Pavel Novák smiled — with a cliché however noticeable sparkle in his eyes — when requested about his return to the ice within the spring.
Again dwelling in Czechia in the course of the winter months that may usually be in-season for ice hockey, Novák contacted the coach of his former group, HC Motor České Budějovice. He needed to skate. He needed to really feel the power inside an enviornment once more.
“They’d a pregame skate and I requested if I might go together with them,” Novák stated. “He was like, ‘After all, you’re all the time welcome.’ It was superior. After all, I didn’t really feel actually good, nevertheless it was simply a lot enjoyable.”
It was a long-awaited return for Novák.
The now 21-year-old Czech hockey participant — who had a stick in his arms since he was round 3 years previous — stepped away from the rink for months whereas present process most cancers therapies. After weeks of sunshine exercises adopted by solo skating, Novák felt like a hockey participant once more.
The second Novák took the ice in a well-recognized enviornment was solely a midway level in his 16-month journey again to ice hockey, the longest he’d ever been away from the game.
Whereas getting again to the game was all the time the objective, the sunshine on the finish of the tunnel, Novák turned the negatives into positives and discovered that there was extra to life than simply hockey.
Routine end-of-season bloodwork results in a most cancers prognosis
There are vital durations of time that define life earlier than, throughout and after most cancers for Novák.
In late April 2022, whereas enjoying for the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL, he missed the ultimate two first-round playoff video games with COVID-19. Novák did bloodwork to verify he was now not sick, and to clear him to return dwelling on the finish of the season.
Lower than two weeks later, he inked a three-year, entry-level contract with the Minnesota Wild.
Almost two months later, Novák publicly shared that he would take a go away of absence from hockey. He had been recognized with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a severe however treatable type of blood most cancers that may impression the lymphatic system.
These routine blood assessments had indicated that one thing wasn’t proper. A number of extra assessments and a biopsy later, Novák obtained an official prognosis.
“My physician referred to as me and informed me what’s occurring,” Novák stated. “He truly sounded fairly glad about it, as a result of there have been numerous completely different cancers however the one I had, it was like 93% (probability) that I’d be wholesome once more, which is quite a bit.”
Whereas the bloodwork confirmed that one thing was improper, Novák had suspicions earlier than his prognosis. He felt more and more drained after practices and video games. At first, he attributed it to enjoying extra minutes, however when it continued previous the tip of the season, he knew it was greater than lingering lethargy after COVID-19.
“I by no means thought they had been the signs of getting most cancers,” Novák stated. “It was dangerous, however I by no means thought it was going to be that dangerous.”
Therapy takes Novák away from the sport for 16 months
After lacking the Minnesota Wild’s summer time growth camp to endure assessments and eventually getting a solution about what was improper, subsequent got here remedy.
Novák’s physician gave him two choices: To undergo remedy in Budějovice (a metropolis in Czechia) or journey to Prague (the capital metropolis) for care at a hospital that focuses on most cancers and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The Minnesota Wild introduced a 3rd possibility when Novák’s agent notified the group of his prognosis. The Wild supplied to pay for his or her prospect to return to Minnesota so he might obtain remedy on the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
“It was actually onerous to inform them that I needed to undergo all these therapies,” Novák stated. “I type of put it on my agent to inform them. We arrange a name and I talked to (group executives Invoice Guerin, Brad Bombardir and Matt Hendricks) and so they had been like, ‘You’ve received this. We’ll look ahead to you.’ And to remain optimistic and preserve battling.”
Even when the attract of remedy in america appealed to Novák, it was a straightforward alternative to stay near dwelling and undergo chemotherapy in Prague.
Twenty years previous on the time, Novák was very a lot nonetheless a child regardless of his blossoming hockey profession. He wanted his help system: father Pavel, mom Pavlina, sister Ema, and girlfriend Kristina.
“I needed to be round my household and pals, as a result of I knew it’s not going to be enjoyable and I knew they might actually assist me,” Novák stated.
Novák’s household by no means left his aspect. For months, his dad and mom accompanied him on the two-hour drive from his hometown to Prague. Novák felt assured that he would get via therapies.
He was speculated to do six cycles of three weeks every. He solely went via 4 cycles since his physique responded effectively and the tumor was eradicated by the chemotherapy. Nonetheless, the chemotherapy took a toll on Novák’s physique.
“Once they informed me I used to be wholesome once more, it was one of the best feeling I might get,” Novák stated. “Then we talked about what was gonna occur subsequent.”
The physician informed Novák that he wanted to take a pair extra weeks off earlier than slowly beginning to work out once more. Getting again on the ice rightaway wasn’t an possibility, as a result of the one factor that would correctly assist the physique heal was time.
In October 2022, he began figuring out. Two months later, he laced up the skates and received again on the ice. It wasn’t till February of 2023 that he felt like a hockey participant once more. However it took as much as the beginning of the season with the Iowa Wild for Novák to really feel like he did previous to his prognosis.
Returning to America and to skilled hockey
Novák began the season with the Iowa Wild however was despatched right down to the Iowa Heartlanders in Coralville, the ECHL affiliate of the Wild. He recorded two targets and one help in two video games earlier than returning to Des Moines.
He has but to register some extent in 4 video games with the Wild, however Novák isn’t targeted on padding his personal stats.
As an alternative, he measures his progress. He feels higher and extra assured with every recreation performed, even with the adjustment interval that comes with shifting between the AHL and ECHL. There’s a lot for Novák to study, however there isn’t a room for excuses as he works he approach up.
“I keep in mind after I had a dialog (with Wild coach Brett McLean),” Novák stated. “He was saying I nonetheless have numerous time to get higher as a result of I didn’t play for 16 months. And I informed him, it’s not an excuse for me. I need to be handled like different gamers.”
Novák received his want. His coaches and teammates don’t deal with him otherwise and opponents don’t find out about his battle with most cancers when he is on the ice.
McLean had a reference to Novák lengthy earlier than the 2 ended up collectively in Des Moines. Each coach and participant had careers with the Kelowna Rockets, and McLean saved in touch with Novák from when he was drafted by the Minnesota Wild all via his therapies.
The Iowa Wild head coach has nothing however good issues to say about Novák. He hasn’t scored a objective or picked up an help, however Novák has saved up with the fast-paced, bodily recreation, which is a testomony to his work ethic in his first skilled season.
“He was out for 16 months, he wasn’t enjoying, and it’s powerful to return again from that,” McLean stated. “He’s enjoying simply nice. He’s working his approach into changing into an actual good American Hockey League participant, which is such a credit score to him in his first professional season.”
Wild’s ‘Hockey Fights Most cancers’ evening means extra for Novák now
On Oct. 5, 2022, Novák shared on social media that he beat most cancers.
Simply over a yr later, at the beginning of his first season as knowledgeable hockey participant, hockey is slightly bit much less concerning the competitors and extra about enjoyable for Novák. On or off the ice, it’s uncommon to seek out him with out a smile on his face.
From gymnasium exercises to enjoying the sport, he enjoys each second within the hockey world as a result of, final October, there was no assure that he would play at this stage. Novák doesn’t need to take any a part of this journey without any consideration.
“It’s not a job for me anymore, and I’m having a lot enjoyable,” Novák stated.
However, nonetheless, there are some video games that imply greater than others.
Take the Wild’s matchup towards the Texas Stars on Saturday, for instance. It was simply one other recreation for many of his teammates. For Novák, although, he turned the face of the group’s Hockey Fights Most cancers evening.
Novák needs to function a reminder to others — hockey participant or not — to maintain preventing and keep optimistic. He beat his most cancers, however he additionally understands that there are tens of millions of different individuals who battle daily.
And though getting again to hockey was all the time on Novák’s thoughts throughout his remedy, he’s discovered quite a bit about himself and his priorities within the final yr and a half.
“I all the time actually cared about hockey, and all I needed to be was a hockey participant. However now, I can see that there are numerous extra essential issues in life, not simply hockey.”
Alyssa Hertel is the faculty sports activities recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.