HALIFAX – During the weeks Robert Mueller laid in a hospital bed, he thought about little other than hockey.
He had undergone surgery to remove a malignant brain tumour in November 2006 and was already planning his comeback. Many people were concerned that the German League goaltender might not survive while he was worrying about making his next start.
“No, not one second did I think (I wouldn’t be back),” said Mueller. “I love this game and it was for sure a big support for me to have thoughts of playing hockey again. That’s why I wasn’t nervous or had fear at all.”
A year and a half later, the 27-year-old is a member of the German team at the IIHF World Hockey Championship. He’s the No. 2 man behind Dmitri Patzold but was in net for the team’s lone victory so far – a 4-2 upset of Slovakia earlier this week.
His presence has been uplifting for the teammates that were with him when the tumour was diagnosed during a national team function. He was suffering from serious neck pain and going through dizzy spells at that time.
“He basically had a death sentence put on him,” said German coach Uwe Krupp. “We’re like a family and it’s tough when you see someone close to you go through that. That was a tough blow for everybody.
“It was even more of a boost when he came back.”
He’s become something of a celebrity back home in Germany, which is a notable accomplishment for a hockey player in the soccer-mad country.
The stocky redhead even made an appearance in Playboy – although he points out that the only thing he took off was his hockey jersey.
“It’s a big honour,” said Mueller. “Not too many German hockey players were in Playboy before. It was a funny story.”
Mueller was born in Rosenheim and was introduced to hockey by his brother around the age of five. He was “addicted right away.”
He was both a forward and goalie until the age of 18, when he devoted himself to goal full-time and started making appearances for the national team.
His entire professional career has been with teams in the German League, save for an eight-game stretch in Switzerland. He’s not holding out any hope of making his way to North America.
“When I was younger, I should maybe have tried harder,” said Mueller. “Now I think there’s not too many chances. Sometimes I heard one is going to happen so you never know.”
The health problems put a lot of things into perspective for the married father of two.
He had trouble with his coach in Mannheim at the start of this season and found himself relegated to the backup position. Instead of sulking, he signed with lowly Duisburg.
“Money is not everything in life so I went to the last-place team to get some games,” said Mueller.
He was impressive there and eventually signed with the Cologne Sharks, who he helped lead past Mannheim in the first round of the playoffs. They were beaten in the league final.
Cologne has since extended his contract.
“I know I can’t be a backup goalie,” said Mueller. “I want to be a No. 1 goalie and I’m 27 years old. It’s time.”
Overall, he’s almost nonchalant about all that has happened over the past 18 months. A scar across his scalp provides a reminder of the surgical procedure but he doesn’t even know how long the incision is.
“The guys always ask me how long the surgery was and everything but I don’t care,” said Mueller. “I’m just happy that everything went well for me.”
He’s always happy when hockey is involved.
“It was a big motivation for me to get back here,” said Mueller. “I’ve played this game since I was five years old and it’s the only thing I have besides my family.”
Added Krupp: “It’s an unbelievable story really.”