MONTREAL — Blair Mackasey’s life would have changed quite dramatically if he had been hired as general manager of the Canadiens last year.
Mackasey, who is the director of player personnel for the Minnesota Wild, is one of the people Canadiens owner/president Geoff Molson interviewed for the team’s vacant GM position before hiring Marc Bergevin.
“It’s not every day you get a chance to interview for the GM job with the Montreal Canadiens, so I was really honoured just to have the opportunity,” Mackasey, a bilingual Beaconsfield resident, said after Bergevin was hired last May. “Obviously disappointed, like a lot of other people, but I like Marc a lot. He’s a solid guy, he’s a solid hockey guy and he’s a great person, and I think he’ll do a great job.
“Being a Montrealer, it would have been a wonderful opportunity, just like for Berg, to come back after growing up in Montreal and be general manager of the Montreal Canadiens. That doesn’t happen every day.”
Something else that doesn’t happen every day is being told you have cancer. But that’s what happened to Mackasey before the start of the 2013 lockout-shortened National Hockey League season and it changed his life much more than if he had been named GM of the Canadiens.
Mackasey had just returned from the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia, in January and headed for Minnesota after the NHL lockout ended for his annual preseason physical checkup with the Wild’s medical director, Dr. Sheldon Burns.
“He checked me all over, he said, ‘You look great … everything’s normal,’ ” the 57-year-old Mackasey recalled on Thursday afternoon. “I was doing my regular routine and exercising every day. Just before the exam was over, he asked me if there was anything different … any moles or anything like that. I said, ‘Not really, I got a little bump on my neck, but it doesn’t bother me or anything.’ Before you know it, he’s got his fingers down my throat and a half-hour later I’m having a CAT scan.”
That night, the Wild had an intrasquad game and Mackasey was watching from the arena press box when the phone rang.
“(The doctor) called up to the press box and said, ‘Come down and see me between periods,’” Mackasey recalled. “I went down to see him and he told me I had cancer. So I must be the only guy who’s ever been diagnosed with cancer at a hockey game.”
Mackasey didn’t believe the doctor at first.
“I told him I feel great … I had just exercised that day and the whole works,” Mackasey said. “I’m in good shape ... and he said, ‘No, I’m serious, and this has to be treated and it’s got to be treated quickly and it’s got to be treated at home.”
Mackasey returned to Montreal and saw the Canadiens’ team doctor, David Mulder, and then Dr. David Tabah at the Montreal General Hospital. A biopsy confirmed that Mackasey had throat cancer caused by a virus.
“I never smoked a day in my life and physically I felt fine,” Mackasey said.
The good news was that because of his age and good physical condition, the doctors told Mackasey there was a 70 to 80 per cent cure rate for what he had.
“But it’s not a pleasant treatment,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant because the doctors were straight-up with me.”
Between the middle of March and the first week of May, Mackasey had three major chemotherapy treatments and 35 radiation sessions.
“Monday to Friday, every day for seven weeks,” he recalled. “Then for another month after that I felt terrible.”
Mackasey set a goal of making it to Minnesota at the beginning of June for organizational meetings and he made it. He also attended the NHL draft later than month in New Jersey and on July 15 was told by Dr. Tabah he was cancer free and to come back at the end of September for a follow-up exam.
“I don’t know if you’re ever out of the woods, but for the time being things look positive,” Mackasey said. “I feel pretty good compared to where I was four months ago.”
Mackasey is still suffering from side effects from the cancer treatment, some that will stay with him, including a dry mouth because he no longer has salivary glands. He dropped 15 pounds and lost his sense of taste, which is starting to come back. The chemotherapy left him with numbness in his toes, which he says will go away, and a loss of hair, which is now growing back.
“I only have to shave about once every two weeks now, which is a bonus,” he said.
Mackasey is a well-known and respected figure in the hockey world. After coaching the midget Lac St. Louis Lions, he graduated to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he coached a 17-year-old rookie named Daniel Brière in 1994-95 with the Drummondville Voltigeurs. From 2002 to 2006, he was head scout and then director of player personnel for Hockey Canada, responsible for player evaluation and selections for the national junior and under-18 teams. Canada won two gold and two silver medals at the world junior tournament during that time. He has been with the Wild for the last seven years.
Mackasey, who watched as much hockey as possible on TV last season while battling his cancer, left for Florida on Friday to scout an NHL prospects tournament and can’t wait to get back in an arena.
“I’m anxious to get at it again,” said Mackasey, who normally watches between 150 and 200 games live each season, including the NHL, the American Hockey League, European pro leagues, the world juniors and colleges. “You don’t realize how much you miss something until you can’t do it. You obviously want to prove to yourself that you’re back and ready to go.”
Mackasey tried to keep his cancer battle quiet while he was going through it.
“I kept it very low key,” he said. “It’s not that I was trying to hide it … but people live through cancer every day and I don’t see myself any more special than anybody else. It is what it is and you move on.”
But Mackasey’s story does highlight the importance of regular medical checkups.
“I’m one of those people who is very seldom sick, so if I hadn’t gone for my regular physical or checkup I could still be walking around with cancer today and not knowing it,” he said.
Mackasey is due to have his annual preseason physical next week in Minnesota, but he isn’t worried.
“I know more doctors now … in the last four months I’ve met more doctors and dealt with more doctors than I have in my whole lifetime,” he said. “So probably the last thing I need now is another checkup.”
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