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Pandemic another obstacle for OHL prospect and cancer survivor

"Whatever comes toward me, I know there are people who have it worse.” Owen Brady's pursuit of an OHL career has been halted, first by cancer then by COVID-19, but he's not about to give up on his dream.

(Author’s note: In December, 2018, we brought you the story of Owen Brady, a top prospect for the 2019 Ontario League draft who was diagnosed with cancer. We also said we would keep our readers updated on his journey to recovery, right up to his first game back on the ice. This is the fourth of those updates.)

Hey, we’re all looking for small victories where we can find them these days and 17-year-old Owen Brady is no exception. Last weekend, he got out of bed at 6 a.m. and went for a 35-mile training ride and watched the sun come up. “And I was finishing up after a shower the other day and I shook my head and my hair kind of flapped around,” he said. “And I said, ‘Wow, that’s kind of cool. I haven’t had that happen in a while.’ ” Like we said, small victories.

There must be times when Owen Brady thinks the world must be conspiring against him playing hockey. He hasn’t played a meaningful game in 18 months and, with all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, he’s not sure when his next chance will come. “It’s almost like a cruel joke,” said Owen’s father, Chris. But after what he’s been through the past year-and-a-half, Owen has learned to roll with the punches and appreciate what he has in life. It’s a unique perspective for one so young, one that was gained from undergoing a grueling 19-hour surgical procedure to remove a tumor, then five rounds of chemotherapy, all the while missing almost two seasons of hockey at a crucial time in his development.

It all started in November, 2018 when Brady, the captain of the Whitby Wildcats AAA midget team and a top defense prospect for the 2019 OHL draft, noticed a lump in his left shin, just below his knee. A visit to a walk-in clinic marked the beginning of a terrible diagnosis, the discovery of a five-centimeter tumor that contained osteosarcoma, the same type of cancer Terry Fox had. Not only did Brady have to undergo hugely invasive surgery to remove the cancer, he had the fibula removed from his right leg to replace much of the tibia in his left where the tumor was located. That was followed by a draining chemotherapy regimen at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Doctors originally told him he would never play hockey again, but later mapped out a two-year recovery time.

That wiped out the rest of the 2018-19 season, his crucial draft year in the OHL, and this past season. Brady likely would have gone late in the first or early in the second round of the draft, but the uncertainty pushed him down the list. The Oshawa Generals, hoping they’d be getting a first-round talent when Brady recovered, took him in the sixth round in 2019. Brady knew he would not be playing competitively this season, but worked diligently to stay in shape and worked three times a week with power skating coach Ashlea Jones, who offered her services for free after she learned of Brady’s diagnosis. He had also been participating in some practices with the Whitby Fury Jr. A team and a local midget team, all with an eye to being ready for the Generals rookie camp, which was scheduled for this weekend.

But like everything else, that opportunity was wiped out, as was a high-level spring league in which Brady was hoping to play. It looks as though nobody is going to be playing hockey for quite some time, so Brady’s return to the ice will have to wait. The good news is nobody else is playing these days, either. “It honestly wasn’t too much of a big hit,” Brady said. “I didn’t get my hopes up too high because I obviously had missed things before. It wasn’t too bad, but it was still unfortunate to not be able to fulfill that goal. Whatever comes toward me, I know there are people who have it worse.”

So as it stands now, Owen Brady is a lot like other hockey players these days, reduced to working out in his garage not knowing when he’ll be back on the ice or where he’ll be playing. Making the Generals is still the ultimate goal, but it’s not as simple as it seems. First, he won’t have played hockey in almost two years when next season begins. Second, the Generals will be a Memorial Cup contender and as much of a feel-good story as Brady is, there is no room for charity when you’re trying to win a championship. He may have to weigh the choice of getting limited rookie ice time in his NHL draft year on a powerhouse team against perhaps playing Jr. A or even midget hockey for another year. With all the setbacks, Brady knows this is no longer a sprint and now the prospect of playing college hockey has become an option. Then again, he has met every obstacle that has been placed in his way and overcome it, so perhaps it’s wise not to bet against him.

“It’s going to take longer, but another setback won’t hurt anybody,” Brady said. “I’m used to it. I don’t think this will affect me much, to be honest. It will be up to me to get off to a good start, be trusted and get opportunities to make myself look good.”

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