ORLANDO, FLA – When it comes to Thanksgiving, Canadian hockey players have it pretty good. If they play for teams based in the U.S., many get to celebrate their home country’s day in October and then the American day in November. That’s plenty to be thankful for.
For Wade MacLeod of the Orlando Solar Bears, two Thanksgivings may not be enough to express the way he feels at this point of 2013. Nine months ago, he was facing a career and life threatening situation but today he is on the ice plying his trade and enjoying every moment of it.
“It was a bit of a recovery to say the least but I found my way back into hockey,” MacLeod said.
The recovery that MacLeod was referring to was from major surgery – to be more specific brain surgery. How he ended up in the operating room is a story that is both scary and proof that divine intervention exists.
First, a little background. MacLeod initially appeared on the hockey radar in 2005 when he joined the Merritt Centennials of the British Columbia Hockey League. In two seasons, the native of Port Moody, BC put up staggering numbers including 105 points in 60 games during the 2006-2007 season. His success in juniors led MacLeod to Northeastern University in Boston where he was a solid contributor for the Huskies, scoring almost a point per game during his four year career.
Following his collegiate career, he turned pro, signing with the Springfield Falcons of the AHL. In his first full season, he tallied 29 points in 66 games in 2011-2012. He started the 2012-2013 campaign with the Evansville Icemen of the ECHL but quickly found himself back in Springfield where he had eleven points in his first twenty games.
On February 17th, the Falcons were hosting Adirondack at the MassMutual Center when fate stepped in. During the second period, MacLeod took a hit from Adirondack defenseman Brandon Manning that looked like any other hit during a hockey game. MacLeod skated back to the bench but moments later collapsed in the throes of serious convulsions. The sight of MacLeod having to be stretchered off the ice was so stunning that the AHL suspended the game.
MacLeod said that he had a great support system behind him from the start – something that would be key later on.
“I had a great support staff with my team in Springfield, my girlfriend, my parents. My brothers were really supportive,” he said.
As the doctors stabilized MacLeod’s immediate health, they searched for what triggered the seizure. What they found was both a surprise and a shock: there was a tumor on MacLeod’s brain. Almost immediately, MacLeod began trying to figure out his next step once the doctors determined the tumor was benign.
“I was debating whether or not to get it removed,” MacLeod said. ‘
“I saw three neurosurgeons and the last one fortunately told me don’t mess around with it, get it out and you’ll be back playing hockey.”
Because the tumor had the potential to affect his motor skills, MacLeod chose to have the procedure done. If the doctors were successful, he had the chance to return to the ice.
Due to the complexity of the surgery and the need for the doctors to monitor their work, MacLeod had to be awake for a good portion of the over four hour procedure.
“I was in and out because they wanted to make sure that the right side of my body could still function because it (tumor) was on the left side of my brain which controls the right side of your body,” he said. “That was key to my recovery. Obviously the surgery was a huge success and I owe a lot to my surgeon.”
Within two weeks of the surgery, MacLeod was engaged in light bike rides. By the end of three months, he was cleared to begin more strenuous workouts with former Vancouver Canuck Cliff Ronning at the Burnaby Winter Club. When September rolled around, the doctors told MacLeod he could get back onto the ice.
The final step was finding a team that would take a chance on him. Springfield elected to not bring him back so the free agent would need a new home. Luckily for him, Maple Leafs assistant coach Greg Cronin, who had coached MacLeod at Northeastern, knew his former player’s talents and suggested the Leafs take a shot.
“I asked him (Cronin) if there was anything he could do. He mentioned my name, they did some research on me,” he said. “They agreed to sign me to a PTO (professional tryout contract) and give me a shot and it all worked out.”
Facing a numbers crunch with the roster, the Marlies and Leafs decided to reassign MacLeod to Orlando to get some playing time. He took the reassignment in stride, noting that decisions are more complex than goals and assists on a stat page.
“Obviously I was a little disappointed but at the same time it’s a business. The numbers didn’t add up,” MacLeod said. “I just came down here with a positive mindset and (will) just try to help my team win.”
MacLeod said that he has enjoyed being in Orlando and has been well received by the rest of the Solar Bears in the locker room. Knowing a couple of players on the team from Toronto and other hockey circles has helped things go smoothly.
“The guys are great. They’ve made me feel real welcome,” he said. “I actually know a couple guys from the Marlies (defenseman Zachary Yuen and goalie Garret Sparks) so that helps. I know (David) Rutherford from back home so he makes it easier (too).”
Naturally MacLeod wants to get back to Toronto and the AHL as quickly as possible. While he is in Orlando, his goal is to give the Solar Bears everything he has to help them attain their goal of winning the Kelly Cup.
“Obviously my main goal is to get up to Toronto as quickly as possible. That’s what I’m going to try to do,” he said. “Along the way, I’m going to try to help this team win some games and maybe contribute offensively. We’ll see what happens.”
Whatever does happen, Wade MacLeod has certainly shown that despite the circumstances, anything is possible and for that we should all be thankful.
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