February 24, 2012 2:20 PM
The Checkers’ next two games, which include its annual Hockey Fights Cancer and Pink in the Rink events, are sure to stir up thoughts for those that have struggled with various forms of the disease.
For Joe Sova, those thoughts are quite a bit more personal.
When he was just 8 years old, the recently-acquired Checkers defenseman noticed a lump in his throat. His parents took him to see doctors, who took a biopsy that led to a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
With no prior warnings or family history, it was a discovery that was as shocking as it was sudden. Fortunately, it happened soon enough to make a difference. Six months later, the worst was over.
“They say you’re never really cured, but I’m going on 15 years of remission,” said Sova, now a 23-year-old rookie. “Looking back now it wasn’t really so bad, but it was hell going through it at the time. When they kill the cells, they really kill the cells. You lose your hair, your taste buds, things like that.”
Though it’s more than any child, or any person for that matter, should have to go through, Sova said that experiencing it so soon in life may have made things easier.
“I think it was better that I was younger because you don’t really know,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly what cancer was, I just knew it was bad. I tend to ask a lot of questions, and I think I was more curious than scared. It was harder for my parents, especially my mom.
“I don’t know how I’d deal with it now. It would be a lot different.”
One constant between the worst of his battle and now is the game he’s always loved - hockey. Even then it was a big part of his life, though it was never easy to keep it that way. Faced with the option of getting a port in his chest that would stop him from playing during treatment or the alternative, a constant barrage of needles that, while far more uncomfortable, would allow him to stay on the ice, the choice was easy.
“I didn’t want to stop playing during treatment,” he said. “Getting the needles didn’t stop me, but it probably should have. There were days I shouldn’t have been playing but I just begged my dad, because being at the rink lifted my spirits. There were days when I would puke from the chemo, but going to the rink was something to fight for.
“I missed a lot of school because I was sick, but I didn’t miss a practice. Hockey kept me sane.”
If one was unfamiliar with Sova’s story until now, that’s because he’s only recently started telling it to a wider audience. Close friends and teammates have known about his past, partially because of his tattoo that he says serves as a reminder to, “Be strong all the time and never forget,” but he’s rarely gone out of his way to make it known.
In fact, it wasn’t until he sent a message via his Twitter account on Friday afternoon, the day of the Hockey Fights Cancer event, that those in the Checkers’ front office became aware.
“When I was younger I didn’t really put it out there that much,” he said. “I didn’t really want to take part in walks and fundraisers and things like that, but I’d always have friends who walked for me. If people found out about it and they asked, I’ve always been happy to talk about it, but to bring it up wasn’t my style.
“Now, I know how special it is to be playing and it means a little more. As I’m getting older I’m getting more open about it. It’s a part of me. I know kids look up to us now just because of where we are in our profession, and for a weekend like this with everything going on, I just decided I’d throw it out there.”
Sova’s own personal experience is part of what prompted that change. While receiving his initial treatment, he was able to take the ice and practice with his hometown Chicago Blackhawks via the Make a Wish Foundation. He remembers getting dressed in the locker room alongside heroes Denis Savard and Steve Smith, taking part in drills and taking shots on NHL goalies.
“Now if you look at where my career has gone, I’m almost at the level that they were,” he said. “Looking back, it’s something that made me stronger. Now if we have kids coming in, I’m sure to take time to talk to them because I remember what they did for me. It means a lot.”
There’s also the fact that he’s finally been able to distance himself from the constant doctor visits that were necessary throughout his youth. Even after physicians at the University of Chicago determined he was in remission, he had scheduled checkups that began as monthly and eventually became annual appointments.
Sova said that he's had one scare since those first six months, another lump that he discovered while playing junior hockey in Iowa at age 17. He could have found doctors elsewhere, but instead returned to where he was most comfortable.
“I started in pediatrics and they want you to move on to the adult side when you get older, but I always go back to the same doctors from when I was a kid,” said Sova, who checks in at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds. “I’m like a big kid in the waiting room playing the kids games, but I can relate to what they’re going through.”
The lump turned out to be nothing serious, but he wasn’t taking chances then and won’t in the future.
“On long bus trips or on the plane, I still feel around just to see what’s going on and to make sure everything’s alright,” he said. “If I found it when I was 8, I should be able to find it at 23.”
In that sense, he won’t ever forget or completely move on from his past. Rather, it’s something he seems to have learned to embrace. He’s even scheduled to take part in the ceremonial puck drop for the Hockey Fights Cancer event on Friday.
“Looking back now, I can say that I’m proud I went through it,” he said.