After several days watching NHL playoff games in the studio, Eddie Olczyk is more than ready to return to the booth.
After easing his way into this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs following a seven-month battle with colon cancer, the NBC Sports hockey analyst, horse-racing announcer and former NHL player and coach will start the day Sunday in the studio in New York before hopping on a train to to Philadelphia to call Game 3 of the Flyers’ first-round playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins at 3 p.m.
On March 14, Olczyk, who is affectionately known around the league as “Edzo,” got the call from his oncologists that he was cancer free. His ordeal began last summer, when he underwent emergency surgery to remove 14 inches of his colon.
“I’m 50 days removed from my last cancer treatment, not that I’m keeping count,” Olczyk, 51, said. “I’m just so relieved and so thankful that I’ve rid myself of the poison.”
Since having been diagnosed with stage III colon cancer, Olczyk has been public about his struggles fighting the disease, even tearing up during a brief stint calling Chicago Blackhawks games earlier in the season alongside broadcast partner Pat Foley. NBC and the Blackhawks left the door open for Olczyk to call games whenever he felt up to it, something he described as “great medicine” for providing a distraction. In fact, he called the Rangers-Flyers game for NBC on March 22, the night before his final chemotherapy treatment.
“It seemed like every NBC game I did during my treatment was a Flyers game,” Olczyk said. “So my prep work was a lot less because I knew the Flyers so well.”
Olczyk opened up about his cancer diagnosis and why it’s been important to him to be so public about his ordeal. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about the night you found out that you had cancer.
I was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer back on Aug. 4 at 7:07 p.m., when my surgeon, Scott Strong at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, called me with the news, which was obviously a stop-you-in-your-tracks moment.
I was laying in bed on a Friday night recovering from surgery that I had to remove the tumor and the 14 inches of my colon. Then the phone rang. Our television is connected to the phone, and the number came up as Northwestern Hospital. I knew that it was not good that the hospital was calling.
My wife, Diana, happened to be standing next to me checking up on me and the phone kept ringing. She goes, “You going to answer that?” I didn’t want to. I knew what was on the other end of that line. And obviously that’s exactly what it was.
What happened once you got off the phone with the doctor?
It was life-altering and emotional, but the most difficult part was going downstairs and facing my kids [Eddie, Tom, Zandra, and Nick] and telling them exactly what was going on.
My youngest son, Nick, was really shaken up up. He was on his way to college at Colorado College for his freshman year, and said, “I’m not going, dad. I can’t go.” I said, “Nick, you have to go, all right? I’m going to be fine. I promise. I promise.”
Now that was hard. To sit there and tell your kids who have never seen me like that. Yeah, it was hard.
What do you mean when you say they’ve never seen you like that?
There was a real psychological hurdle I had to get over. I just wanted to crawl under a rock and not burden anybody. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you feel less. You feel worthless. You feel like you’re letting people down, and you’re a burden to your family. And you worry, “Am I going to die?”
I’m an open, honest person when it comes to being in the public, but full disclosure: when I got diagnosed, I just wanted to hide under a rock. I’d have a two-hour chemo session every other Monday, and they would send me home for 48 hours with the chemo. So it’s with you and you have a pump on that you hear go off every 60 seconds, and you’re just hoping that the medicine does the trick.
I’m not embarrassed to say there were times when I wanted to quit. Where I wanted to bail because I just can’t live like this. I can’t. But my wife, Diane, grabbed me by the short hairs and said, “Fight for me. Fight for our kids. Fight for the people that love you.”
You’ve been really public with your cancer fight, including speaking about it during hockey broadcasts. Was that intentional, or did it just come naturally?
The more I thought about it, I knew that was going to be hard to hide and keep quiet when you’re in the public eye. Nobody knew I had the surgery, but I missed a charity hockey game, and I missed working the Haskell horse race for NBC. When I called my boss [NBC producer] Rob Hyland and told him I was sick, he said, “You must really be sick to miss horse racing.”
I just wanted to tell my story without being overbearing, and I wanted to get across to people that if you’re not feeling good, go see a doctor. Make sure you’re having your colonoscopy. Ask questions and don’t be afraid to raise your hand, because cancer does not discriminate.
Look, somebody out there who hears my story is going to get cancer, the numbers bear that out. So my goal and vision for the rest of my life is to talk about and hopefully help somebody deal with not only the physical part, but the psychological roller coaster of emotion you go through.
What’s one important fact you found out during your ordeal you’d want to pass onto others?
A couple days after my diagnosis, I met with the hospital’s lead oncologist, and the only question I asked her was how long has this been inside of me. She looked at me, she looked at her computer with my charts, and said it’s probably been festering there for the better part of 10 years.
She told me if I’d had a colonoscopy when I was 45, they probably would’ve gotten it before. What’s funny is I had a colonoscopy scheduled for November. So I just want to tell people, please be early to this party. Don’t be afraid to just tell your doctor, and regardless of what your doctor says, tell him you want to be checked out now, so you don’t have to go through six months of hell like Eddie Olczyk.