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Cancer-free, Irving raises awareness

by Ryan Pinder || AHL On The Beat Archive

April 15 marks the end of the AHL regular-season schedule, but in Abbotsford that final Sunday is also a special day for Leland Irving, who won’t soon forget his battle with cancer as a child.

The season finale in Abbotsford sees the Heat host the Toronto Marlies, after which the Heat will be taking part in their annual “Cuts for the Cure” fundraiser which sees fans and players shave their heads to raise funds for cancer research. It’s a cause that’s close to Irving, who battled the disease for over a year in elementary school.

At just seven years of age, Irving went to the doctor after watching what he thought was a bug bite continue to grow behind his ear. The news wasn’t good.

“It was a life-changing moment, and a tough day for us,” recalled Irving, who has spent most of the 2011-12 hockey season bouncing between Abbotsford and the NHL’s Calgary Flames. “I was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma. I went through 13 months of chemo -– I was 8 through most of that. It was a tough time, you know, a big part of my life.”

Suddenly Irving wasn’t just a normal kid anymore. His schedule filled with trips from his small rural Alberta town into the capital city of Edmonton for treatment.

“It just takes a toll on you,” says Irving of the chemotherapy. “I felt so weak. I was sick, in and out of the hospital … We went to Edmonton every two weeks for chemo treatments; of course, I lost all my hair.

“It was a tough time. Hockey and my family were the only things that kept everything the same, that allowed me to behave like a normal eight-year-old.”

Irving relished his escapes to the hockey rink, where he could just be a kid again, and where it turns out he was a pretty darn good player, no matter what position the future first-round draft pick had to play for his small-town team.

Finally, after a year of battling the disease that touches us all, Irving got the news he was cancer-free.

“It was unbelievable,” Irving said. “After the chemo, I knew I was cancer-free and everything was good, but every two years when you go back you’re just hoping that it hasn’t returned. I’ve been very lucky and stayed healthy.”

Taking nothing for granted, Irving has enjoyed a season that has seen him make his first NHL start, earn his first NHL win (in Vancouver, just down the highway from Abbotsford), and get points in four of his six starts for the Flames, who are in the thick of a playoff race in the Western Conference.

If Irving is in Abbotsford on Apr. 15, no doubt he’ll be front and center with an apron on, set to shed some hair for a fundraiser that hits close to home.

“It’s a great cause,” states Irving, now 23. “Anything you can do to promote cancer awareness, cancer research or funding for kids cancer camps -– it’s a big part of my life and I appreciated it when I was going through my treatments. To have kids cancer camp to go to in the summer is something I still talk about. I just hope for kids to be able to enjoy that nowadays.”

Irving’s rise from small-town kid to NHL netminder isn’t just a great story of perseverance and hard work, it’s one that has had to see him fight for his life. He’s a beacon of hope to so many fighting cancer today, and doing his part to help fund an end of the disease.