West Side for a funeral home in Crestwood.
“Eddie is a standup guy; he’s a class guy,” DiCristina said. “He always was and always will be. Everybody knows that.”
“What the games have done and studio has done, [it] has really energized me. It’s taken me back to a real comfortable, normal place. Do I think about [my cancer] all the time? I live with it. I have to live it with the rest of my life, but when I’m working in studio or doing the games, I just kind of do what I do.”
— Eddie Olczyk
Certain messages from Olczyk now belong to the Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team. Some are written on their board. Others they remember.
One is a reminder about role acceptance, why it’s important to handle difficult situations in hockey and also life with the right perspective.
Another references an elevator.
“Treat the people the same way on your way up as you do on your way down,” Badgers coach Tony Granato said.
Granato’s visit with Olczyk during the Hawks’ game against the Canadiens on Nov. 5 at the United Center resulted in an invitation to visit the Badgers.
And Olczyk wouldn’t miss it. He wanted to help his friend. Granato, who is from Downers Grove, said Olczyk immediately had a date in mind – Nov. 20.
“Our guys loved him,” Granato said of Olczyk’s speech and presentation. “Our guys, they’re still talking about it.”
And those guys also sent Olczyk individual letters to express their gratitude.
Olczyk spent his break from treatments doing what he loves — talking hockey and helping young players.
“That’s the same Eddie O that he was before he made it,” Granato said. “He’s Mr. NBC; he’s Mr. Hockey; he’s Mr. Blackhawks. He’s a USA Olympian. He’s a Stanley Cup champion.
“But he’s the same Eddie O. He loves the Cubs. He loves the city of Chicago. He loves his family. He loves the game of hockey. That’s him.”
“Hockey has given me pretty much everything that I have. Being away from it for as much as I have, I don’t think I appreciate it anymore because I’ve always appreciated the game. What it’s done, it’s reassured me — the people that are part of the game, I really miss that.”
The energy and emotion that Blues fans cheered with on Oct. 18 reminded NBC broadcaster Doc Emrick of March 2, 1993.
On that day in Philadelphia, Flyers fans gave a standing ovation for Penguins great Mario Lemieux, who played after his final treatment for Hodgkin’s disease.
“[Cancer] touches all of us,” said Emrick, who worked with the Flyers in the 1980s and early 1990s.
More than two decades later, Emrick was present in St. Louis when Blues fans cheered for Olczyk on Oct. 18. It was Olczyk’s first game back at work after summer surgery and his first treatments for colon cancer.
“This sounds overly philosophical and spiritual, but I think you get back in this world what you give,” Emrick said. “And he is such a giving person.”
The storyteller in Emrick has a few favorites about Olczyk, who spent 16 years in the NHL. Olczyk is a character with character.
It’s re-telling Olczyk’s tale about a nun from Brother Rice who spotted a 14-year-old Olczyk with a racing form and then whacked his hands with a yard stick.
“He always says, ‘That’s why I only have nine knuckles,’ ” Emrick said, laughing.
Or it’s meeting Olczyk for the first time when Olczyk played for the Maple Leafs. Emrick saw Olczyk walk up to former Leafs owner Harold Ballard, shake his hand and thank him for being able to play for Toronto.
“That’s just the way Eddie was,” Emrick said. “That registered for me because nobody ever did that.”
“[Hockey has] been a perfect medicine. It really has. It’s a passion and a love. The people I work with and work for have obviously been off the charts and very understanding and very accommodating.”
Diana Olczyk saw two hockey guys talking hockey. One wore a Hawks sweater and hat, the other was one of the most beloved voices in the game, her husband. Both were waiting to undergo chemotherapy for colon cancer.
“I didn’t see sickness,” Diana said.
It’s important for Olczyk to be “Edzo” when he undergoes his treatments every other week. He wants to share stories that only he could tell and to offer insight into Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
And he wants to listen.
“He’s a Chicago kid,” Diana said. “He loves people here.”
It’s embracing a grieving mother who lost her husband to colon cancer and thanks you for the financial assistance from the Eddie Olczyk Youth Hockey Award, which allows her sons to play hockey.
And it’s reading the letters from fans who share their own experiences with cancer and offer their support.
“Neither one of us can get through them if we read them verbally because we’re no good together if we’re crying,” Diana said. “But it’s been very touching to hear other peoples’ experiences.”
It’s all humbling and inspiring. Diana called it heartwarming. Olczyk, who will undergo his eighth treatment after Christmas, is full of gratitude.
Olczyk often points to his head when discussing his fight with cancer. All of it is scary. He says so often. It’s his mortality.
But Olczyk fights for his wife, Diana, and his children Eddie, Nick, Tommy and Zandra. The tough love of Diana — the hockey mom and wife — helps, too.
“It can be a dark place,” Diana said. “It’s trying to pull somebody of that as well.”
Sometimes that means telling her husband to not yell at their dogs.
“We all need to be checked about,” Diana said. “ ‘Put a smile on your face.’
“ ‘Let’s watch a fun show together or watch one of the boys play hockey.’
“ ‘Call your daughter on your phone.’
“Strength comes in all different ways, and it’s made him develop even a stronger sense of the word strength.”
“I’m glad it’s me and nobody else in my family or my circle because knowing I what I know and what I’ve gone through, I wouldn’t want anybody to go through it. I would be way worse off if it was somebody else.”
David Kaplan loves a good bet, and Olczyk, a good friend, was concerned about their beloved Cubs.
So a $750 bet was made on ESPN 1000 at the All-Star break — $500 goes to the winner and $250 to The Ross K. MacNeill Foundation to battle pediatric brain cancer.
Kaplan, an ESPN radio host and NBC Sports broadcaster, had the Cubs winning at least 89 games. Olczyk had his doubts.
Weeks later and with the Cubs having a 92-win season, it was time to pay up.
“His kids are saying to me, ‘You better not let him slide on that money he owes just because he’s sick,’ ” Kaplan said. “You better make him pay.”
Olczyk did on air Nov. 2. But Olczyk, the racehorse enthusiast and broadcaster, had a better idea. He had a horse.
Of course, he did.
Olczyk liked Gun Runner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which was that weekend. So a new bet was made on Gun Runner. If they won, their earnings would be given to the MacNeill Foundation. If they lost, they still would make donations.
Others at ESPN and even listeners got involved; the total grew to $1,800. Together, they bet on Gun Runner and an exacta box (first two finishers) with the horse, Collected. A trifecta bet also was made.
And they won.
Gun Runner and their exacta box came through. They raised $7,640 for the MacNeill Foundation and later presented it to Kim MacNeill, who runs the charity to honor her late son, Ross.
“Here’s a guy in the fight for his life and all [Olczyk] could do is think about: help others,” Kaplan said. “It turned out we won. It was destiny.”
“Anybody that I have come in contact with that is either going through [cancer] or they beat it, it’s been their attitude. This wasn’t going to be the judge, jury and executioner of them. It’s the strength and the resiliency of people who are sick, regardless of what their diagnosis is.”
Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns