Gino Odjick’s last fight: Beloved Canucks enforcer battles terminal heart disease
29 Feb 1996: Leftwinger Gino Odjick of the Vancouver Canucks looks on during a game against the St. Louis Blues at General Motors Place in Vancouver, British Columbia. The game was a tie, 2-2. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Cratty /Allsport
Photograph by: Glenn Cratty, Getty Images
Gino Odjick enters the cafeteria at Vancouver General Hospital with the aid of a walker.
He’s toting an oxygen tank and he shows the signs of two weeks of chemotherapy. At this moment, it’s hard to reconcile the man you see with the enforcer who took on all comers and became one of the most popular players in Vancouver Canucks history.
But then he speaks. Then you know the fighter remains.
“I’m in good spirits and I”m going to do the best I can to fight this,” says Odjick. “Just because it’s diagnosed one way doesn’t mean it’s going to go that way.
“I’ll let the chips fall where they may. I’m prepared. I’m not accepting it yet but I’m prepared.”
Earlier in the day, his good friend Pat Quinn talked about Odjick’s spirit; how, through his many battles on and off the ice, there was something indomitable about his former player. You still see this. It’s hard when you see what disease has done to him, but there remains a big part of the man who will not be defeated.
Odjick has been told his time might be measured in months, if not weeks. In mid-April, shortly after the ceremony that inducted Quinn into the Canucks’ Ring of Honour, he became short of breath. Two days later he was diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis, a rare heart condition in which a protein, produced in the bone marrow, forms deposits in the heart. The form he has is considered terminal.
A heart transplant won’t work. Neither will a bone-marrow transplant. There are experimental treatments in Europe but the best hope is doctors can buy Odjick some time.
“You don’t think when you’re 43 years old they’re going to tell you you’ve got one year to live,” he says. “It was the last thing on my mind. There’s been a lot of soul-searching.”
He’s asked if he’s found any answers.
“Not yet. All I can do is the best I can do every day. But there comes a point when I have to make plans to enjoy the last year and that’s where we’re at right now.”
Odjick, of course, has lived a thousand lives during his 43 years. He was born on an Algonquin reserve just outside of Maniwaki, Que., before leaving to play in Hawkesbury as a 16-year-old. After two seasons with Laval in the Quebec league, the Canucks made him a fifth-round draft pick in the 1990 draft. Odjick would be called up from Milwaukee partway through the next season. He would play in Vancouver for eight years.
“The amazing thing about Gino is how fast he improved,” said Canucks president Trevor Linden, Odjick’s teammate through the ’90s. “When he got called up we were thinking, ‘How’s he going to help us?’ Then we saw how hard he played and his heart. And he kept getting better.”
He wasn’t a star. Odjick played 605 NHL games because he was a much better fighter than a player. But he could fill a third- or fourth-line role and in 1993-94, his most productive season, he scored 16 goals.
By then, Odjick had become a fixture in the Canucks locker room. He became close friends with Pavel Bure and something of a folk hero in Vancouver. Odjick didn’t have a great deal of formal education but, according to Quinn, he had an unerring instinct for doing and saying the right thing in the locker room.
“He’s a very sharp guy,” Quinn said.
It almost goes without saying his former teammates have rallied around him. Quinn and Linden have been regular visitors to VGH along with Kirk McLean, Garry Valk, Geoff Courtnall and Stan Smyl.
Quinn, who’s been in Toronto at Hall of Fame meetings, was asked about his relationship with Odjick.
“You know how I feel about him,” he answered. “I’ve got to get out there (to VGH). I need to see him. I just need to see him.”
“We all grew up together,” said Linden. “He was such a lovable guy. I can’t tell you how much fun we had. There was never a dull moment with Gino. I think that’s what people loved about him. He’s not a cookie-cutter personality.”
That’s putting it mildly. In retirement, Odjick emerged as both a business leader and role model in the aboriginal community. He’s also battled substance-abuse issues as well as mental illness. He lost his father, Joe, in November, drove from Vancouver to Maniwaki, then checked into the psychiatric ward of Pierre Janet Hospital Centre in Gatineau. Que.
That story made national news. Shortly before Christmas, Odjick, who had 160 fights in the NHL, phoned me from Edmonton and talked about his battles.
“What’s the difference between depression and concussions?” he said at one point. “It is what it is but I’m not going to lie down and die. I’m going to make a difference. They’re telling me one thing but I’m going to fight with what have. I believe I’ll live until I’m 150.”
Later in that same interview, Odjick said his life’s mission was to eradicate poverty among First Nations people. He said this matter-of-factly, the way another person might say their life’s mission is to retire at 60. He travelled all over B.C. to aboriginal communities where he was treated like a rock star.
One friend tells a story about how Odjick connected with a 13-year-old boy up north. The kid had never been farther than Williams Lake and said his dream was to go the PNE. Odjick arranged to fly the family to Vancouver, but it was his reaction after this good deed that stayed with his friend.
“He told me we’ve got to reach more people,” Odjick’s pal said. “Some of these people have never had a chance. We have to give them a chance.”
Says Odjick: “I really did the best I could do there, to create opportunity and to let people know there were opportunities. I’m really proud of that part.”
And he’s proud of his eight children, who remain his priority. They range in age from 11 to 27 — one son is named Bure after his former teammate — and most of them live back East.
“I’m going to go back East in a bit,” he says. “I’ve got to spend some time with my kids. Then we’ll go from there.”
He understands his situation; understands this could be the end of his journey. But if he’s feeling sorry for himself, he does a good job of hiding it. Whatever time he has left will be devoted to his children and his people. That’s all that’s important right now.
Come to think of it, that’s all that’s ever been important.
“It’s beyond that now,” he answers when asked if he’s ever wondered, ‘Why me?’ “Now, it’s what can I do to make this better.”
“Hopefully, he fights for himself now,” says Quinn.
And he will fight on. No matter how this ends, he will fight on.
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