Cancer Can't Conquer Cook

Cam Tait – Edmonton Journal
November 8, 2008

No one would have blamed him for giving up, but that's not Matt Cook's style.

Not after a cancerous tumour was discovered on his left ankle while he played junior A hockey with the Bonnyville Pontiacs in 2005-06.

Not after the cancer forced doctors to amputate his leg below the knee, presumably ending his hockey career at the age of 18.

Not after open-heart surgery last September to repair damage to a vein in his chest, damage that can be traced back to chemotherapy.

Not after a spot was found on his lung, requiring more surgery in April.

No, after all the terrible hands dealt him, the 20-year-old Edmontonian still found the strength to move on with his life and to continue in athletics.

In fact, Cook has taken up the sport of sledge hockey and, after a recent training camp in Toronto, has been named to Canada's national sledge hockey team.

NOTE: Cook and other members of Canada’s National Sledge Team will be doing demonstrations during intermissions of Sunday’s medal games at the 2008 World Junior A Challenge.

He is the first player with junior A hockey experience ever to make the Canadian sledge hockey squad, the defending world and Paralympic Games champions.

"I'm pretty excited about the season. I'm pumped," the 20-year-old said about his new sport, which is played by athletes strapped into sledges who propel themselves down the ice with picks at the end of their hockey sticks.

"Hockey is the thing that got me out of bed. There were days when I just wanted to stay in bed and give up. ...

"I think maybe I get bitter and frustrated, but never angry. This is the way things go. It's a learning process and I can learn from them to be a better person."

Cook, who is now cancer free, became interested in sledge hockey during recovery from one of his surgeries. He was in contact with a couple of players on the Canadian team, and hoped he might get a shot at playing.

Two weeks before this summer's camp in Toronto, he received an invitation to the tryouts. On the final day of camp, he was one of the last players to have a one-on-one interview with head coach Jeff Snyder.

"His chances weren't real great, as I hadn't seen him play before," Snyder said from Waterloo, Ont. "It was clear that he had good hockey sense, played his position well, was responsible in his own end. He went to the net hard."

"I just went out there and showed them my work ethic," Cook said. "To tell you the truth, I didn't think I made the team."

Cook did make the team, and his success comes as no surprise to Jeff Pister, who coached Cook in Bonnyville in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

"Matt made the Pontiacs coming in as virtually an unknown, not because of his talent, but because of his character and determination," said Pister.

"I couldn't begin to describe his mental toughness. I think it would be an insult."
Known for his rugged play and not being shy to drop his gloves, Cook accumulated 129 penalty minutes in 32 games for the Pontiacs. He scored his first and only goal against the Lloydminster Bobcats just a few weeks before his season ended.

Pister remembers Cook's ever-present smile, whether he was a healthy scratch or had just three shifts in a game.

"He brought a positive, team-first attitude every single day," said Pister.

But one morning during practice at the R.J. Lalonde Arena in Bonnyville, he couldn't skate because of the considerable pain in his ankle. He called his father, Don, to dispatch him back to the family home in west Edmonton.

A trip to the doctor's office brought the news everyone dreads -- cancer. Chemotherapy was attempted, without success. The only option was to amputate his leg.

Bad luck spawned more bad luck. During his chemotherapy, one of the catheters going into his heart caused an infection. When doctors tried to repair the damage, they hit a vein, and blood pooled in his upper body, leading to the open-heart surgery. Then came even more bad luck -- the spot on the lung and subsequent surgery.

"Matt's the kind of guy that you don't have to wish the best for -- whatever hand he's dealt," said Pister.

"He's proven he'll make the most of it ... which he's obviously done once again."
Cook plays sledge hockey five days a week for up to three hours at a time -- his father goes with him to work on his passing -- as he prepares for the 2008 World Sledge Hockey Challenge, which starts on Nov. 18 in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

Cook also hopes to travel to the 2009 sledge hockey world championship in the Czech Republic.

"We think he has a chance to be a very good player for us," said Snyder, who admires Cook's desire to forecheck, but says he needs to work on his shot.

"It should really be fun and exciting to watch him develop as a sledge hockey player."
After his unbelievable string of health issues, Cook credits his family for giving him the strength to carry on and to work hard towards his new goals.

"It's the way my family raised me -- they instilled hard work," he said. "I guess with all that I've gone through in the last while I just learned to do it.

"My mom and dad and my brother Brady and sister Marina ... I just want to make them proud."

For more information:

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 284-6484 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 777-4567

Jeremy Knight
Manager, Corporate Communications
Hockey Canada

(647) 251-9738

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