Eddie Olczyk remembers the exact time: 7:07 p.m. He was lying in bed, recovering from surgery. Doctors had just removed 14 inches of his colon and a tumor the size of a fist. The house phone started ringing, and the incoming number flashed on his television screen.
“It was Northwestern Hospital,” Olczyk recalled. “Look, with my experience of being a hockey player and being a dad, you know any phone call at past 7 o’clock from the hospital, it’s not a good call.”
He let it ring and ring. “Aren’t you going to answer it?” his wife asked. “No, I know what’s on the other line,” Olczyk said.
He finally picked up, and his worst fears were confirmed: colon cancer, they said. Stage 3. “And just like that, everything kind of stopped,” he said. “But at the same time, things also started going really fast: How was I going to tell my kids? What does this mean? Am I going to live?”
Olczyk, the former NHLer who’s now an analyst on NBC’s coverage of hockey and horse racing, is telling this story 10 months later, sitting in the stands at Capital One Arena before a hockey practice in the middle of one of his busiest and favorite weeks of the year. Less than a year after a diagnosis that at times felt like a death sentence, he’ll cover two Eastern Conference finals games between the Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning in Washington before heading to Baltimore for Saturday’s broadcast of the Preakness Stakes.
The 51-year-old is cancer-free and has resumed a busy work schedule. His hockey analysis is well-regarded, his Preakness picks highly anticipated. (He did, after all, hit the trifecta with his Kentucky Derby picks two weeks ago, the second time in four years he has nailed the race’s top three finishers.) But getting to this point was a long road.
Doctors were hopeful they’d successfully extracted the cancerous portion of his colon but strongly recommended further treatment. The oncologist didn’t know Olczyk’s history handicapping horses when she said, “ ‘Look, if you want to take your chances and gamble and not take the chemo–,’ ” Olczyk recalled. “I said, ‘You’re talking to the wrong guy if you want to get into gambling and odds.’ Is this more like Justify or like Exaggerator a couple years ago in the Preakness?”
He chuckles now. In truth, back in August, he barely heard a word the doctor said. He was still recovering from surgery and couldn’t even begin chemotherapy until Sept. 11. He confronted the fear the same way he was able to grind out a 16-year playing career, followed by a successful run broadcasting in the booth and a stint coaching on the bench: He immediately started plotting out goals.
Olczyk went to an OfficeMax and bought an oversized calendar. He put big black Xs on every other Monday — chemotherapy appointments — and then begin marking off important dates and milestones he could look forward to: hockey games he wanted to work, holidays, the Breeders’ Cup, his daughter’s graduation.
NBC encouraged him to take whatever time he needed, but Olczyk promised his bosses he’d be back full-time by the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Triple Crown. He wasn’t certain, though, how much he’d be able to work before then.
Chemotherapy involved two hours at the hospital every other week. He’d leave wearing a fanny pack that would continue to deliver treatment for 48 straight hours, one slow drip at a time.
“Every minute the pump goes and you hear that sound — it sounds like a hairdryer going on for a split-second,” Olczyk said. “When you’re sitting by yourself and you’re feeling awful and that’s all you hear over and over, you’re thinking, ‘How in the world am I going to get through this?’ ”
The first few treatments were especially rough. He was knocked out for days. There was nausea and vomiting. He had nosebleeds and a blood clot in his leg. His sense of taste dulled, his fingers and feet were hit with neuropathy, and he occasionally lost chunks of hair. Later he’d develop a hernia related to his initial surgery. And as a result of the drugs, he gained 40 pounds and was suddenly bigger than he’d ever been in his life.
There was a psychological toll, too. Olczyk felt he was letting down his family and friends, letting down NBC and letting down the Chicago Blackhawks, for whom he regularly broadcasts games.
“After the second or third treatment, I remember telling my wife: ‘I’m done. I can’t do this,’ ” he said. “And she just kind of looked at me and grabbed me by the short hairs and said, ‘Fight for me, fight for our kids, and fight for the people that love you.’ ”
He kept consulting the calendar and realized there was a period late in each treatment cycle when he felt better. He started identifying some games he could work for the Blackhawks, and later for NBC.
“He’s a hockey guy. When you step into a rink, there’s special smell, a sense, a feel. Eddie needed that normalcy,” said Sam Flood, NBC’s executive producer. “His family had taken him to rinks throughout his life; he has so many memories. So it was a reminder of how special life is. I think that helped inspire him to work harder, suffer through whatever pain the chemo and the treatments were sending his way.”
Olczyk eventually made it to 14 games this season, about a third of his usual workload, each one a welcome escape.
“I just had to get the hell out of the house. Just think about something other than the drugs and everything else,” he said. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful by saying this, but it was a great distraction. It took me away and helped pass the time. It was pretty soothing, you know?”
Finally, on Feb. 21 at 9:04 a.m. — of course, he remembers the exact time — Olczyk was unhooked for the last time. He underwent a final scan and, three weeks later — March 14 at 5:04 p.m. — the phone rang again. He eagerly answered it this time.
His scan was clean. Olczyk was in tears as he shared the news with family, friends and colleagues. The playoffs were approaching, the Triple Crown was around the corner, and Olczyk was eager to take on a bigger workload.
Whether he’s at a track or a rink, an airport or a hotel, he encourages people he meets not to wait on a colonoscopy. He’ll need to undergo checkups every three months for the next couple of years, but he has already dropped 25 pounds. “I don’t need the Vaseline to jump into my pants anymore,” he joked.
Olczyk was excited that a bit of scheduling serendipity allowed him to work hockey in D.C. and horse racing in Baltimore this week. More than anything, he’s happy for the normalcy.
“Look, cancer is going to be with me the rest of my life. I know that,” he said. “But I just feel like now I’m relaxed, in a great place and I’m around people that I want to be around and appreciative for the opportunity.”
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