Though he never thought of himself as an athlete, Lysiak was a prolific scorer. In recent years, though, he’s became a fighter in his battle against leukemia.
Editor’s Note: Former NHLer Tom Lysiak passed away on Monday following a battle with leukemia. He was 63. Former THN Atlanta Thrashers correspondent John Manasso profiled Lysiak during his battle for a feature in the Dream Teams special issue released in September 2015. Here is the feature in its entirety.
BY JOHN MANASSO
Tommy Lysiak was recovering from a bone marrow transplant earlier this year when a nurse at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital made a suggestion. She wanted him to walk two miles a day to aid in his recovery after undergoing leukemia treatment. Part of her pitch was it shouldn’t be that hard for Lysiak since he used to be an athlete.
Lysiak, the Atlanta Flame and Chicago Blackhawk forward who finished second in Calder Trophy voting in 1974, took exception. “No, you’re mistaking me for an athlete – I played hockey,” Lysiak told her. “I wasn’t really an athlete. I didn’t work out. I didn’t go to camp in shape. Camp was meant to get into shape.”
Lysiak was selling himself short, because he had to have some athleticism to record 292 goals and 843 points in 919 games over 13 NHL seasons. And as a native of High Prairie, Alta., he loved to get outdoors to hunt, fish and raise horses. It is part of the reason he made Georgia his permanent home when his career ended after the 1985-86 season.
Lysiak responded to the nurse’s challenge and walked the two miles daily, which has been one of the easiest parts of a difficult series of health problems over the past few years. He first began to notice his health was sagging in November 2012 when he and friend Kurt Walker, an enforcer who played 71 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, were hunting. Lysiak didn’t possess the strength to drag a deer he had shot out of the woods.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” Walker said. “I was just making fun of it. I told him he was just old. ‘What’s the matter, you can’t drag your own deer out of the woods?’ ”
Later, when Walker, Lysiak and other friends were hunting and fishing at Georgia’s Cumberland Island, Lysiak didn’t have the strength to ride a bicycle. He knew something was wrong and, in early 2013, he learned the cause.
It took doctors at two Atlanta hospitals and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., months to unravel all of Lysiak’s ailments. He had leukemia, but he also had contracted Lyme Disease by the time he was diagnosed. He can take antibiotics only occasionally to treat the Lyme Disease, as the drugs interfere with his chemotherapy.
Nevertheless, he has soldiered on, with his sense of humor intact. During the operation for a bone marrow transplant in March, he had three different tubes coming out of his chest. One was white, one was red and one was blue. Lysiak joked one was for white wine, one was for red wine and the blue was for the transplant.
During the three months Lysiak spent at Emory Hospital following the transplant, doctors instructed him to wear a mask and gloves when he went outdoors to protect his immune system. He also was told to stay out of the sun. When he got home to the farm, he put on a hat, slathered himself in sunscreen and set about doing some chores. “I didn’t adhere to that too good,” he said. “I can’t live like this, and we have a farm…I’ve got a lot of grass. Somebody’s got to cut it. I’m weak. How do you strengthen yourself? Jump on the tractor and cut the grass…I had to do something.”
In his younger days, Lysiak never aspired to farm, even though High Prairie was a farming community of 2,000 people when he was growing up. He recalls the clatter of frozen rubber tires on school buses in temperatures of minus-55 Celsius in the town that sits four hours northwest of Edmonton on the west side of Slave Lake.
Lysiak played his junior hockey at Medicine Hat and posted prodigious totals. In his second season, he scored 46 goals and had 143 points in 68 games. In his draft year of 1972-73, Lysiak upped those to 58 goals and 154 points in 67 games and led the Tigers to the league title over Saskatoon Blades. The next season, he was in the NHL.
With his career nearly 30 years in the rearview mirror, Lysiak doesn’t think about it much, but when he reflects upon it he wishes he had scored more goals. “I did a lot of passing away too much,” he said. “I was such a good playmaker that I could give somebody a half net to shoot at rather than me picking corners. I’m a pretty good shooter. I should’ve taken more shots.”
In the present, his health ranks as his primary concern. He has responded well to the transplant, with his blood counts showing fast improvement. His friend Walker said doctors are optimistic.
“I still have a long ride ahead of me,” Lysiak said. “I’m trying to enjoy life, though not doing what they always tell me to do.”