Cancer treatments and chemotherapy can’t stop Blackhawks’ Eddie Olczyk

It’s 11:21 p.m. on Friday and a long day is ending for Blackhawks broadcaster Eddie Olczyk as he nears his home in the northern suburbs.

This was a great day. This was a hockey day.

Olczyk called the Blackhawks’ 3-2 overtime victory against the Sabres.

Even better, his sons Nick and Tommy called during his long, snowy drive home with good news from their own games.

Blackhawks broadcaster Eddie Olczyk at the United Center, Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

PART 2: CANCER GIVES BLACKHAWKS FAN-FAVORITE EDDIE OLCZYK A NEW PERSPECTIVE

Nick, who plays at Colorado College, detailed the Tigers’ 5-4 double-overtime victory over Denver that ended a 14-game losing streak against its rival. Earlier, Tommy had called to say he scored a goal for the Indy Fuel — a Hawks affiliate — during a 3-2 victory against the Wheeling Nailers in the ECHL.

“A good night for team Olczyk,” Dad proudly said as he pulled into his driveway.

Olczyk, 51, seemed to sense it would happen, too.  Hours earlier, while relaxing in his family room, he spoke of feeling “whole” despite his painful — sometimes debilitating — fight against colon cancer.

“I sprung out of bed today,” he said. “I knew I was feeling good. I don’t get many of those.”

***

“I don’t think it was easy for himself to kind of put himself out there. I think we all want to be in denial at some point. But I also think it’s just therapeutic for he and the fan or the person that he touches. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It will come after any of us.”
– Olczyk’s wife, Diana

***

It’s 7:36 p.m. at the United Center. Just as the roar begins before the national anthem, a fan yells hello to “Edzo,” who is standing next to Pat Foley in their broadcast booth.

Olczyk is ready to work — it feels great to work. But first, he offers that fan a wave and thumbs-up. It’s a gesture he will repeat throughout the night.

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Everyone is excited to see “Eddie O” or “Edzo,” whose 16-year NHL career started when his hometown Hawks drafted him third overall in 1984.

The enthusiasm starts when he arrives to work and jokes with “Frankie” at the loading dock. It’s apparent when Olczyk fist-bumps security guards in hallways and says hello to star-struck vendors in packed elevators.

It’s a big hug from former Blackhawks goalie Tony Esposito or Olczyk tapping the shoulder of a reporter in the press box, then walking away in jest. It’s talking shop outside the locker rooms with Sabres coach Phil Housley, an old friend and a Hall of Famer.

Olcyzk has an open invitation from Hawks president John McDonough to work whenever he’s able. The team loves when he’s around. But Olczyk can’t be there as much as he wants because chemotherapy calls every other week.

And that wears on him.

Treatments typically start every other Monday morning at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and end Wednesday when a nurse comes to his house to remove a portable pump that supplies another 48 hours of therapy.

By Sunday, he finally starts to feel like Eddie O again.

“[The chemo is] with you,” Olczyk said. “You taste it. You smell it. You reek of it. And it just knocks you right down. [The taste is] probably like a licking a fence post 24/7. That’s what it is. That’s the only way I can describe it.”

***

“It’s very uplifting to have him around here. I’ve known Eddie for a long before I came to the Blackhawks. To me, he’s part of the fabric of this franchise. He’s a very positive. He’s a very, very, very positive person to be around. He’s uplifting.”
— John McDonough, Hawks president

***

It’s 4:37 p.m. at the United Center, and Olczyk is back in the booth. He takes out his notes and eyes the youth game on the ice. Not long after, Foley arrives, and their playful banter begins.

Blackhawks broadcaster Eddie Olczyk, right, with Pat Foley at the United Center. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“I’m really, really glad that a few of these games are mixed in,” the Hawks’ longtime play-by-play broadcaster says. “I know it’s really helpful for him. It’s great for me. I love it.”

Of course, no one is more ecstatic than Foley that Olczyk is back. But the man who makes his living through talking gets nearly speechless when discussing Olczyk, a dear friend.

Foley fights off his own emotions.

“I look forward to [these games],” Foley said.

Olczyk works as much as he can. As wife Diana said, “no grass grows under his feet.” He wants to be next to Foley or in the studio at NBC Sports Chicago or on ESPN’s airwaves with host David Kaplan, a close friend.

But Olczyk also knows what he can and can’t do.

“Live and learn,” he said.

Back-to-back games are too taxing now. Attending morning skates make game days too long. Hopscotching from city to city isn’t as easy these days.

One game — the Hawks’ 7-5 loss to the Devils on Nov. 12 — stood out. Olczyk should have stayed home. Foley knew it.

“I walked into the booth, and Pat right away says, ‘You don’t feel good do you?’

“‘Nah, I’m not.’

“‘Tell them.’

“‘Let me grind it out.'”

And he did. Having 12 goals to analyze turned out to be a godsend.

“That kind of helped me feel a little bit better,” he recalled.

In the booth, the chemistry between Olczyk and Foley is tangible. And it’s more than just on-air banter and inside jokes. It’s Olczyk chuckling as Foley tries to swat a pesky gnat while never missing a beat of play-by-play.

“You OK there, partner?” Olczyk said with a smile. “I thought maybe I missed something.”

***

“From my seat, after he found out what he had and he was able to come to terms with it, he’s a different person. He has decided that he is going to try and affect as many lives as he possibly can, whether that’s encouraging someone through their own battle or getting people to get a colonoscopy and a physical. Whatever it takes.”
—David Kaplan, broadcaster

***

It’s 3:06 p.m. It’s time for Olczyk to leave for the United Center. He has a winding route that takes him through a string of suburbs and Chicago neighborhoods.

“I’m not one for much sitting,” he said.

Of course, he’s not.

The thick traffic is fine — it’s expected. Sometimes he’ll do a radio interview, other times he’ll switch off his phone off. And sometimes, he’ll listen to WGN.

Occasionally, one of his children will call. His daughter, Zandra, is graduating from Alabama in a week. He beams with pride.

But his mind often wanders.

And wanders.

Blackhawks’ Eddie Olczyk (16) checks Dallas Stars’ Richard Matvichuk (24) into the boards during the first period in Dallas, Oct. 13, 1998. (AP Photo)

In this case, he thinks about the Hawks’ matchup with the Sabres, then the favorable schedule that awaits the Hawks. He knows their season can change.

Of course, his fight with cancer comes to mind as winds his way to work. He knows he’ll return to chemotherapy in two days on Monday. He knows more treatments darken his calendar.

“It doesn’t consume me, so to speak, as much as it did,” he said.

The game he’s headed to alters his outlook.

When the United Center pops into view, Olczyk can feel and hears old Chicago Stadium. Happens every time.

Olczyk, a Brother Rice graduate who grew up in Niles before moving to Palos Heights, smiles at the memories, recalling attending games with his father, Ed. He remembers being a young hockey player with dreams.

“I grew up there as a kid,” he said. “That old building, that’s where I grew to love the Hawks, coming to the games with my dad and parking under the L.

“Sadly, time goes so fast. I can still remember coming to some of those games with my dad and being so upset when the Hawks would lose and dreaming about, maybe, I could play here someday. I was lucky enough to live that dream.”

***

“There’s only one thing that he loves more than being around the rink and that’s his family. It’s gold and silver. There is nothing between that.”

— Pat Foley

***

It’s 2:30 p.m. in Olczyk’s home. Puck drop is five hours away, but his tie is on. He’s ready to go. It’s a game day — his day.

“I’ve had enough quiet time to last me a lifetime,” Olczyk said. “I’m in good place. I’m in a really good place.”

On the day after Christmas, Olczyk will undergo his eighth chemotherapy treatment. After New Year’s Day, there will be four more left.

He’s winning this fight, which started in the summer when a tumor the size of his fist was removed from his colon. Doctors also took 23 lymph nodes and 14 inches of his colon.

Since then, Olczyk’s dealt with persistent bloody noses and a blood clot in his leg. His dosages were changed after neuropathy set into his fingers — pains so intense that buttoning his own pants became a problem. His sense of taste will never be the same.

And yet, he’s still the same Olczyk, just with a different message.

“It’s important for me tell my story,” he said. “When I see people I haven’t seen in a while and let people know how I’m doing, I’m hoping that somebody, if they don’t feel good, they say something.”

He’s raising awareness by being in the broadcast booth.

“The games are normal,” Olczyk said. “I like to think I’m doing the same job that I did before I was sick as far as doing what I do and everything else.”

He’s not.

He’s doing them better.

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns
Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

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