“Happy New Year!” he says cheerfully. “Hockey season is starting again!”
Shawn Walsh’s enthusiasm is almost enough to make you forget the stark realities. Little more than two months ago, he was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. In cases such as his, in which the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate is a mere 5-15 percent.
Walsh is without question one of the most successful college hockey coaches in the business: a two-time national champion at the University of Maine, four-time Hockey East Coach of the Year, and winner of the Penrose Award as national coach of the year.
But now he’s battling the Team in Black, that powerhouse opponent we all fear to one day see on our schedules.
A five-year survival rate of 5-15 percent.
Sixty minutes of playing shorthanded, five-on-three.
And yet the man exudes confidence and stunning good humor. Ask him about the brutal 20-day immunotherapy session he returned from nine days ago, and he gives you a description that blindsides you with its mirth. “It’s like having a freshman goalie on a full scholarship who can’t stop a puck,” he says. “Every time you see him, you want to throw up.”
You erupt in laughter. If this man is intimidated by the Team in Black, he sure is hiding it well.
It’s intermission now. Walsh held his opponent off the board in the first period of immunotherapy sessions, but the second begins on Sept. 29 and it’ll be more five-on-three then.
Just 45 years old, Walsh had thought himself to be in great physical shape until a nagging cough wouldn’t go away. Tests revealed that Walsh wasn’t in such great physical shape after all. He might be able to lick the next guy in a three-mile run, but kidney cancer was attacking his body.
“You just deal with it,” says Walsh, describing his first reaction to the news. “I guess it’s my personality, but at no point have I gotten to, ‘Why me?’ or ‘Woe is me!’
“It’s more like, ‘Hey, okay, this is it. This is what I have to do. This is my next opponent. What’s next, Doc?'”
Following surgery to remove the cancerous kidney — performed by his “physical guardian angel,” Dr. Genero Carpinito, an uncle of Maine forward Niko Dimitrakos — Walsh decided on immunotherapy as the next step.
The treatments would consist of two 20-day sessions at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center designed to shock his immune system into destroying the remaining cancerous tumors under his breastplate. Walsh would receive high intravenous doses of Interluken-2 for five days, recover during the next 10 days and then take the highly toxic hormone for another five days.
“It’s a bear to go through,” he says. “The only place in the country you can get it is UCLA right now. They need almost a one-to-one nurse-to-patient [ratio], because it’s so dicey.
“In the first five-day cycle, on days three, four and five I vomited 13 times. [But] I got 10 hits out of a maximum of 14. Nobody has ever been able to get all 14 hits of this particular drug.”
The 10 hits, however, took their toll.
“You’re so weak that first day after the cycle,” says Walsh. “I was staying at [actor] Kurt Russell and [actress] Goldie Hawn’s house and I couldn’t even walk around their back yard.
“But the next day I could walk 12 minutes uphill. By the third day, I was doing 30 minutes. And by the fifth day, I could play golf. It comes back to you pretty quick, especially in my case because I had been jogging and was in shape.”
Golfing with Russell, a Maine native who Walsh met at the 1999 Frozen Four in Anaheim, provided a welcome respite before the next onslaught of treatments.
“My second cycle was actually worse,” says Walsh. “I only got six hits.
“This is what my last treatment was like: I got it at 8 in the morning. At 10, I had the worse chattering chills you could ever imagine. But [the nurses] are prepared. They’ve got blankets in an incubator and they throw them right on you.
“Then you’ve got a fever. For the next two or three hours, your body temperature changes. Mine went up to 102, which is fine, so you’ve got a fever and you deal with it.
“Then you’re lying in bed and your heart rate goes to 162 and sits there at 162, which is like running a one-hundred yard dash for an hour and a half to two hours. So you’re wiped.
“Meanwhile, you have the dry heaves and you just can’t puke. You’re just dying inside.”
Dying inside. The treatment seems like torture, but you persevere because the disease threatens even worse.
“You just keep looking at the clock and each five minutes is five minutes less,” says Walsh. “At some point you get on the right side of the equation.”
Mostly, Walsh drew on his inner strength and that of his wife, Lynne. One time, though, he got an unexpected external boost.
“We got a commitment from a recruit one day,” says Walsh. “I’d asked the dad to call me and he called right when I was dying. Right when I was in the dry heaves.
“My wife answered and I told her to tell him to give me five or six hours because I knew that was how long it was going to take [before I could talk.] I called him back and the guy committed to us. It was like — wow! — did he ever make me feel better!”
Of course, the strain on Walsh’s family has been enormous. Only 13 months ago, he and his wife Lynne celebrated the birth of a son. He is also the father, through a previous marriage, of eight- and 10-year-old boys, who now live in Michigan, and stepfather to Lynne’s 10-year-old daughter.
“My wife comes from a strong family and she’s been just phenomenal right from the start,” says Walsh. “What you can’t have is someone crying on your shoulder. You’ve got to have someone who is strong and supportive. I asked her if she could be that way right from the start and she has.
“But it’s tough on the family, especially with a 13-month-old baby, and for me, having my two sons in Michigan and my step-daughter here in Maine. Fortunately, my family here has taken care of the baby and the 10-year-old.”
The first weekend after returning to Maine from UCLA, Walsh boarded a plane and flew halfway back across the country to Michigan to see his two boys there.
“I’m trying to battle and juggle everything,” he says.
Back on the University of Maine campus, Walsh has resumed an almost normal schedule with minimal outward evidence of the battle being waged inside his body.
“I got released from the hospital in Los Angeles on Saturday [Sept. 2], flew home the next day and Monday morning [Sept. 4] at nine o’clock I had a meeting of our incoming freshmen,” he says. “Granted, I was only able to run a one-hour meeting and then I was pretty pooped, but now I’m fine. Each day that I’m removed from therapy, I’m that much stronger.”
There is also a potentially important sign that the treatments have had a positive effect.
“The encouraging thing to everybody is that, when I went out to L.A., I had a real hissing sound in my voice that you could hear in my windpipe, which is where the remaining tumors are,” says Walsh. “That’s totally cleared now. So they’re real encouraged.
“So far, so good.”
Walsh will run the team from its first on-ice practice at midnight on Sept. 24 until he leaves for his next set of treatments five days later. In his absence, assistant coach Gene Reilly has been designated the interim head coach and will run the bench and handle the media. With recruiting for next year’s team already close to complete, assistant coach and top recruiter Grant Standbrook will stay on campus full-time and coordinate personnel.
“I don’t think it’ll affect our players,” says Walsh. “Kids want to play once the puck is dropped, especially opening up with [defending national champion] North Dakota.”
What does concern Walsh, though, is how things will go with his next round of immunotherapy, which will require his third five-day cycle, 10 days of recovery and then a fourth and final five-day cycle of Interluken-2.
He remembers his last treatment, the one that forced him to say, “No mas.”
“It was like, ‘Do I have to take anymore? Do I have to?'” he recalls.
“The doctor came to me and said, ‘You know what? Your body isn’t [letting you]. We’re not going to let you take anymore.’
“My mind got to that [breaking] point when my body got to it.”
Walsh understands the likelihood that at some point in the second round of treatments he’ll once again hit a point where he can’t take anymore.
“That scares me a little,” he says. “The third [five-day] sequence I don’t worry about, because I’m having a month off here and I’ll be ready to go. But the fourth sequence worries me.
“But that will be right when we’re playing North Dakota and I’ll be listening to the game on broadcastsports.com, so I’ll be all right.”
Walsh laughs and you have to laugh with him, knowing at the same time that it’s no mere quip. You know that perhaps during the worst of the chills, fever, racing heartbeats and dry heaves, he’ll be getting at least some small measure of strength from listening to the play-by-play.
“The timetable can change based on their schedule [at UCLA], but I expect to be back in Maine around Oct. 18, which is when the Black Bear Classic is,” he says. “But I don’t expect I’ll have the energy to come off the plane and run the bench. What I think I would probably do is just be an eye in the sky that weekend.
“Our football and campus homecoming is the following weekend and that happens to be our Ohio State series. That’s probably going to be my homecoming.”
With the second set of treatments complete, Walsh’s doctors will then determine if the cancer “is in remission or if we have to go to Plan B or whatever.”
Plan B or whatever. That would be a third period against the Team in Black that you hope never becomes necessary. You hope that the opponent just disappears, frustrated after two periods of nonstop five-on-three advantages in which it still couldn’t defeat Walsh. You wait and hope.
For now, though, it’s still the first intermission. The Team In Black is preparing to step back on the ice for a second period that will run from about Sept. 29 through Oct. 19.
Walsh will be shorthanded and his opponent may have the refs in its back pocket, too.
But Walsh owns all the fans in the stands.
“One of the most rewarding and inspirational parts of the whole summer that I’ve gone through has been the support of the college hockey community,” he says. “Whether it be the player from an opposing team, a coach who I’ve talked to four times, or a fan from an opposing team who boos us all the time.
“The coming together is very appreciated and I want people to know that. That’s the beauty of college hockey. It really is.”