Owen Brady went for a skate in late June.
Nothing out of the ordinary. Some warm-up strides around the net, a few passes from good friend and mentor Paul Ranger, the former Maple Leafs defenceman. Some drills with the puck, a few drills without it. And that was it. Things that the 16-year-old Brady, a highly touted defenceman long before the recent Ontario Hockey League draft, has done hundreds, if not thousands of times.
But with Brady’s hockey story — his life story — taking so many twists the last eight months, that skate represented the world to him.
It was last November when Brady, six-foot-four, 190 pounds and the captain of the Whitby Wildcats AAA minor midgets, was told he had osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer and the same type of cancer that Terry Fox had.
The next several months took the strapping teenager down a path of surgeries, chemotherapy and painstaking physiotherapy. But Brady is on the comeback trail. He has had the love and support of his parents — Chris and Deirdre Brady — his friends and the community, including the likes of Ranger, who went through his own nightmare dealing with depression.
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The skate was just an early step in Brady’s comeback. There’s more chemo ahead but, if his body responds as expected, that should end sometime in August. The end goal is to get back on the ice and enjoy the game again, and to show all that promise people were talking about before his diagnosis. He was thought to be a first-round talent in the OHL; the local team, the Oshawa Generals, selected him in the sixth.
“Short term, just to progress slowly and be conscious of my leg so I don’t hurt it, positive progress,” Brady said of his goals. “In the long term, just to get back to playing at full game speed, hopefully with Oshawa Generals.”
One day last week, Brady had just finished another round of chemo and was back in his room at the Hospital for Sick Children. He didn’t feel like talking or doing much of anything, He sat up in his hospital bed, in black shorts, with a black hoodie pulled over his head.
There is a scar down his right leg is where doctors removed part of his right fibula during a 19-hour surgery, before grafting it onto the tibia of his left leg, where the disease had taken root.
Brady and his family originally thought the bump just below his left knee was from blocking shots. But when it didn’t recede, a trip to a walk-in clinic started his ordeal. Doctors at first told him he might never play hockey again. They later amended that to one to two years; Brady would like his return to be sooner. The cancer cells at least were deemed “low grade,” meaning they are unlikely to appear in his body again.
“This is all I know now, this is my normal,” he said, speaking of the hospital visits and chemo treatments. “I’ve been used to doing physical work being a hockey player and this is the fun part, the physical grinding of getting it back … I don’t think about it, I’m not much of a thinker, I’m a doer.”
His parents, teachers in Whitby, took a leave of absence to help their son in his recovery. They’ve learned something about the fight that lies within Owen.
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“It’s the main motivation in his life now, to go to chemo three times a week, to go to physio three times a week, so hockey is a blessing,” Chris Brady said.
“I look at him, seeing how he gets through all of this … missing most of his draft year,” Deidre Brady said. “It hurt us, but I can’t imagine how much it hurt him. But we’re the ones who have to look to him and say to ourselves, ‘If he’s getting through it, so should we.’ ”
There have been some special moments along the way. St. Louis Blues defenceman Vince Dunn brought the Stanley Cup to Sick Kids on Saturday to share, among others, with those on the eighth-floor cancer ward. Owen Brady was there. Seeing how he has taken on his own fight, the hospital asked if he would speak and shoot motivational videos for others, especially children, as they mount their recoveries.
He found some of his own motivation from a young girl that was on the same floor, going through her own battle with cancer. “Roux, the little girl, who was here — my parents know her parents — and we saw how little she is and she’s going through the same things, so she’s definitely an inspiration.”
Ranger has been a big part of helping Brady. His teammates with the Wildcats and his friends have never forgotten him. And other teams from the Oshawa-Whitby hockey community have put together care packages for him.
The Generals also provided a boost, when owner Rocco Tullio, GM Roger Hunt and the rest of the staff showed faith in drafting him. The Generals hope he might have a spot on their 2020-21 roster.
“It was an honour, it was great, it was everything I dreamed of,” said Brady, who has also been contacted by former Generals star Bobby Orr and Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry. “I didn’t go as high as I wanted to but that’s not always the main component — it’s the opportunity — and they are showing they have belief in me and they are willing to wait until I’m better, which makes me have more drive and makes me very, very happy.”
Brady is looking to August, when the treatments end, to take the next steps in his return.
“I think that’s when I can get back into the gym, hang out with friends, just do normal teenager things,” Brady said.
“Sometimes when I’m lying here, it’s hard to (remember) you’re a teenager … this is all I know now, rehabbing my leg and coming to the hospital … that’s what I’ve adapted to.
“A year from now, I want to be on the ice, be with friends, in the gym, and doing all the things that a normal teenager does. That’s where I want to be.”
Mark Zwolinski is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @markzwol