Even the fashionably late were at their seats on time. A special buzz was in the air. A local radio station had distributed thousands of signs bearing the words “WELCOME BACK COACH” and fans were waving them throughout Alfond Arena.
It was Homecoming Weekend at the University of Maine, but this was a homecoming to beat all homecomings. Coach Shawn Walsh, who had missed the first four games of the season while undergoing a second 20-day cycle of immunotherapy treatments for kidney cancer, was miraculously returning to the Maine bench just six days after his last dose of Interleukin-2.
The Alfond horn sounded, but was immediately drowned out by the roar of the fans, eager to show support, admiration and appreciation for their hero. Shawn Walsh was where he wanted to be, where his players wanted him to be and where the fans wanted him to be: in his familiar position behind the Black Bear bench.
NCAA protocol dictated the introductions of the visiting Ohio State University starters and coach John Markell. The Maine-iaks in the balcony chanted, as is their wont, “Big deal! So what! Boring!”
As the introductions turned to the Maine starters, the band cranked it up and the fans cheered.
Then it was time.
Some couldn’t even hear public address announcer Jim Baines as the volume grew, but that was of little consequence. Every last person in the house knew the name of Shawn Walsh. He needed no introduction. On their feet cheering, the Alfond Arena faithful welcomed him back in a thunderously enthusiastic, extended appreciation.
“I was grateful for that reception,” said Walsh after the game. “It was good to be back. The reception by the fans was fantastic.
“But it was good to get through that and have it be just hockey again.”
Having it “just be hockey again” is what Walsh has wanted since being diagnosed with cancer in late June. Given his druthers, he’d sooner don the skates and run a two-hour practice like he did just four days after his last treatment than elaborate on the nasty side effects of Interleukin-2.
“Running practice was invigorating,” he said. “I’m glad my doctors gave me the approval to go ahead so I can enjoy what I enjoy doing in life. It’s just so wonderful to be back.
“Intrinsically I think I feel better than I did when we won the national championship just because the therapy is over and I don’t have to go through that again. I’m back and coaching.
“To have gone through the last four months is a mountain that is over with. I don’t want to look back on it too much, other than to appreciate how thankful I am of my wife and her family and Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, who hosted both of us [in California during the treatments]. They opened up themselves unselfishly and their family to us for almost a two and a half- or three-month period.”
During that time, Walsh received immunotherapy treatments at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center designed to shock his immune system into fighting the tumors. The first 20-day sequence ran through mid-September. Following a few weeks of recuperation — and coaching — back in Maine, he then began the second, and final, 20 days on Oct. 2. He flew home on Oct. 23, two days after his last dose.
“It was a lot harder [this time],” he said. “I was told it might be, but then I was told that because I was used to it, it might be easier.” Walsh laughed and added, “But I think that may have been doctors making sure you show up.
“Any part of your system that could go wrong, probably would go wrong. From your digestive system to your urinary system to every system. Immunotherapy is a tough thing to go through, but if you’ve got loved ones who support you, you can get through it.
“Once you get rolling on it, you just continue on with it. You just deal with it. It’s part of your life. You don’t look back.”
While he was away, assistant coach Gene Reilly ran the team, earning Walsh’s applause for how well everything was kept on track. The Black Bears opened against then number one ranked North Dakota, getting only a loss and a tie for that weekend despite outshooting the Fighting Sioux, 91-58. One week later, Maine dispatched the U.S. Development Team in an exhibition game and then thumped St. Lawrence, a nationally ranked team that had been picked to finish first in the ECAC, 8-2.
“Maybe the best tonic when I got out of the hospital and it was finally over was when the team phoned me at Kurt’s house and sang the school’s fight song to me after we pounded St. Lawrence,” said Walsh. “That was the best tonic I could have had. It meant a lot to me emotionally.
“It helped how well we played. I was sitting on Kurt’s couch on Saturday afternoon, L.A. time, just listening to the game. When we got up to 5-1, I was just tickled, thinking, we’ve got it going pretty good right now.
“Other than my family, that’s what I love to do. That’s what I bleed, so to speak. To see the team perform so well makes you feel really good.”
An additional source of encouragement — surprising to many Hockey East observers — has come from Boston University coach Jack Parker. BU and Maine have been fierce rivals over the past decade and the two coaches are as fiery competitors as they come. The two, however, have shared laughs over such ironies as Walsh getting earlier medical care at a BU school.
“Jack has really been a good friend throughout this,” said Walsh. “He’s probably called more than any other coach in the country. It’s kind of funny because he’s probably the guy I’ve gone against the hardest. But it’s one of the things you learn to appreciate when you go through this.”
Walsh flew back to Maine on Monday, Oct. 23, his immunotherapy treatments complete. In three to four weeks, his doctors will take new CAT scans and see if the cancer in is remission.
“The way it works with kidney cancer is that they will not consider my treatment successful unless the tumors have shrunk by at least 50 percent,” said Walsh. “But the encouraging sign that we’ve seen is that I had had a significant amount of fluid buildup in the left side of my abdomen.
“It was an area that was not surgically touched, so they couldn’t figure out why there was the buildup unless I had some blockage somewhere in my drainage system. Four different times they took up to two liters of fluid out of my body.
“Miraculously, three weeks ago that fluid stopped building up. It’s gone. There’s no more accumulation. So that is probably the single biggest encouraging sign that my doctors have been given. Maybe there’s been shrinkage of the tumors that were blocking the system.”
Walsh paused and laughed ruefully. “Based on what that high dose of Interleukin-2 does to you, it better do something to those darn tumors because I’ll tell you, it knocks you sideways.”
If Walsh’s doctors find that the cancer isn’t in remission but instead has progressed, they’ll move to another type of treatment.
“We’ve got plenty of other alternatives,” said Walsh. “There are already new alternatives that are out there that weren’t out there four months ago.”
For now, though, Walsh is focused on doing what he loves to do — what he bleeds to do — and that is coaching the Black Bears. While acknowledging that it would have been physically impossible to make it behind the bench for the Ohio State game had it been scheduled on Monday instead of Friday, Walsh emphasized his quick recuperation from the effects of the immunotherapy.
“Each day I get a lot stronger,” he said. “I walked my mile [two days before the game] in 16 minutes and 15 seconds. So now I know what I’ve got to beat next time.”
Running the practice that same day served as a test for whether he was ready for the demands of game-day coaching.
“[Would] I need a rocking chair behind the bench?” he wondered.
The two-hour practice banished that thought. Although deferring to his assistants for an occasional break, he proved both to himself and to his players that he was ready for the challenge.
“I was yelling at one of the players,” said Walsh, “and one of the other players on the ice chuckled and said to another veteran, ‘Well, he’s back.'”
And back he was two nights later for the Homecoming game. Although speculating earlier in the week that “I’m not sure if a bad call is going to get me as upset as it used to,” Walsh indeed had a few choice words for the officials, particularly after one non-call involving a play in which Tom Reimann had been shaken up.
“I don’t think my coaching style is going to change a heckuva lot,” said Walsh.
Fatigue did hit him, but not during the game action itself.
“I got a little tired in between periods,” he said. “My adrenaline was pumping during the period and that probably contributed to it.”
As it turned out, there would be no Hollywood ending for Walsh’s Homecoming game. The Black Bears would gain a split of the weekend one night later, but on this evening Ohio State won it in overtime despite a significant Maine territorial advantage that was evidenced by a lopsided 60-24 shot disparity.
But maybe an even better Hollywood ending is still in store for Shawn Walsh: this coach with the courage of a lion will triumph over his cancer. He’ll be behind the Black Bear Bench not just in 2001, but in 2005 and 2010 and 2015. Maybe such is the Hollywood ending that awaits Shawn Walsh.
“Right now, I don’t worry about the prognosis,” he said. “I can’t control that. I can only control how much I enjoy life. How happy I am to be back in Maine. How much I love the University of Maine — the people at the University — and appreciate them maybe a little more than I did in the past.
“I live a pretty fast life and I can forget about things like that and [forget to] appreciate how great people are and how great life is. And how great I’ve been blessed to have had the job that I’ve had and have had the success that we’ve had.
“You appreciate things so much differently [after going through all of this]. You appreciate everything about your life. I’ve read this before [about people in similar circumstances] and I couldn’t understand it until now.
“You feel blessed. I feel blessed that I’ve been hit with this. It’s woken me up to appreciate what life is all about. And that’s people. Whether it’s Kurt Russell or Goldie Hawn and how great they’ve been to us. Whether it’s my wife. Whether it’s her family.
“It’s how wonderful people are — people in this state and the support I’ve had. You just pinch yourself and say, ‘Man, are you lucky!'”
Thanks to Wayne T. Smith and Jim Leonard. Without their contributions, this story would not have been possible.