VANCOUVER, British Columbia—On a recent night while playing on a beer league hockey team with his older brother, Chase, Wade MacLeod scored a goal.
He tells the story so exuberantly, complete with huge grin and eye twinkle, that it may seem over-the-top for a man who, seven years ago, was on his way to the National Hockey League.
But it’s not. That beer league goal is the first one MacLeod has scored at any level of hockey in two years.
Since 2013, the 33-year-old from Coquitlam, British Columbia, has been through four brain surgeries as well as a round of radiation and chemotherapy treatments to combat the golf-ball sized tumor doctors found in the left side of his brain.
The discovery was a fluke. It happened after MacLeod was checked hard into the glass and blacked out during a minor-league game in Springfield, Massachusetts. The left-winger was playing his second professional season with the Springfield Falcons after four memorable years with Northeastern.
A concussion was the initial prognosis, but then a CT scan revealed a glioblastoma tumor lodged between the parts of his brain responsible for motor skills and speech.
“That was the day that changed my life,” McLeod recalls. It was Valentine’s Day, 2013.
MacLeod lost his chance of being called up to the NHL, which had seemed a certainty after both of his line-mates had already been promoted.
“I was next, I’m sure of it,” he says in his 21st-floor condo in the Vancouver suburb of Port Moody, which overlooks the grey waters of Burrard Inlet and the Strait of Georgia below. In the distance, low fog descends from the Coast Mountains on a rainy day.
MacLeod doesn’t show too much emotion when he talks about the realization that his call-up to the NHL would not come. It’s when he recalls not being able to take his two-year-old daughter Ava for a walk (not even around the block), something he has been able to do only recently; or the time last year, when two home care nurses suggested he add a grab-rail in his shower; telling these stories, his smile fades and he goes quiet.
But as MacLeod talks about his newest goal, it’s clear that he’s not done with hockey. In fact, he credits the sport with helping to save his life. The mental and physical strength he garnered as a professional athlete would help MacLeod recover from three further brain surgeries over the next five years—and get him back on the ice each time.
“I took [cancer] on with a hockey player’s mentality, just one shift at a time, one day at a time,” he says. MacLeod moves around the living room playing with Ava, who loves to hold his hands while she jumps on the couch. A picture on the fridge from two Christmases ago shows the family sitting with Santa and reveals a much stockier, muscular MacLeod. He’s a leaner 5 foot 11 now.
Growing up in Coquitlam, a suburban city of 140,000 with tree-lined walking trails and a view of Mount Burke a 40-minute drive east of Vancouver, MacLeod played hockey since he could walk, and could name NHL hockey players by name and number before he was 3.
When asked what he would do if he couldn’t play hockey, MacLeod goes silent.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I pretty much had my dream ripped away by the mass inside my brain.”
MacLeod says that even more than his hockey mentality and physical training, he credits “his rock”, his wife Karly, for his ability to endure these last seven years. They’ve known each other for 10 years. She was there that day he collapsed on the ice. They have lived through two recurrences of MacLeod’s cancer.
Karly, an interior designer, is the family’s sole breadwinner while MacLeod continues to recover.
Life before cancer was an entirely different story. The indelible moment for MacLeod during his four years at Northeastern was the 2011 Beanpot, when his last-minute goal sent the championship game into overtime. Northeastern lost in overtime, 7-6 to Boston College, but MacLeod says that in that game he “grew as a player” by experiencing extreme highs and lows in a matter of minutes in front of a sold-out arena.
He underwent his first brain surgery in May 2013. He was left unable to speak for a month and it would take extensive speech therapy to get his voice back.
Having missed out on the NHL, MacLeod went to the professional East Coast Hockey League, and the American Hockey League, where he played for the Toronto Marlies. In 2015 he signed with the Rosenheim Star Bulls in Germany. A second brain surgery was performed in 2016, but he was back on the ice with the ECHL in Texas later that year.
He was back living in Germany in 2017 with Karly and his newborn daughter, playing for the Frankfurt Lions, but another MRI in 2018 revealed that the cancer was back, and this time it meant undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Each bout with cancer has forced him away from hockey “and that just rips my heart out,” says Karly, “because he has worked so hard, and no one deserved his shot more than Wade, and it’s like he has to keep starting over.”
And so he keeps starting over. Just before Christmas, MacLeod got the news that the treatments had succeeded. An MRI showed him that he was cancer-free, and did not need another round of chemotherapy.
Since January, he’s been in the gym or on the ice five days a week. He sticks to a keto diet to help prevent a reoccurrence of the tumor.
For MacLeod, the idea of never playing again was not an option.
But it’s not enough for MacLeod to be alive or to beat the odds. He still wants to play hockey well enough for someone to pay him to do it.
MacLeod’s first time back out on the ice after Christmas came with a wobbly stance and a shot that “didn’t feel the same”, and yet, he says, “it was so good.”
“I don’t want cancer to force me to retire, I want to retire on my own terms,” says MacLeod. “Whether that’s seven years from now or next year or three years, I don’t want this disease to define what I am and so it’s motivation for sure.”
With the help of his sports counsellor—“our mental strength counsellor,’ Karly calls him —MacLeod uses mindfulness, mental strength, and positive thinking techniques to get him through recovery.
“I’ve always been a positive guy, Karly can tell you that about me,” MacLeod says, as his wife nods. “But I never knew how significant the idea of putting a smile on my face everyday really was until all of this.”
The support of the hockey community has been another touchstone in MacLeod’s life. A GoFundMe page started by a friend has more than $127,000 (Canadian), to help offset the cost of his prescriptions and supplementary treatments, and has helped provide for the family while MacLeod recovers.
Cancer has galvanized his relationship with his family, and now Karly says, “we can start getting our life back.”
And MacLeod is ready for the next part of his life to begin. He can’t wait to score his next goal, whether it’s in the beer league, or someplace better.
“I feel like I was ripped off in my earning years, so to speak,” says MacLeod. “But whether or not my earning years have passed me [by] I just want to play hockey.”