Perhaps the greatest hockey player of all-time (or at least part of the discussion), Mario Lemieux somehow managed to do it all while having to battle cancer. As it was, Lemieux was oft-hampered by a devastating back injury that plagued him for most of his career. Lemieux announced his cancer diagnosis midway through the 1992 season, but was back the same year (somehow playing on the same day as his last chemo session), and he dragged the Penguins into the playoffs with 17 straight victories to end the season, while also recapturing the scoring lead and winning the Art Ross trophy. Lemieux might have been a fearsome powerhouse on the ice, but he was the ultimate inspiration off of it.
If there was ever a debate as to who was the toughest hockey player of all-time, John Cullen would not be part of the discussion – unless someone brought up the fact that he played through the early stages of a life-threatening disease at the end of the 1996-1997 season. He led the Tampa Bay Lightning in scoring that year, but once he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma he was forced to sit out 18 months before returning in 1998-1999. Cullen was one of the first and more prominent promoters of Hockey Fights Cancer, the NHL’s cancer research foundation.
Saku Koivu’s battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was one of the more well-documented cancer battles of the early 2000’s. Koivu was the face of Montreal Canadiens, their star player and captain. The news was Earth-shattering for his teammates and fans alike. Koivu spent the entire 2001-2002 season battling the disease, but managed to return for the final 2 games of the regular seasons and a playoff run that saw the Habs knock off a vaunted Bruins lineup in dramatic fashion, mostly thanks to Koivu’s
strong play in the series.
Phil Kessel had everything going for him in the mid-2000’s. He was a star in the making for the Boston Bruins, a historic hockey franchise that was slowly on the upswing. His world came to screeching halt in the 2006-2007 season when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Fortunately for Kessel, the disease was found early enough that he was cancer-free a week after the initial diagnosis. Kessel, a somewhat polarizing figure in hockey circles, not only beat the disease but bounced back on the ice as well, having been a productive scorer since his rookie season.