“We’re pretty much locked down,” says Minnesota Wild assistant general manager Tom Kurvers. “We basically said, go home and ride this out until we give you more direction, and so I’m trying to abide by those same rules. But, you know, it pulls you out of your life habits and so, I’m going to take care of what I can take care of here while everything is just, you know, on pause. I guess pause is the NHL word, but maybe that’s the right word? We’re on pause.”
If it sounds like the Wild’s assistant GM is taking the Covid-19 pandemic in stride, it’s because even though Kurvers has serious reason for concern, he’s faced bigger disruptions in his life before.
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“January 21 of ’19, the diagnosis was non-small cell endo-carcinoma, small tumor on my right lung,” says Kurvers. “And there were some other factors in the right lung, basically, you know, that emanated from the tumor and it’d moved to my left lymph nodes in my sternum, but that’s it, it hasn’t moved beyond that.”
Kurvers, who played 11 seasons in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986, had noticed that he was becoming short of breath while taking the stairs from the Wild parking ramp up to the team offices. Like many a former player, Kurvers adheres to a steady workout routine. (from ‘Wild assistant GM Tom Kurvers has been training for this fight his whole life,’ Twin Cities Pioneer Press, 12/24/2019) When he started to experience what he describes as a “pinch” in his chest he consulted team doctors, who recommended a CT scan. But, Kurvers says, nothing could quite prepare him for the results of that test.
“Oh, you’re just floored by it. You’re pretty shook up and scared, and without any knowledge of what you’re dealing with, and you just hear the words that you don’t want to hear, that you have cancer. In my case, lung cancer. But you just can’t accept that you’re the next person to get that diagnosis, it’s not reality to think that. And then suddenly, that is your reality and it overwhelms you.”
Overwhelming. Kurvers uses the same word to describe the support he’s received from his NHL brethren after he went public with his diagnosis, and ever since.
Overwhelming., and it continues to be overwhelming, and it continues to be a source of strength, but the first month was incredible. There’s just so many good people in the game, the amount of people that you cross paths with, whether you played with or against, or guys I worked with for different teams, or a guy that you develop a friendship with because you’re on the road as a scouting community for as long as I was. It was immediate, it was powerful, and it continues. When I see people, it’s still there, you still feel it from people. And I know that it’s a gift that’s given me strength to fight my fight.
A native of Bloomington, Minnesota, Kurvers played his college hockey at Minnesota-Duluth and was selected with the 145th pick of the NHL draft by the Montreal Canadians. He capped off his playing career at UMD by winning the Hobey Baker Award, which is given annually to the most outstanding player in NCAA Hockey.
Kurvers registered 76 points in 43 games as a defenseman while leading the Bulldogs to a runner-up finish at the Frozen Four.During his senior year of 1983-84,
A Hockey Odyssey
Kurvers made his debut with the Canadiens during the 1984-85 season and was a member of Montreal’s Stanley Cup-winning team in 1986. The next season he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres, a move that started Kurvers on a hockey odyssey of sorts that lasted until late June 2018 when Paul Fenton was named the Wild’s general manager, and one of his first moves was to bring Kurvers back to his home state.
“Great opportunity. You don’t get very many chances to move up in the business, there’s just a lot of quality people,” says Kurvers. “Paul reached out for me and it was a better position than I held in Tampa, and I wasn’t looking to leave Tampa. I really like the job I had in Tampa and I liked the people I worked with. But this was a great opportunity to move up, be closer to the decision making, to be with the hometown team, which I never had. I never played for the Gophers or the North Stars, I was too old to have ever played for the Wild. It was my first time ever being on the hometown team after a long time in the game.”
With extended family in the area, the job change was not only a promotion, but it also allowed Kurvers and his wife Heather, who have four children, including two sons near middle school age, to move into what appeared to be a stable situation. But Kurvers’ brief second act in Minnesota has had more than a fair share of surprises.
“You can’t predict life, we’re living in a situation right now where you can’t write the script,” says Kurvers. “Looking back on it, that all happened in a relatively short time, and I didn’t see any of it coming. Yeah, it’s kind of a blur. It was a surprise on the health front for sure, and then it was a surprise on a late July morning when I talked to Craig Leopold and he had let go of Paul and he was going to search for a new GM, that was a surprise as well.”
On the eve of training camp before the 2019-20 season, and seven months after his cancer diagnosis, Kurvers found out that Wild owner Craig Leopold had suddenly let Fenton go, just 14 months after hiring him.
The search for Fenton’s replacement began immediately. Yet, instead of being concerned about job security, Kurvers took the attitude he’s developed as a result of his cancer diagnosis and applied it to helping the Wild move forward with business as usual, until Fenton’s replacement would be found.
Says Kurvers, “You look at life differently. It’s a profound change. When you’re a cancer survivor and you’re on this other team of cancer survivors, you’re trying to figure out each day and push through it and keep your mindset right. And I think it carries over into the decision making that I’ve asked to perform for the team. And then it may be easier to talk to guys because there’s a real roller-coaster that players ride as they play in their career and I did it, too. I understand it. And yet, win or lose I’m looking for some key elements, did we show up and compete? Did we give it our best? Can we expect to win all the games in a season? No. And I think it’s helped me.”
In late Aug. 2019, Bill Guerin was named as the fourth GM in the franchise history of the Wild. Kurvers says he had come to know Guerin a little bit through their days of scouting for various teams, but in just their short time working together in Minnesota, Kurvers recognizes rare traits in Guerin that he has seen in previous stops in the NHL.
“These guys that had outstanding careers, have a common trait, they’re extremely competitive,” says Kurvers. “Now you have to be crazy competitive just to make it in the NHL. So, we all have that. But having been around Wayne Gretzky and his way of competing and then watching (Steve) Yzerman operate with his high level compete, Bill Guerin has kind of a strong compete to him, with everything he does it just oozes out of him. He doesn’t walk into a room and go unnoticed. And then when something rubs him wrong and it sparks a fire in him, he shows the fire, too, and it probably comes out of him a little more than some of these other guys I’ve worked for who had it, that competitive nature which separates great players from good players.”
Shutdown Stalls Wild
The NHL’s “pause” as Kurvers calls it, came at a time when the Wild seemed to be playing their best hockey of the season. Now comes uncertainty for an aging team that was active at the trade deadline and seems destined for more change in the near future. Not that Kurvers is sweating any of that right now.
“I’m doing fine. I’m fine. My schedule is monthly doctor visits with my oncologist for the labs for bloodwork to make sure that my body isn’t taking a pounding with the daily chemo,” says Kurvers. “Then every four months I do PET scans to measure the activity, my cancerous activity, and the last two PET scans were in August and December and they were both A+, there was undetectable cancerous activity. So, really good news on those fronts. I feel good, and I expect good news again in April when I do scans again.”
Until then the work continues, just in a new way. As for the Coronavirus, Kurvers says he is concerned, but no more so than anyone else should be.
So, whether it’s Cornonavirus or cancer, Kurvers, 14 months past his lung cancer diagnosis is optimistic about the future, determined to look ahead, and to help others who may find themselves in a similar situation to his.
I would say that I need to be as cautious as anybody our age. Not because I think that if I was diagnosed with Corona, that would be the end of me. It’s just that my immune system, I’m a little weakened. I take a pill of chemotherapy every day. I take an oral chemo every single day, so my immune system is compromised some. So, I’m as careful as everyone else. It’s sped up our awareness and our comprehension of it and then the moves we’ve had to make as it’s progressed through the world. I’ve been looked after at home by my wife. Then at work, Bill (Guerin) has stepped-up a couple of times just to say, ‘hey, you’re not doing this or this, and that’s an order.’ But it’s more in a ‘I’m looking after you. I don’t want anything bad to happen. On a couple notes where it really wasn’t on my mind that I need to be that cautious. So, I have important people in my life that are, you know, watching after everything I do.
“There’s been a number of guys that are in that world that have been diagnosed since I was, and I’m able to give back to those guys, and I try to,” says Kurvers. “I like to think we’re all going to get past this. But yeah, do I take it in stride? I think once you come to grips with being a cancer survivor and living with it, a lot of things you have learned to take in stride somewhat easier.”