- After winning the Ace Bailey Award of Courage, Eddie Olczyk spoke about the challenges of surviving colon cancer, the help he received during recovery and his return to the NBC broadcasting booth.
Eight months and one day after his final chemotherapy session was finished, Eddie Olczyk stood on a platform stage Monday night, flanked by banner-sized portraits of Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe. His eyes scanned the audience at the 2018 NHL Alumni Awards ceremony, where several hundred attendees listened, rapt. “I want everybody in this room to know that everybody who goes through any kind of a battle like that is, and you are, tough,” he told them. “Because it does question and test your will to live.”
Moments earlier, Olczyk had accepted the Ace Bailey Award of Courage, so named for the then-L.A. Kings scout who died in the 9/11 attacks. According to the NHL Alumni website, the honor is annually given to “a recipient who has shown exceptional courage and exemplary determination in life.” No doubt this description fits Olczyk—NBC Sports color commentator, virtuoso horse handicapper, stage 3 colon cancer survivor—like a hockey glove.
The fight began soon after Olczyk received an official diagnosis in Aug. 2017. He remembers feeling overcome with a mental fog while meeting with his oncologist to sketch out a treatment program. How can I be here? How can I have cancer? How is this happening? Noticing his thousand-yard stare, the doctor interrupted. “Eddie,” she said. “Look at me. I’m here to cure you. Not treat you. Do you understand the difference?” Olczyk sat up, resolute. “Yeah, that got my attention,” he says today. “I was like, ‘Well, let’s go. What do I have to do?’”
He relayed this story to the gala crowd, which included NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA director Don Fehr. He also told this one: Upon entering the cocktail hour at Toronto’s Scotiabank Stadium, where guests were noshing on appetizers and mingling around the bar, he first encountered Rick Vaive, the former Maple Leafs captain who had been featured in a trade that sent Olczyk from Chicago to Toronto in Sept. 1987. Next he ran into Tie Domi … and then Steve Thomas … and then Chris King … all players who had been part of deals involving Olczyk over his 16-year career.
“It was like a hidden camera show,” he says, laughing. “This is your life, we’re going to bring everybody you ever got traded for to this event. Like, OK, seriously?”
Turns out that lots of old faces showed up. There were former teammates whom he hadn’t seen in decades. His broadcast partner with NBC Sports Chicago, Pat Foley, paid a surprise visit, as did Blackhawks radio analyst and former teammate Troy Murray, both fresh off working the team’s 5-3 loss to Tampa alongside Olczyk on Sunday evening. “You don’t get many of those types of nights,” Olczyk says. “Seeing a guy like Adam Graves, a guy I won the Stanley Cup with in New York, just reminiscing on the 25-year anniversary of our team coming up, that’s a Mastercard commercial in the making. Those are priceless. I don’t care where you live, how much money you make. That’s what you miss the most.”
Fortunately, Olczyk remains as much around the game as ever. This week he will work NBC Sports’ first primetime Wednesday night matchup featuring two Canadian teams: Maple Leafs-Jets in Winnipeg, where Olczyk actually played in the last game that play-by-play guru Doc Emrick called there on Dec. 29, 1995. (He scored a power-play goal as the Jets beat New Jersey, 5-3.) He spoke with SI.com about returning to the booth on a full-time basis, his early impressions from the 2018-19 season and the fight that continues even after beating cancer.
(Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Sports Illustrated: What’d you think of the ceremony?
Eddie Olczyk: Just a great honor to get the Ace Bailey Award. And obviously Mark Davis too was on that flight going from Boston to L.A., two guys that we lost directly in our hockey community. Ace Bailey was a tough player, a guy who played a long time in the league and did so much after his playing career. To get an award in his name, I was very honored and humbled by the committee and the alumni for thinking of me going through what I did the last year. It was just a great night. Saw a lot of old familiar faces and stories.
Just the whole night, to be with everybody and celebrate the game, to be recognized after my cancer battle, it was very nice, very special. My goal, with sharing my story, is to hopefully keep one person away from going through what I had to go through. Or, if there is someone out there battling, I can inspire them when they’re going through the treatments. That includes going to the doctor, or getting a checkup. If you’re not well, it’s OK to say, “Geez, I don’t feel good,” or “I need to get some medical attention.” Don’t keep putting off going to the doctor when you’re supposed to. But, yeah, it was a tremendous night.
SI: That idea of vulnerability seemed to be a theme in your speech. And it’s so important, now more than ever, when it comes to things like head trauma, or mental illness. It’s OK to ask for help, it’s OK to offer help.
EO: That’s one of the things I learned. There’s so much pressure in society, no matter what walk of life. Sometimes people are afraid to raise their hand and go, “Yeah, I don’t feel good.” The acceptance of somebody being honest when it comes to that, regardless of whether it’s a head injury or somebody who’s battling something or something’s bothering somebody, if you don’t say something, nobody’s going to know. It’s up to us to make sure that we are helping people in getting them the right attention and guiding them.
The caretakers and caregivers are so important. My wife was there every step of the way. I never saw her weak when I was at my lowest. I never saw her worried or down, or any hesitation in the care to know that I was going to be OK. But the reality is, when my wife wasn’t around me, I’m sure she let her guard down and was worried and wondering what was going to happen, seeing me at my lowest with the side effects. So my wife and I, we’ve made a concerted effort to let people know how important the caretakers and caregivers are, along with the person who’s battling the disease.
The texts and the emails and the phone calls I got helped get me through the toughest challenge of my life. Without being overbearing, just letting people know what I went through. Everybody’s different. There are a lot worse people off than Eddie Olczyk. I know that. But if I can have a purpose now to share that knowledge that I gained through a brutal time, it will have been worth going through the six months of hell of the chemotherapy.
It’s just the reality. It’s going to be with me the rest of my life. I’m glad it was me and nobody else in my circle or family. Knowing what I know now, having gone through it, I don't know how I would’ve been able to cope with somebody having to go through it. It’s a challenge. It’s a goal to inspire people to handle it, beat it or stay away from it. There’s a lot of antennas there. But with my mantle and the opportunities that I get publicly, the more people who know my story, the better chance I have to help somebody that I may know or may not. That’s the beautiful part of it.
SI: Did you have a moment too where you raised your hand and said something’s not right, or I need help?
EO: I said it last night. I was in treatment three and came home and … I didn’t go into detail last night … but my side effects were killing me. Chemo takes over your body. All of a sudden you s--- your pants. It’s the reality. You vomit, your nose starts bleeding, and you’re like, how can I live like this? I told my wife, I’m done. I can’t go another nine treatments. There’s no way. I’m not going to live like this. I think I was asking for help. I think I raised my hand and said, look, I’m done. My wife grabbed me, and I said this last night, she said, “Fight for me, fight for our kids, fight for all the people who love you.”
So you have a moment. You cry. I needed that. I’m not embarrassed to say that’s where I needed help. I didn’t know that I was sick until I was constipated, couldn't go to the bathroom, then a day later I’m like, “Something’s wrong. I need to go to the hospital.” I didn’t have any signs. No family history. Within a five-day span I went from not being able to go to the bathroom to them telling me I had stage 3 colon cancer.
The time I raised my hand is when I was actually in it. I’ve been contacted by hundreds of people that are either going through it, or a family member’s going through it, and reach out to these people and try to help them and guide them through. Everybody’s side effects are different. All you can do is explain it. People can understand it. It’s hard for somebody who hasn’t lived it to totally comprehend what it does to you physically and mentally.
It’s no different than in hockey when the games are tight and you’re down a goal or up a goal and you’ve got to find a way to battle and fight through. I think I relied on my hockey experiences as well. Control what I can, rely on the people that I love, my family and my friends and just battle.
SI: What has it been like being in the early-season rhythms again? Anything you missed?
EO: Oh, yeah, yeah. I got a good taste of it coming back last year. I was pretty much on a full schedule in the playoffs, but there were a lot of rinks I didn’t make it to. I think I only did 24 or 25 regular-season games. Nice to see some familiar faces when I haven’t been around. I’m on my way to Winnipeg, we’re doing Winnipeg-Toronto on Wednesday Night Hockey. I laid my hat in both those towns, more than half of my career. It’s always fun to be around hockey people, because they’re just solid human beings, whether you spend one day or 10 years, all connected somehow, but it is nice to be back on a regular basis, being back with Doc.
I think this is our 12th year that we’re together, next to each other up in the booth. My first year in the booth with Doc as his partner was at the start of the 06-07 season. If my math is correct, this is the start of our 12th year together in the booth. It’s comfortable. A lot less thinking about what’s gone on in the last year. The farther I can get away from Aug. 4, 2017 to Feb. 21 when I stopped my last treatment, the better I’ll be.
SI: Did you know that, apparently, the last game Doc ever called in Winnipeg, you played in?
EO: The first thing that tells me is that Doc’s up there. I thought it was a Winnipeg-Detroit game. I’m sure I’ll be able to remember once I know. I think Mike Vernon was the goaltender. I think Scotty [Bowman] was standing behind the bench. I’m pretty sure that was the game. But don’t quote me on that.
SI: When you were just returning to the booth, you spoke a lot about the peaceful setting that horses and hockey—or pucks and ponies, as you say—provided, how just being around the rink or track was a return to normalcy. Which parts?
EO: Without a doubt it’s the people. That’s what makes our game so great and humbling. Whether it’s the incredible athletes or coaches or trainers or managers or broadcasters or ownership groups, people you work with or for, that part of it to me … I just feel like I could walk in blindfolded and know exactly who’s there and who’s talking. It’s like when I get on our horse racing team with NBC, I feel so lucky to have the people around me in my life.
There’s a chemistry and respect and love there. That’s what’s most peaceful about being able to work. I work at my craft, but I don’t think about it as work. I look at it as an opportunity to talk about two passions of mine. The heart rate goes way down when I’m in those settings, where I get a chance to do what I absolutely love to do. I know I’m lucky enough to do that, because a lot of people in the real world aren’t doing what they would love, the ultimate dream job, so to speak.
SI: How are you feeling physically?
EO: I feel good. I do. I’m pretty much back. They say when you go through six months of chemo, it takes 6-9 months to flush yourself completely and get back to normalcy. Feb. 21, at 9:02 a.m., was the last time I took the medicine and got unhooked. Once we get into the middle, end of November, psychologically I’ll feel like I’m back. But I dropped all the weight I gained. I feel good. The farther away, the better.
SI: What have your takeaways been from the first 5-10 games so far? What’s caught your eye?
EO: I’ve noticed that the games are a little less physical than normal. Now maybe that’s not fair to say coming off the playoffs we had last year. It just seems like there’s more puck possession, more chances, more skating, more skill level than the physical play. I’m sure that drives coaches crazy, but that seems to be to be what I see in the first month of the season. Lots of opportunities, wide open.
Now whether or not you can score, that’s a whole different animal. But some teams are blessed with finishers. Some aren’t. You look at what’s going on in Toronto, and I know they’ve lost the last couple of games and there’s panic in the city. I just look around the league and look at the skill level and look at some of the goalies in the league, it’s in a hell of a place. It’s got incredible momentum coming off last year and Ovi finally winning the Cup. It’s been a lot of fun to work, a lot of fun to watch.
SI: How’s your broadcast game feeling? Rusty?
EO: You know what? That’s a good question. I think I’m back, talking about the hockey part of it. Seeing things, getting a feel of just back into the normal fray of the telestrator, calling up replays, trying to point out things. My job is to tell people why—why will this happen, or that happen, take people inside. When you have a three-man booth, there’s obviously less opportunity to chime in. But you can be like the cymbal player in the orchestra. Beautiful music, and all of a sudden the cymbal hits and you’re like, oh, there’s the cymbal player. I try to take that approach on our broadcast when need be. But I’m feeling really good.