WINNIPEG, MB. - Shane Bigourdin is back.
That might not mean much to the average hockey fan, but to Bigourdin, his family, his teammates with the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League’s St. James Canucks and the entire Canucks organization, it is the end – everyone hopes – to an ordeal that most junior hockey players will never have to endure.
Bigourdin isn’t a big goal scorer, he’s not going to the NHL and the chances of him ever making millions from the game are not even slim, but on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 2, 2017, this 19-year-old won the biggest game of this or any other year.
He came back. He looked cancer square in the eye and fought his way back to the game.
Before his return this month, Bigourdin last played a hockey game in February 2017. He had begun to get strangely fatigued while playing. He always seemed to be out of breath. After a number of visits to his family doctor and several blood tests later, he was told something no one ever wants to hear: “You have cancer. Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.”
“If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger,” he said. “I was fatigued, I’d lost a lot of weight, and wasn’t at all feeling myself,”
“I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do. I was tired and laying down a lot. I had no idea what was in store for me. It hit me hard. At first I thought I’d be sick for a month or two and I had no idea what the chemotherapy was going to do to me. I mean, it knocked me out. It was challenging. After each treatment, treatments that took about three hours each, it took me about three days to recuperate.”
Putting hockey and his education on hold to battle cancer wasn’t something Shane ever thought he’d have to face. But dealing with it is what had to do and, by his own admission, he’s grown and become much, much stronger.
Perhaps, somewhat fortunately, his mom is a nurse and she brought a dose of reality, true love and caring into the Shane's life. She played a major role in Shane’s battle to survive.
“My mom was there and took care of me,” he said gratefully. “She wouldn’t sleep some times and would always be there to look after me. She is my hero and the most special person in the world.
“My friends helped me too. The Canucks GM – Gavin McLachlan -- would come over to talk about my struggles and life. He was and still is a huge part of my fight against cancer. I played a lot of video games and got a lot of texts from my teammates. My girlfriend, Destiny, is the greatest. She took me to most of my appointments and stayed with me throughout my battle.”
Shane’s perspective on life has obviously changed. Of course, a battle against cancer will do that.
“I’m more concerned about my health, what I eat, and the need to stay in shape and work out,” he said. “It’s important and opened my eyes to things I was never really concerned about.”
“I now know I can handle things and it’s made me a lot stronger.”
There were a number of special people with whom Bigourdin connected. These were the people who helped Shane throughout his battle -- Hematologist Dr. Leonard Minuk and the many nurses at CancerCare Manitoba.
In all, it was a tiring, frightening and often brutal battle, but as Bigourdin says himself, hockey is one of the most aggressive and at times brutally tough games to play. After beating Stage 4 Hodgkins, getting back into the game didn’t come without some concern.
“I’m going to try my best to be the same player I was before,” he said earlier this month. “I’ve got to get my cardio and strength back. I'll start on the fourth line ad I understand that. I’ll play hard and try to get back. Both captains – Tyler Meixner and Wyatt Kemball -- have been a big help. I’m motivated by the love of the game, that sense of freedom I get just hanging out with my hockey friends.”
Not surprisingly, Shane’s battle with cancer has put a hold on his goal -- finishing his degree in education. He's currently working at Tim Horton’s and intends to work hard talking and motivating people to keep fighting against this dreadful disease. However, Shane’s looking forward to getting back to school and if things go the way he hopes, he fully intends to play in the MMJHL for two more seasons.
Interestingly, Mario Lemieux, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, beat the same form of cancer that Shane just fought.
“When I was diagnosed my mom, who is a big Penguins’ fan, said to me that Mario and me are kind of the same now,” he said. “I thought that was kind of funny. But we've both survived. He made his comeback and I’m making mine. That was a funny moment.”
Shane plans to be there for others fighting cancer, just to show people fighting like he did, that cancer can be beaten.
This month, the NHL has come together for its annual initiative, Hockey Fights Cancer. Together, the hockey community looks to inspire hope and courage for those who are living with, going through and moving past cancer.
Shane Bigourdin, No. 19 with the MMJHL’s St. James Canucks is living proof that by being brave, strong and, at times, open-minded and realistic, cancer can be beaten. The fact that Bigourdin picked up a roughing penalty in his return to the game, demonstrates that he’s back. And he’s a cancer survivor who is not afraid to mix things up.
John Ploszay for Game On Magazine and Manitoba Post
Photos by Jeff Miller