Nov 21, 2019
By Tom Witosky
Tom Kurvers wants everyone to understand what one learns when diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s not a death sentence,” the Iowa Wild general manager said. “But it will change your life in ways you don’t anticipate. Probably for the better.”
Mostly, he said, those who are destined to fight cancer in their lives will come to rely on family, friends and medical advancement for support and will learn just how important they become as the battle goes on.
The 57-year-old assistant general manager for the Minnesota Wild will be among those fighting cancer in attendance at Saturday’s Iowa Wild game against the Bakersfield Condors. The game will be the organization’s first-ever Hockey Fights Cancer Night.
Initiated in 1998, Hockey Fights Cancer is a charitable effort by the NHL, AHL and the Professional Hockey Player Associations to raise money and awareness of cancer research in the United States and Canada.
Kurvers’ well-publicized personal battle against cancer began last January after the 1984 Hobey Baker Award winner asked Wild team physician, Dr. Sheldon Burns, to help him figure out why he hadn’t felt well for nearly two months after developing a cough that wouldn’t go away.
Just six months earlier, Kurvers, who had been a Minnesota-based scout for the Tampa Bay Lightning, had taken the job as assistant general manager for then-general manager Paul Fenton. As the assistant GM, Kurvers also became general manager for Iowa – a team he had come familiar with on frequent trips to Des Moines to scout players.
Burns ordered tests, including a CT scan, which disclosed a nodule in the upper right lobe on Kurvers’ right lung. When Burns told Kurvers he needed to have a biopsy as quickly as possible, Kurvers’ world – personally and professionally – shook like an eight on the Richter scale.
“It was a bad night,” Kurvers recalled, who actually didn’t finish the call from Burns, but handed the phone to his wife, Heather. “You think about a lot of things and you just wonder what is going to happen.”
For Heather, Tom’s second wife, the news jolted her as much as her husband.
“It just snowballed so quickly. I just thought right then, ‘Okay, all right, this is going to be a big fight. This is going to be the biggest fight ever.’ I knew it was going to be very difficult,” Heather recalled.
At the same time, Heather said she had complete confidence that her husband and the family – which included daughters Madison and Rose from his first marriage and sons Wes and Roman from their current marriage – would persevere through it as successfully as possible.
“He’s seriously the toughest guy I know. He really is,” Heather said. “I just always knew he was going to be okay. I just was like, ‘It’s going to be a battle, but he’s going to be fine, it’s going to be fine.’”
Days later, the biopsy results delivered the bad news that the family feared: Kurvers’ nodule was adenocarcinoma, a non-small cell lung cancer most often found in current and former smokers, but is also frequently diagnosed among non-smokers.
The cancer was also inoperable at the time and remains so today.
“I will have to fight it every day; I know it will be with me at the end,” Kurvers said.
Tim Army first met Kurvers in 1982 at the National Sports Festival in Indianapolis as they both were trying to qualify for the 1984 US Olympic hockey team. A year later, the two would play against each other when Army was a forward for Providence College and Kurvers, a defenseman for Minnesota-Duluth.
In fact, Army’s team defeated the Kurvers’ team in a two-game, “most goals” NCAA regional in 1983.
“We smoked them in Game 1 and beat them in Game 2,” Army said.
Like most hockey players, they would keep in touch on and off as they worked their way into professional hockey; Kurvers as a player, Army as a coach.
“We were in the kind of circles that develop over the years when you are playing hockey in college and are in the pros,” Army said.
In 1994-95, Army ended up coaching Kurvers in his final year in the NHL with Anaheim. After both were hired by Minnesota in 2018, the two picked-up their friendship quickly and easily.
“Tim and I just connected early on,” Kurvers said. “When I sit at my makeshift desk office in his office, we sit, laugh, chat and work all at once. And that started rather quickly when we began working together, and then that got just absolutely cut off when the cancer was discovered.”
Army began to suspect Tom’s health problems might be serious a month before the medical exams. Kurvers was with the team on a road trip to San Antonio just prior to the Holiday Break.
“We were watching the Minnesota game when Matt Dumba got hurt and we got the phone call that it looked pretty serious,” the Iowa head coach said. “But I actually was more concerned about Tom. He didn’t look good and had that cough. I had pneumonia once and he and I both thought that might be the problem.”
Kurvers returned home and over the next several weeks, he learned how serious a medical problem he had.
Looking back, Kurvers remembered how overwhelmed he felt by both the disease and how he had to deal with family and friends. The cancer scared him because he knew so little about it.
“You can’t be prepared for it,” Kurvers said. “You can’t be ready for the mental challenge that is thrown your way, because you don’t have nearly enough information at that point in time. You don’t know what you’re dealing with. You don’t know how you’re going to deal with it. You just know that’s an awful sounding diagnosis.”
And while the fear of death is real, Kurvers found the best response to be to gather as much information as possible and maintain a positive attitude.
“Part of you thinks the end is near, that’s the natural reaction,” he said. “But, then as you learn more and understand your own unique situation, you draw from whatever got you to that point in life.”
For Kurvers, it meant drawing on his 15-year hockey career.
“Being around this game, there is no other option, you’re going to take on the challenge,” he said.
Still, Kurvers felt a responsibility to the Iowa team, though he understood his role would be very limited for the next few months, if not permanently.
Kurvers called Army the night he received the diagnosis.
“I got bad news today, and I have lung cancer,” Kurvers told Army.
“Obviously, it floored me,” Army recalled, adding his grandfather had died of lung cancer. “So many things went through my head. We had known each other for so long and now had become pretty close in a short time. I was really rattled for my friend.”
When Matt Bartkowski, one of the Wild’s veteran defensemen, learned about Kurvers’ cancer, it shook him up.
“I found out a little earlier than the rest of the team,” Bartkowski said, noting that Dan Grillo, his agent, and Kurvers have been friends for years.
But getting an early heads-up didn’t ease the shock or concern.
“When that kind of stuff comes out of nowhere, you do wonder what is going to happen,” said Bartkowski, whose two grandmothers had battles with cancer. “He is one of those guys who you want to be around. The more you get to know him. the more you like and respect him.”
The time came quickly for Tom and Heather to inform their children about his cancer. Madison, the oldest of the four children, had talked to her father before the biopsies were taken and knew it was a possibility.
Her father explained that he hadn’t been feeling well and that tests were being taken to determine the causes.
“The last possibility he mentioned was cancer,” Madison remembered. “Everything just shook for me when he said that.”
Madison had moved back to the Twin Cities after earning a degree in advertising at Iowa State in 2017. As a scout for the Lightning, her dad would stop by often on his way down to Des Moines or on the way back to Minnesota.
The family gathered together, including Madison’s mother and step-father, after the biopsy reports were completed, Madison said.
“We’re all sitting there, but Heather and my Dad are so strong and positive about everything, they just said we’re going to fight it,” Madison said. “He’s like, ‘We’re going fight this and we’re just going to see it through.’”
Faced with inoperable cancer, Kurvers found himself weakening physically after undergoing three separate biopsies and mentally from the pain of the biopsies and physical difficulties.
“I had a hard time breathing and speaking at that point,” Kurvers said. “You’re mentally challenged by being overwhelmed by it all and then you’re physically overwhelmed. I was healing so I was in tough shape.”
But at that same time, Kurvers received the boost he needed to face the challenges. The words came from Dr. Eric Weinshel, his oncologist.
“His words were simply: ‘Here’s what we got. We’re going to live with this,’” Kurvers said.
That advice became prophetic as Weinshel tested Kurvers to see if he could take the medication Tagrisso.
Up to that point, Kurvers had been facing the ordeal of chemotherapy and/or radiation as the methods to impede the growth of the cancer. But Kurvers’ doctors found he qualified for Tagrisso – a simple pill-a-day therapy designed to hinder the growth of the cancer and reduce the size of the tumor.
“When we found out that he could take that drug, he won the lottery,” Heather Kurvers said. “He won the billion-dollar prize because such a small percentage of people can take that drug. It literally just brought you to your knees because it lifted such a burden off of our backs.”
Less than a year later, Kurvers is back on the road and can often be found sitting in the press box at Wells Fargo Arena, watching the Iowa Wild play.
So far, the team has played well, largely the result of Minnesota’s ability to improve the depth of the Iowa team – something the organization didn’t have last year.
The medical reports on his cancer are positive as well. The drug has worked so well, the Wild’s team physician told Kurvers an X-Ray of his lung showed the size of the tumor had been greatly reduced almost to nothing.
Kurvers has experienced side effects because the pill has lowered his immunities to other infections. He recently had been battling an ear infection and shingles.
But the experience of fighting cancer and the support he received from friends and family taught him the value of expressing greater concern for others, he said.
“I’m quicker to let someone know that I’m thinking about them and I’m more ready to act on those thoughts than I used to,” he said. “I’ve also learned how to respond to the many folks who still reach out to me.”
Kurvers said it takes just two sentences.
“Feeling great, scans were great in August, next scans in December. Feeling great.”