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Gino Odjick didn't back down in the face of death

Five years ago, Gino Odjick was at death’s door, but he refused to go in. Never one to back down from a challenge, the same fighting spirit that carried him throughout his career saved him in his darkest hour.

The letter read like the end.

On June 26, 2014, the Vancouver Canucks distributed through their Twitter feed a note from a franchise legend. It was Gino Odjick. It was not good news.

“Dear friends, teammates, and fans,” it began. What followed were 477 words of heartbreak, from the soul of the man himself. The beloved brawler. The First Nations icon. The fighter who seemed so abruptly to be saying goodbye. “I was just a little old Indian boy from the Rez,” he wrote, but already the pain had set in. Odjick was dying, he shared. The diagnosis: a rare, terminal disease of the heart. “My doctors aren’t sure how long I have to live,” Odjick said. “Initially they thought years, but now they think it could be a lot less. I could be down to months or even weeks.”

It was an unthinkable punch, more powerful than any Odjick had thrown in his 12 seasons patrolling NHL rinks, mostly as a Canuck but also in Long Island, Philadelphia and Montreal. He was a heroic enforcer, a teammate cherished for his ability to stand up to anything and anyone. But this? A sudden letter from his apparent deathbed – this was how Gino Odjick would leave this world?

Indeed, the truth was that even Odjick had little warning to spare. It was less than three months earlier, in April, that he’d awoken with his feet and ankles ballooned several times their normal size. Odjick was no stranger to swelling – his old Canucks teammate Pavel Bure recalled the unusual shape that Odjick’s hands and fingers would take in the hours after a fight on the ice – but this was different. “I couldn’t walk more than 50 feet without being completely gassed,” Odjick said. He was rushed to UBC Hospital in Vancouver.

Overnight, doctors told him, Odjick had suffered a heart attack. But damn it if he wasn’t so fit, his regular gym workouts and stationary bike sessions a dozen years after retirement having kept his body in such good shape, that Odjick hadn’t felt a thing. He was discharged and sent home.

But his condition worsened, the fatigue so great he was barely able to function. He returned to hospital, this time Vancouver General, where the tests began. About a week later, Odjick said, the worst news came. “They told me I didn’t have long to live,” he said, “and I should start preparing for my demise.”

***

Officially, Odjick had cardiac amyloidosis, a disease so rare that only 8 to 10 new cases per million people are diagnosed each year, according to the medical journal Interventional Cardiology. Unofficially, Odjick’s heart was under attack. Killer cells inside him were creating a protein that was hardening the organ, crippling its ability to pump blood effectively throughout his body. At its lowest, doctors told him, Odjick’s heart was operating at about 20-percent capacity.

Where had it all come from? Odjick was in his mid-40s when he was diagnosed, still active, and he had no family history of heart disease. Yet it seemed there was no use to stop and wonder. His fate appeared to have been written for him.

His family was flown in from their home near Ottawa, a sudden cross-country flight no loved one should bear. “Everybody came to Vancouver to see me, my mom, my sisters,” Odjick said. “They thought they were saying goodbye.”

There was little Odjick could do to prove another truth. He was deteriorating before his own eyes. Sixty pounds shed from his frame. He was pale, gaunt, unsteady. He could not get through the day alone.

But somewhere inside Odjick was a light that could not be so easily snuffed out. It was a cultural thing, learned as a child through his grandmother and from visits to a medicine man as a young boy. “I had a strong belief as a First Nations person that you see it before you’re going to die, and you feel it before you’re going to die,” he said. “It just didn’t happen like that for me. I never felt it or saw it that I was going to die.”

Fighting, of course, was one thing Odjick knew how to do. He had laid waste to all manner of opponents in his NHL days, 152 bouts according to hockeyfights.com, in a career spent grappling with the sport’s best. His fisticuffs with the likes of Marty McSorley and Dave Brown etched his legacy in stone. During one game in the mid-1990s, Calgary’s Todd Simpson was agitating Bure, putting his hand in the superstar’s face, hitting him away from the play. As McSorley was to Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles, Odjick was to Bure in Vancouver – his eternal bodyguard on the ice, answering any antagonist and providing Bure the security to operate knowing a 6-foot-3, 240-pound winger had his back. That night, against the Flames, Odjick dropped his gloves in front of Simpson. “I passed my message, and he got the message,” Odjick said. “And he quit going after Bure.”

It was this same grit being called upon again of Odjick, though now in a different form, in a different fight. As he lay in a Vancouver hospital bed, bidding what was supposed to be farewell to those closest to him, doctors began discussing a treatment. It was not quite experimental, as was later reported in the press, but it was a chemotherapy combination that included the drug Bortezomib. It had been around for some time, though research into its use to treat cardiac amyloidosis was relatively limited. “We weren’t certain whether the treatment was going to work, in the sense that it was possible that (his disease) was too far in advance to benefit,” said Dr. Kevin Song, Odjick’s hematologist at Vancouver General. “The only thing we could do was give it our best shot.”

Dr. Song had to be transparent with his patient. As treatment began, a six-week course of chemotherapy drips and needles to his thinning abdomen, Odjick was likely to get worse before he got better. With his window to ably board an airplane narrowing, Odjick flew to Ottawa to continue treatment. There, he would be closer to family in case the chemo didn’t take. “They sent me from Vancouver to Ottawa to die,” he said.

In many moments, it might have seemed he would. One day in May 2014, Odjick said doctors approached him about what to do in the event his heart failed again. Did he want to consider a do-not-resuscitate order? Odjick was defiant. “I got kids,” he said. “I got reason to live, and I’m not giving up.” A short time later, Odjick flatlined – without a heartbeat, he was later told, for a full minute. He woke up in intensive care, a second heart attack testing his resolve yet again. But Odjick would not give in.

The light arrived slowly. Day by day, Odjick’s uneasy shuffles around the hospital ward could extend a little longer. He began to put weight back on, sneaking trips to the lower-level food court as a respite from the hospital food that made his stomach churn. “What turned him around was he stuck to the program,” said Peter Leech, Odjick’s longtime friend, who was often by his bedside. “He believed in himself.”

It was a striking turn. After six weeks, nurses rang a bell inside Odjick’s ward. It was a celebration. He was in remission.

***

In the retelling of his life, a man can be more than one thing. Over his first four decades, Odjick was popularly known as a bruiser, a one-style soldier armed with only the skills to fight. The shoe fit, though not entirely. While he led the NHL in penalty minutes one year (371 in 1996-97) he also scored 16 goals in another – in 1993-94, the season his Canucks made that thrilling run to the Stanley Cup final. “Sixteen goals? I remember how happy he was scoring any goal,” Bure said. “That’s pretty good for a tough guy.”

In the years since he left hockey, in 2002, Odjick has added more titles to his story. Most notably, he is now a survivor. For more than four years since death seemed so close, he has been in remarkable remission. Only regular visits to his hematologist and cardiologist remain as signs of a horrible time gone by. “I think Gino will do well,” Dr. Song said. “I think he will continue to be well for a long time.”

What’s left is a life renewed. He is 48 now, with eight children (one named Bure, after his closest teammate) and work left to complete. Odjick has long been an icon to his First Nations people. He continues to do outreach speaking at reserves across Canada. “It’s medicine for me,” he said.

Four years ago, when he penned that grim letter, there wasn’t much for Odjick to cling to. There was only a belief in himself. “This isn’t goodbye,” he wrote.

It was a prophecy few others could see. There is much more to do before Gino Odjick is ready to bid farewell.

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