BY MIKE GRIFFITH Californian staff writer email@example.com
Former Condor Chris Kushneriuk will don a jersey on Saturday night, step on the ice at Rabobank Arena and play a game there for the first time since March 17, 2012.
Not as a member of the team, but as an alumnus playing in the alumni game as part of the 10th annual Condors Fighting Cancer Hockey-Thon. The alumni game starts at 5 and is before the Condors game that night against Las Vegas at 7.
It could not be a more fitting return for Kushneriuk, since he is a cancer survivor.
And ready to try and resurrect a pro hockey career that was derailed in June, 2012 when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 testicular cancer, which had spread to his liver and lymph nodes in his abdomen.
Kushneriuk, 27, skated with the Condors on Thursday morning and will do so again today. Not as a try-out, per se, but just to see how he stacks up at the ECHL level after an ordeal that totally changed his perspective on life.
Yes, he wants to play pro hockey again, so skating with a team at this level is a bonus.
The main purpose of his return to Bakersfield is to say thank you to the people that were there for him in his fight against cancer.
"That definitely hits close to home for me," he said. "The timing is perfect right now."
Faith, family and fight
As with many cancer survivors, Kushneriuk's story is one of faith, family and the will to keep fighting every step of the way.
Kushneriuk only played 25 games for the Condors after being traded to them from Wheeling, W.Va., in Dec. 2011, missing a month because of a concussion. He had just 12 points in those games, but was the first player then-Condors coach Matt O'Dette signed in June for the 2011-12 season.
Shortly after he signed, Kushneriuk was diagnosed.
The warning signs were there, but Kushneriuk didn't recognize them.
"I wasn't well at all," he said "The last month of the season, there were times I was throwing up before games and stuff. I thought I had the flu, but the symptoms didn't match up.
And I was constantly achy in my back.
"What it was, my nervous system and everything was going into shock. At that point, (the cancer) was pretty bad."
He went back home to Ottawa after the season and went about his life, and had just starting dating Christiane Lalonde when he was diagnosed. She's been with him every step of the way.
"He was playing hockey, then he got home and we started dating and then things got intense quite fast," Lalonde said. "I'm not someone who would have said 'OK, good luck.' I had never done anything like that, I wasn't able to just walk away.
"There was a moment I definitely did question myself and ask if I was strong enough to do this with him. There is no way he could have done it with someone who wasn't strong. I had to question myself if I was able to do it."
Strength from a pastor
Another was pastor Brian Langley, who serves a chaplain for the Condors. The two had crossed paths during Kushneriuk's time in Bakersfield, but that was about it. Until Langley's wife, Lisa, saw a Facebook post from Kushneriuk in Sept. 2012, saying he was ill and would not be at Condors training camp.
She posted back that she was praying for him and that led to him calling her husband.
Brian Langley quickly became an ally in the fight.
"He was probably one of five people I called every day," Kushneriuk said.
In October 2011, Kushneriuk got terrible news. The chemotherapy treatment he'd been undergoing in Canada did not do the job.
Langley has just concluded an evening service, and looked at the phone he had left in the car. There were eight missed calls from Kushneriuk.
"I called right back, grabbed about a half dozen folks from the services who were still there, went in my office, put (Kushneriuk) on speaker and we prayed for a while."
The next morning, Kushneriuk awakened ready to fight.
A will and a way
An internet search revealed the top experts in every state in the U.S. and he started down the list alphabetically. He found a taker when he got to Dr. Lawrence Einhorn at Indiana University.
Kushneriuk's father, John, used his life savings of $140,000 to get his son started on a new path of treatment in Indianapolis.
As word of his plight spread many joined the fight. Locked-out NHL players in Ottawa, students at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he played collegiately, helped.
Fans and former teammates in Wheeling and Bakersfield did the heavy lifting in raising funds to help pay for a total of $340,000 in medical bills.
After two intense stem-cell chemotherapy treatments, it all came down to his blood numbers a year ago.
"It was either do or die, literally," Kushneriuk said. "The test would determine if it worked or if I was just going to home and live out the last six months."
The numbers came back good, and on March 1, 2012, he had surgery to remove a third of his liver, a kidney, his gall bladder and some lymph nodes.
The comeback trail
Kushneriuk received inspiration from former teammates in Bakersfeild (his jersey from the previous season was on the wall of the dressing room) as well as fans who donated to the cause and constantly sent well wishes.
Now Kushneriuk hopes his story can be an inspiration to others. He's done some speaking and hopes to start the Krush Cancer Foundation.
But there is also that little matter of some unfinished business: another chance at pro hockey.
"I know there are a lot of people that doubt I can do that," he said. "But the Canadian health care system also thought I was done for. The story of life is if you get knocked down, get up. Keep fighting. Never give up."
And after beating cancer, Kushneriuk is not about to give up on his dream of playing hockey.
Not without a fight.