Wednesday, September 17, 2008

No stopping Thibodeau

This is copied and pasted from last Tuesday's Edmonton Journal


EDMONTON - Ten minutes before Game 3 of the AJHL semifinal series last March, Dr. Mario Millan asked to speak to Gord Thibodeau outside of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons dressing room.

Thibodeau wasn't given an injury update on his team -- he was told his cancer was back.

"That was tough," Thibodeau said recently. "I remember my first instinct was 'What do I tell my wife and daughter?' "

Thibodeau met with his assistants, Nick Roberts and Ron Foy, and gave them the news. Then he walked out behind the visitor's bench at Grant Fuhr Arena and guided his Oil Barons to a 5-4 OT win over the Spruce Grove Saints.

"I don't remember a lot about the game. I was a little scattered that night," he says. "Five minutes after the game, I met with the coaches and we started discussing how we were going to deal with things."

It's something Thibodeau has experience with.

"Once you have cancer, it's always in the back of your mind that it can come back," says his wife Lori. "He is as determined now as he was 20 years ago."

In February of 1989, Thibodeau was a rugged University of Alberta Golden Bears defenceman and a newlywed of six months when he was first diagnosed with cancer.

Doctors confirmed that one of his lymph nodes was malignant. At 25, Thibodeau had Hodgkin's Disease.

He met it the same way he greeted a defender at centre ice: with a tough, determined attitude.
Thibodeau underwent chemotherapy from March to July 1989 and then returned for one more season with the Golden Bears.

"There were only a few re-occurrences and my last radiation treatment was in 1993," he says, noting he was given a clean bill of health.

He was an education student in university, so it was no real surprise upon graduation when Thibodeau entered the coaching ranks.

He went back to the AJHL, a league where, in 1984, he set a record of 74 assists by a defenceman.

Before joining Fort McMurray in 2004 Thibodeau coached the Sherwood Park Crusaders, Lloydminster Bobcats, Grande Prairie Storm and St. Albert Saints. His his first AJHL championship came in 2006.

Life was good. Thibodeau had the Oil Barons on track for the AJHL playoffs once again last winter. And then ...

"I was really feeling run down last January and February," he says. "Deep down, I think I suspected there was more to it than just being sick. But we were in hockey season and hockey players tend to overlook little injuries."

In March, Thibodeau felt even worse and had stomach troubles, but he kept coaching as the team entered the first round of the playoffs against the Bonnyville Pontiacs. After beating the Pontiacs they eliminated the Spruce Grove Saints to advance to the league final against the Camrose Kodiaks.

Thibodeau was so ill he had to miss four games behind the bench during the final.
"At that point I knew I was sick, and on top of that, I had pneumonia issues," says Thibodeau.
A very private man, he wanted to keep the news quiet.

"I knew that Gord was not feeling well from someone who told me," says Camrose coach and GM Boris Rybalka. "I know that we said a prayer for Gord and his family every time that we didn't see him. I know that we were playing for a championship, but our thoughts and prayers were with Gord and not hockey."

Lori says it was very hard to watch her husband at home, listening to the games on the radio.

"I was torn between coming back for Game 7. Health wise, I wondered if I was well enough to go," admits Thibodeau. "But I wanted to be there for my team because it's a long season and you want to show support. I remember feeling really fatigued on the bench. But you know what? I'm sure glad I was there."

The Oil Barons went down in defeat. But not their coach.

A week after, he went under the knife and then began 20 chemotherapy treatments. His next checkup is in December, but Thibodeau thinks the cancer is gone.

And that means he continues his coaching career.

"He has brought a significant meaning and professionalism to coaching in the AJHL," says league president Craig Cripps.

"We are a stronger more competitive league with Gord's involvement. His battle takes us outside the arena, further bonding the AJHL family outside the realm of hockey."

Thibodeau just finished a three-games-in-three-night trek on the weekend, and there's no stopping him now.

"Hope isn't the answer. Belief is," he says.

"And I had a belief this was something we were going to take care of very quickly."

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