A cancer diagnosis and the resulting treatment may have knocked Ryan Hempel out of competitive hockey for a year, but it never got him off the ice.
“Even during chemotherapy, yeah, my doctors weren’t too happy about it, but I couldn’t stay off the ice,” said Hempel, who returned Sunday to the St. Louis Jr. Blues of the North American 3 Hockey League. “I was practicing without contact the entire time.
“I wanted to play, even high school hockey, I wanted to play in a game, but obviously I wasn’t able to.”
If allowed, Hempel would have played with the team at Cinco Ranch High School while back home in Katy, Texas, for treatment.
“I skated with the high school team,” he said. “I also skated with an 18U AA team at home.
“I skated with some little kids, just to help out. I tried to stay on the ice as much as I could because hockey is something I love. It’s been my life for so long.”
The goal all along was to return to St. Louis, where he was just getting started in junior hockey when pain in his back knocked him out of the lineup and signaled that something was wrong.
Jr. Blues head coach Chris Flaugher and assistant Greg Anderson encouraged Hempel to make returning to the team his goal.
“Last year, when I first found out about the tumor and had to leave, I was talking to Greg and Flaugher and they both said, ‘When you’re done with treatment and have recovered, you have a spot on the team as long as you want one,’” Hempel said.
Hempel had played just four games with the Jr. Blues in September 2016 when he went on the injured list.
When an MRI revealed a tumor in his back, additional tests were needed. It was determined that Hempel had extraskeletal mesenchymal chondrosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affects cartilage.
Back home in Texas, Hempel had surgery to remove the tumor. Through chemotherapy and radiation, he kept finding his way back to the ice.
That led to Sunday night’s return.
The Jr. Blues are rolling — they won their 15th straight with a 13-1 rout of the Evansville Jr. Aces — but the night was all about Hempel. He was the center of attention in pregame chatter in the locker room and was presented with the game puck by Flaugher after the game.
“For him to come back after his diagnosis and treatment shows an incredible amount of strength and determination,” Flaugher said in a story on the team website. “We’re proud he’s back with the Jr. Blues.”
Although spending time on the ice during treatment was important, being back in game action was a special step for Hempel.
“From the first second that I heard that I had a tumor, hockey was the first thing that came to my mind,” Hempel said. “Actually, the worst part about the whole thing for me was that I couldn’t be with the guys and play hockey for basically an entire year.”
Hempel contributed two assists, 1:06 apart in the third period, and finished plus-2 for the game.
With his parents watching at home on HockeyTV, Hempel got his first NA3HL point on a touch pass at the blue line to send Matthew Monreal into the offensive zone where he split the defense and scored on a backhander.
While it was a milestone worth celebrating, Hempel knows there is more work to be done.
“I was exhausted because skating in a game is completely different,” he said.
Hempel completed treatments last month when doctors declared he was in surgical remission. He has to get scanned for possible reoccurrence every three months for a year, then every four months for another year, twice the following year and once a year for the remainder of his life.
Back on the ice and competing, Hempel can feel the wear and tear the past year has placed on his body.
“My conditioning and my foot speed,” Hempel said when asked what he has to work on most. “My balance has degenerated and my feet aren’t nearly as quick as they used to be. Also, I really lost a lot of strength. I’m not as strong as I used to be.”
Hempel was used to being the “speed guy” on the ice and using that quickness to make himself a pest.
There is work to be done, but the 18-year-old is looking forward to the challenges that are ahead.
“I had it in my mind coming into this year that I had to start back at the bottom and really work hard to get back to where I had to be,” he said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.