The Comeback Kid

by Mike O’Brien || AHL On The Beat Archive  

On Saturday night, Feb. 11, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will host their Thanks 4 Fighting Night when they face off against the Portland Pirates.

It will be the second straight year that the Penguins will join the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in their crusade against these terrible diseases. This year it takes on an added weight as it coincides with a battle currently being waged against leukemia by one the Penguins’ own – season ticket sales executive Chris Kobela.

Regrettably, he has fought this fight before. As a student at Duquesne University and a member of the Dukes swim team, Chris noticed his times in the pool were getting slower and he was getting fatigued just by walking up hills. Mononucleosis was the initial suspect for the symptoms that ailed Chris, but tests done in October of 2008 confirmed something far more serious – acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Though he never suspected a diagnosis of cancer, Chris now had an explanation for his sickness and start down the path to getting better. He returned home to Allentown, Pa., for the rest of his junior year to start treatment and chemotherapy.

“The first time, after getting over the initial shock, I just thought ‘What are you going to do?’ It happened. You have to stay positive and get through this.”

For Kobela, the toughest obstacle was the departure from normal life. He’s been lucky enough to never have been truly incapacitated from the chemo, but the most difficult part was dealing with a litany of IVs and pills instead of just enjoying his junior year at Duquesne.

The following fall, however, Chris was able to return to campus and the pool and resume his collegiate career.

To those who have never had a family member or friend go through a fight against cancer, the length of the treatment schedule might surprise you. Chris completed his final treatments last February after three and a half years of chemotherapy. You would not know it as he never deviated from the often-demanding schedule that comes with working for an American Hockey League team and also made it to the gym on a daily basis.

Everything seemed back to normal, until some routine blood work in November showed that it wasn’t. The leukemia had returned and Chris had to resume his fight against an opponent he thought he already bested.

“This second time, I thought ‘It happened again. What are you going to do?’ If I stamp my feet, it’s not going to change anything. So let’s get through this again.”

Exponential advances in treatment in just the past four years make the prognosis for Chris a good one. Still, he saw an opportunity this time to bring an added element to the Penguins’ Thanks 4 Fighting Night and has partnered with Angel 34 to help raise funds and awareness for the charity.

Angel 34 was established in 2003 by Northampton native Nicole Sheriff, then 14 years old. Nicole was diagnosed with cancer days after her 13th birthday and founded the organization after having witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of cancer on families, the financial burden that cancer carries with it and the hopelessness that can come with the disease.

“It’s sad enough to see people getting cancer treatment to begin with, let alone kids. And then you see their parents who are obviously struggling to make ends meet,” Kobela said. “I wanted to find a local charity that will work with the clinic that would be able to help pay bills and make things a little easier for those who need it.”

Though she passed away in 2004, Nicole’s parents Doug and Linda carry on the legacy of Angel 34, a national organization united in the fight against childhood cancer and dedicated to finding a cure.

The Penguins will be raffling off an autographed Mario Lemieux jersey on Feb. 11 to benefit Angel 34 and also selling “Drop the Gloves vs. Cancer” branded CK in honor of Chris, or as Penguins CEO Jeff Barrett likes to call him, “The Comeback Kid.”

In addition, the Penguins are offering a special Thanks 4 Fighting ticket deal. Fans who purchase a ticket to the game on Feb. 11 will also receive a Penguins hat and food voucher for a hot dog, soda and popcorn. Plus, $4 for each ticket sold will go back to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Chris has resumed his treatments at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Muhlenberg, but for him the routine is the thing that helps him find normalcy in a situation that is anything but and stay positive when circumstances should dictate otherwise. That is why you find Chris in the Penguins office when his schedule allows and you will even see him on the treadmill after almost every work day.

Chris is doing his part to beat leukemia and the Penguins have gladly stepped in to support his cause. For information on Thanks 4 Fighting Night or to purchase tickets, contact Emily Kain in the Penguins’ office at (570) 208-5415 or