When the Heat hit the ice this Saturday at the team’s annual Stick It To Cancer game to benefit the St. Joseph’s Foundation, it will be familiar territory for Stockton defenseman Brandon Davidson.
It may be his first year with the Heat, but he’s already delivered a body blow to the disease once before on Stockton Arena ice.
A 21-year-old defenseman who had just wrapped up his junior career with the WHL’s Regina Pats, Davidson reported to the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons, affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, to finally begin his professional career.
It was October of 2012, and a routine physical turned out to be anything but.
“Getting back to playing was the first thought that went through my mind,” said Davidson. “Life is so much bigger than hockey, but playing again was all I wanted to do. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It was scary to hear that could be taken away from me. I’d just become a professional hockey player and I hadn’t even gotten to start yet.”
The exam revealed a lump, quickly determined to be testicular cancer. A tearful phone call to parents followed, some fearful moments for a family that had just lost one member to cancer – Davidson’s grandmother, Dorothy, whose name is inscribed in ink on his left arm.
Within three days of the exam, Davidson was on an operating table. The surgery went as planned, but the mountain ahead was still steep. A month after going under the knife, he began an aggressive chemotherapy treatment at the Peggy and Charles Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City.
Thirty days, 18 of which hooked up to an IV for chemo for four to six hours per trip. It was a grueling battle, one he never could’ve prepared for. Start-to-finish, the 30 days stole 30 pounds from him.
“It was nothing like what I thought it would be like,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a lot easier than what it was. It just took its toll on me. I was very sick, very nauseous for a lot of it. I remember being very weak, not having an appetite. It diminished my body for a little while. It was a process for me. I knew that it would be over with, I just had to go through it.”
With the treatments over, IVs and needles and doctors and hospital trips now behind him, Davidson had to rebuild. It took two months to put the weight back on, get his strength back and plainly feel healthy again.
As tough as the journey was, such was the relief when he got the ‘all clear.’
“That was a really joyful moment,” he said. “We weren’t out of the woods by any means, but my cancer markers had come down. It was a good day. There were a lot of bad days, but that was the beginning of a new adventure for me.”
On February 8, 2013, Davidson laced up his skates and returned to action as the Barons faced off against the Grand Rapids Griffins. No goals, no assists, a shot on goal – a nondescript night that couldn’t have been more significant. A talented, deep roster forced him to play at forward for a pair of games before being optioned to the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder.
After the battle of his life, all returned to normal on February 15 as the Thunder hosted the Ontario Reign. Back on the blue line, Davidson potted a pair of goals, the first two of an impressive run of 12 points in 11 games in Stockton.
“I got to come to Stockton and start my career again. It took a few games. I was here for 11 games. It wasn’t the first where I was feeling back to myself at all, but having those games here got my feet under me, got me going again, got me reconnected with my love for the game.”
For a defenseman who has 162 NHL games under his belt, a trip to the ECHL would typically be a non-descript line buried on a resume. For Davidson, you could argue it was one of his greatest achievements.
A pro hockey player, a cancer survivor, Davidson understands that his position affords him a chance to share his story. It’s a responsibility that he never wanted, but it’s one that he understands he needs to own.
“I just think the awareness part of men’s health, it’s the easiest thing that I can do as a player,” he said. “I’d like to acknowledge what I’ve gone through and share that with other people, hopefully raise awareness and help somebody as well.”
With Heat faithful having the opportunity to join the fight on Saturday, those currently fighting the disease are not far from Davidson’s heart and mind.
“I would say never give up. Keep fighting. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. My heart goes out to all of those people going through it right now.”
The puck drops at 6, warm-ups start closer to 5:30. Awaiting in Davidson’s stall will be a specialty jersey, lavender as the Heat pay homage to all who have fought against or been impacted by cancer. Just another game on the November schedule for some – complete opposite for Davidson.
“It’s a special thing for me, for my family,” he said. “My family has always been supportive. It makes me very prideful, putting on that jersey. It will be a special night for myself and for my family as well.”