MacDonald battles back from cancer to lead RPI
By Ken Schott
Special to ESPN.com
TROY, N.Y. -- Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute senior forward Kirk MacDonald surveyed the media members who had come out to see him work out with some teammates on the Houston Field House ice surface late in the afternoon of Aug. 28.
Kirk MacDonald starred on the ice for RPI.He had to think there were more important stories to cover in the Capital District of New York state than his 15-minute workout with junior forwards Tyler Eaves and Jake Morissette, and freshman forward Paul Kerins led by assistant coach Shawn Kurulak. After all, the horse racing season at Saratoga dominates the media coverage during the six weeks the track is open, and it was the final week of the season.
Then again, MacDonald also realized one significant thing -- being able to talk to the media beat being where he was one year ago. "It's a big jump from where I was last year to today," the 22-year-old MacDonald said. "[Assistant] coach [Jim] Montgomery asked me about the surgery I had, and I looked at my watch and it was one year ago today. It's kind of a coincidence. It's been a long haul, that's for sure."
Last year at this time, MacDonald was lying in a hospital bed in Vancouver, British Columbia. Just a few months earlier, the Victoria, B.C., native stunned college hockey fans when he announced that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. He began experiencing pain in his back in January of the 2004-05 season. He thought treatment would solve the problem.
MacDonald continued to play through the pain. He scored RPI's most important goal of the season during the team's annual Big Red Freakout game Feb. 12, which was televised nationally. With 8.3 seconds left in regulation, MacDonald fired a shot from the right-wing circle past Brown goalie Adam D'Alba, giving the Engineers a 3-2 victory and sending the sellout crowd into a frenzy.
However, the pain persisted. By the time RPI played Brown in the first round of the ECACHL tournament in March, MacDonald could barely bend to tie his skates.
"By the end of the season, I couldn't even sleep at night the pain was so bad," said MacDonald, who led the team in scoring that year with 16 goals and 20 assists for 36 points, all career highs. "Honestly, I don't know how I played the last weekend against Brown."
On April 12, six days after announcing his diagnosis, MacDonald had surgery at Albany Medical Center Hospital to remove the infected testicle. MacDonald underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, the first of which made him very sick, but the last three were a little better. However, he was warned that there would probably be a mass left over in his abdomen.
The chemotherapy didn't get rid of that. So on Aug. 2, MacDonald underwent nine hours of surgery in Vancouver to remove the mass.
Complications followed that surgery. He got an infection in his incision. A month after the surgery, his incision ripped open, forcing another surgery to repair it. He then had a bowel obstruction in his small intestine, and had surgery Sept. 24 to repair that.
All told, MacDonald had four surgeries. He didn't leave the hospital until Oct. 6.
"My body didn't exactly respond to the surgery," MacDonald said.
MacDonald, who weighed 210 pounds prior to surgery, lost 73 pounds.
"Pretty much what could have gone wrong from the surgery went wrong. Before I went in for that surgery, the doctor said, 'Look, it's going to be a real tough surgery. These things could go wrong. If the surgery is successful, and everything comes out as hoped, you should be back playing hockey by Christmas time.' That was the plan.
"One day, something's going wrong. I can't eat, I'm throwing up, I get an infection, I get a fever. You name it, it happened."
A month after leaving the hospital, MacDonald returned to RPI the same weekend the school was honoring former Engineers great Joe Juneau. At first, MacDonald was reluctant to go.
"I was a little nervous," MacDonald said. "My parents kind of pushed me to go. They said, 'You have to get out of here.' I thought maybe I wasn't ready to go back. It's definitely the best thing I ever did. If I stayed at home, I would have stuck myself on the sofa all day and never got better. I would have been further behind than I am now. That really got me going."
Before RPI's Nov. 11 game against Quinnipiac, Juneau was scheduled to drop the ceremonial first puck. Juneau asked MacDonald to join him. The fans at Houston Field House gave MacDonald a rousing ovation.
MacDonald's teammates did their part to help those afflicted with cancer. After every home game, a couple of players had their heads shaved. The hair went to help make wigs for cancer patients. Donations raised $10,000 for the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
MacDonald, who has 76 career points on 35 goals and 41 assists, worked out on his own during the second half of the season. He admits it was frustrating not being able to practice with the team, and he was all smiles during his first skills and development workout with teammates in August.
"He's such a big part of this team and program," Morissette said. "He brings so much. It's real exciting to see him out there again."
MacDonald will be playing under a new coaching staff, led by head coach Seth Appert. The former Denver University assistant coach replaced Dan Fridgen in April. Although Appert has been on the job for only five months, he knows the kind of player he has in MacDonald.
"Regardless of whether we're just joining the staff, or have been with him the whole time through, it's a special story," Appert said. "It should be told, and you can understand why it's being told. To not only overcome what he's had to overcome, but to do it with the amount of dignity and class that he has, and to come back raring and excited to go shows a lot about his character and his makeup."
Now MacDonald is counting down the days until the season opener on Oct. 14, when the Engineers host Boston University (RPI plays an exhibition game the week before against York University, a Canadian college). It will be an emotional night for the fans and players, but especially for the cancer-free MacDonald.
"I'm really excited to get back here, and be back and just get it going," he said. "It's been a long ways to get back to this point."