His friends and supporters will tell you that Chris Kushneriuk is in a “hockey fight,” but this time it’s not a routine dust-up in the school of hard knocks that is the ECHL.
Kushneriuk, a 25-year-old pro from Gloucester – he turns 26 on Christmas Eve — is in the fight of his life. In June, after finishing out the 2011-12 ECHL season with Bakersfield, Kushneriuk learned, to his horror, that the gnawing pain in his side was from testicular cancer, and not a routine case.
Hockey players live in constant pain, but the discomfort Kushneriuk had dismissed as just more bumps and bruises, was a disease now settling in to his liver and lymph nodes. In the span of six months, cancer took Kushneriuk on a journey that would test his will, reaffirm his devout religious beliefs, and today lead him to the Indiana University Cancer Center and the care of Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, best known for treating American cyclist Lance Armstrong’s testicular cancer.
“I’m very rooted in my faith,” Kushneriuk says by telephone from Indianapolis. “I think God has guided me to this place because it is the place I had to go to get taken care of, that’s kind of why everything has happened the way it has.”
‘Everything’ includes the fact a faith-based charity in Indianapolis, run by an oncology nurse, has helped set up Chris and his mother, Lise, at a furnished apartment near the treatment centre.
“I always appreciate the prayers, and the continued support coming in from everyone,” he says.
The support for Kushneriuk is not only welcome, it is vital. To treat Chris’ complicated case, his family felt he needed to receive a specialist’s care in the U.S., at enormous expense. The total medical bill is expected to be in the range of $250,000 – much higher if surgery is required. John’s father, laid off from his government job and currently unemployed, sold all his stock investments to help pay about $145,000 – “enough to get him in the door” of the hospital, John says.
With a bit of luck and a lot of generosity the “hockey family” will look after the rest. Kushneriuk’s two ECHL clubs, the Bakersfield Condors and Wheeling Nailers, have both raised money to help Kushneriuk “Krush” cancer. In the Condors dressing room, where Chris would have been this season, his jersey hangs in his stall, a daily reminder of their teammate’s battle. They haven’t forgotten him in Wheeling, West Virginia, either, where Kushneriuk scored a Game 7 overtime winner in a second round playoff series in 2011. His former Nailers teammates raised money on a game night and set up a website to help the public help Chris. The site: chriskushneriuk.org also updates supporters with the latest news involving Kushneriuk.
In Ottawa, friends are staging a Dec. 15. fundraiser for Kushneriuk at the Great Canadian Cabin restaurant on York Street in the Byward Market. Among the items to be auctioned is a Robin Lehner goal stick signed by the entire Binghamton Senators team, Ottawa’s AHL farm club.
To meet Chris is to like him. With curly brown hair and a toothy grin, the six-foot tall Kushneriuk lights up every room he enters. At Robert Morris University, Kushneriuk was captain of the Colonials, and student athlete of the year while majoring in business administration. Twice he was named the Division I team’s “most inspirational player.”
Playful, fun-loving, Chris was deviously making plans to head off with his mother and catch some RMU hockey action at Ohio State University Friday night.
“It’s only a couple of hours away,” Kushneriuk says, “and it’s nice to go while I can. I’m going to be feeling pretty out of it for the next two months.”
Spearheaded by RMU head coach Derek Schooley, the Colonials have been selling wrist bands to raise money for Chris’ cancer fight. Schooley took time out from a recruiting trip to personally take a cheque to his former star forward, whom he recruited from Wayne State University in Michigan after their hockey program folded in 2008.
“Everything he does is going to be out-of-pocket right now,” Schooley told College Hockey Inc. “Anything that people can do to help is really appreciated. He’s a world-class human being, he was a three-year captain with us. If anyone is going to beat this it’s going to be him because of his fighting spirit.”
As a boy growing up in Gloucester, Chris showed interest in hockey, baseball and soccer, but it wasn’t until a growth spurt at 16 that he became fast enough to play hockey at a competitive level. An industrious player, he didn’t make an AA team until midget, reaching the provincial championships as part of a Gloucester Rangers team coached by Darrell Campbell.
That led to major junior tryouts and a place in Tier II hockey with the Kanata Stallions and Orleans Blues.
Chris also played competetive ball, a star third baseman for the Ottawa Nepean Canadians in 2004-05. Coach Don Campbell remembers Chris as a “great kid” and talented enough to get a baseball scholarship, if he’d chosen that path.
“Ah, I fooled around when I played baseball, I didn’t take it seriously enough,” Kushneriuk says. “I’m actually planning on joining a men’s league in Ottawa this summer, with a friend of mine.”
First, there is the matter of stem cell treatments on Monday, in which his white cell count will be boosted, then harvested, to be reintroduced to his body following high-dose chemotherapy sessions. They start on Wednesday. Kushneriuk will likely require surgery, “the easy part,” he says, in February.
In Indy, he trusts. The panic Kushneriuk experienced when his cancer was first diagnosed has evolved into a firm resolve that he’s in the right place, in the hands of the calm Dr. Einhorn, a man credited with dramatically improving testicular cancer survival rates via surgical procedures in the 1970s.
While the treatment is foremost in his mind, Kushneriuk still thinks of hockey every day.
“I might not be the same player after I get back from all these treatments, but mentally I’ll be stronger than I’ve ever been,” he says. “The fire still burns in me to play hockey, it’s not a passion I’m going to let go of.”
To keep track of Kushneriuk’s progress or contribute to his fund, visit ChrisKushneriuk.org. He is also on Twitter @StoneColdKush.