Early Friday evening, Owen Brady will pull on his Whitby Wildcats sweater, the one with the freshly sewn ‘C’ on it. He’ll step on the ice at the Iroquois Arena and skate with his teammates, passing the puck back and forth and taking a few shots, but more than anything simply feeling the joy of the ice beneath his feet.
“Just being on the ice and being in the presence of my team,” said the 15-year-old defenseman. “It will be pretty emotional being on the ice for the last time in what will seem like forever. Because it will be so long.”
For the first two months of this season, 15-year-old Owen Brady was living his dream. As a defenseman for the minor midget Whitby Wildcats, he was anchoring the blueline for one of the best midget teams in Ontario. At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, he was projected by the OHL’s Central Scouting Bureau to go either late in the first round or early in the second. Size, physicality and an ability to move the puck had scouts from the OHL flocking to see him in anticipation of the 2019 draft. “He has all the things scouts tend to drool over,” said OHL Central Scouting director Darryl Woodley. “He was definitely one of the top-rated defensemen in this draft.”
But this past summer he noticed a bump on the upper part of his left shin. It caused him zero discomfort, but it seemed to keep growing. At first, it was thought that the bump was simply scar tissue that had been building up from blocking shots. But the day before Owen was to play with his team in the prestigious Silver Stick tournament, and the day after he was named captain of the Wildcats, Owen and his father, Chris, decided to go to a walk-in clinic to have him assessed. It was shortly after the first x-ray that they learned the devastating news, that Owen had a five-centimeter cancerous tumor growing in his shin, about an inch-and-a-half below the knee. The day he was supposed to take the ice with his team at the Silver Stick Tournament, which was the first game in which he would have worn the ‘C’, Owen spent the day at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto getting assessed. He hasn’t played hockey since, but plans to go out and skate with his team for one last time this season before he undergoes a 12-hour procedure next Wednesday to have the tumor removed and have skin grafted to repair the damaged area.
“The first time he met the surgeon, the surgeon told him, ‘You’ll likely never play competitive hockey again,’ ” Chris said. “But we’ve been told the worst case is it will be one-to-two years before he plays again. He has to believe he’s going to play again to get him through this.”
And he does. Owen vows to, “attack this thing like it’s any other challenge in my life,” and he has a great support network. But it will be a long road back to the ice. After the surgery, the tumor will be sent to determine what kind of cancer he has. If it’s osteosarcoma, the kind of cancer Terry Fox had, he will have to undergo six months of chemotherapy. If it’s chondasarcoma, it will not require chemotherapy. Either way, he’ll be in a cast for 10 weeks with bone grafting and pins and rods on either side of his shin to support it. The surgery is very invasive because the surgeons will have to remove some healthy bone around the tumor to ensure there is no trace of the tumor remaining.
But regardless of the type of cancer Owen Brady has, the prognosis for long-term recovery is excellent. It has not metastasized so it’s not in his lungs, blood or any other bones in his body. His dream of being selected in the first or second round of this year’s OHL draft have been taken from him, as has a chance to play for Ontario in the Canada Winter Games in February, but Woodley said he’s certain Owen will get drafted by a team in the later rounds, a team that will have the luxury of being able to wait for a first- or second-round talent to recover and get back on the ice.
About a week after his prognosis, Owen was slated to take part in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association’s Minor Midget AAA Showcase. In fact, the association had used Owen in promoting the event. As he and his father sat in the stands and watched, Chris tried to console his son, saying he had played enough of the season to get drafted into the OHL.
“And he said to me, ‘I don’t care about the scouts, I don’t care about the draft. I just want to be on the ice and play,’ ” Chris said. “That’s the stuff that makes me start crying. There has to be an end game for him and the end game for him is being able to play again. The beginning, middle and end of any conversation he has is about when he’s going to play again.”
This past summer, Owen went to Paul Ranger’s school for defensemen and the former NHLer who played four years in the OHL and parts of six seasons in the NHL has been an invaluable resource. It’s one thing for his father to tell him he can come out the other end of this more resilient, but it’s another for an ex-pro hockey player who has endured his share of hardship to provide consoling words. “What he said to Owen, and what Owen needed to hear, ‘It doesn’t matter what round you’re drafted in,’ ” Chris said. “ ‘It’s a privilege to be drafted and it’s an opportunity to prove you’re that caliber of playing, whether you’re first, second or sixth round.’ ”
A former coach of Owen’s who is coaching a AAA peewee team has invited him to come out and help coach when he’s able to get back on his skates. His family advisor, John Walter, is arranging to have Owen come out to the rinks and scout players with him. The son of two religion teachers who happen to teach at the same high school he and his sister attend, Owen is eager to stay on track with his academics. In fact, he took summer courses the past couple of years in an effort to fast track through high school.
“That was in prediction of playing in the OHL and not having much time,” Owen said,“but I guess the stars will align in a different way.”
Yes, they will. But that doesn’t mean they won’t ultimately align in his favor. Over the next year or so, we’ll be providing occasional updates on Owen’s progress, with an eye to covering his first game in the OHL and beyond. Owen Brady will have an entire hockey world in his corner as he embarks on his journey.