Brown: Wife’s memory, hockey’s fight against cancer with me at Hall

Photo courtesy of Frank Brown

November 17, 2021 by Frank Brown

First published on NHL.com and reshared with permission from the author.

Tonight, on the red carpet at Meridian Hall, I will confront the collision of a dream come true and a nightmare turned real.

Just as players refuse to touch the Stanley Cup until they've won it, I always had felt that, on Induction Monday, the red carpet should be reserved for people who had achieved the ultimate hockey honor: Hall of Fame recognition.

On Nov. 18, 2019, thanks to the voters of the Pro Hockey Writers' Association, my reservation came through. I had been chosen by my peers to become the 61st recipient of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award, presented "in recognition of distinguished members of the newspaper profession whose words have brought honour to journalism and to hockey."

I received a black Media Honouree blazer and a replica of the plaque that will reside permanently in the Hall. Receiving the Ferguson comes with an added perk, a meaningful one to me: The Hall invites you back every year.

To cap the proudest day of my career, I walked on the red carpet -- my wife Nancy's right hand clasped firmly in my left, although I'm not certain my feet, or Nancy's, ever really touched the ground.

Three days short of two years later, I will walk the red carpet alone. A purple silk pocket square will emerge above the Hall of Fame patch on my blazer. A purple "Cancer Stinks" bracelet will ride snugly on my left wrist.

Purple is the color of Hockey Fights Cancer. This year, the fight invaded our home. My love, my partner, my everything, Nancy, died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 5.

I covered hockey over 25 years with The Associated Press (1973-80) and the New York Daily News (1980-98). I began a 20-year tenure in the NHL's communications department in 1998, the same year Hockey Fights Cancer debuted. I retired in 2018, after 45 years in hockey, because it was time to stop chasing the puck around the world and well past time to start truly being present in the lives of my wife and my family.

In the three years that followed, there was travel and adventure. There was laughter and fun. There were priceless family get-togethers. This past March, there was a joyful addition: Our children, Gourdin and Sarah, welcomed a new son, Everett -- turning 6-year-old Eva into a "big sister" and Grayson (then 8, now 9) into an even-bigger big brother.

In those three years, there were sad times and struggles, too. Nancy's cherished brother, Dave, a Vietnam veteran, joined the fight against blood cancer, a battle that continues for him, today and every day. Cancer also claimed the lives of friends and associates, because it is an indiscriminate and ruthless disease.

Then it claimed Nancy and reduced me to sharp slivers. Tonight, above the hole in my heart, I will wear the purple pocket square to honor Nancy's life, her love, her integrity, her devotion to family, her courage. Nancy taught me so many things. Now Nancy is teaching me about grief, which is as ferocious and unrelenting as the disease that swept her away within weeks of her diagnosis.

Purple also is the symbolic color for pancreatic cancer. November also is when pancreatic cancer gets its own "awareness month." To complete this 'hat trick' of cancer facts, the Hirshberg Foundation For Pancreatic Cancer Research says Thursday is World Pancreatic Cancer Day.

I want you to be aware of pancreatic cancer, particularly if one of your parents or grandparents was afflicted with it. Nancy's mother died of pancreatic cancer, and we found out, too late, that some cancers can be transmitted genetically. This week, our son Gourdin will be tested to see if a genetic connection has extended to his generation. If that proves to be so, our grandchildren will be tested, as well.

Liam O'Connell, Finn Riley, Grayson Sirles and Wilkes Goobic.

Which brings me back to Grayson, and his like-aged friends, Finn and Liam.

Finn started making great-looking bracelets out of colored rubber bands, with the idea of selling them to raise money for cancer research. Because they all know people who have sought care at a local cancer-focused hospital, Gray and his friend, Liam, joined Finn and the three of them added rubber-band necklaces to the production line. They plan to charge $3 (U.S.) for a bracelet and $5 for a necklace, with every cent going to their donation.

This Saturday, the boys will be selling their inventory at a local high school's gift fair. I told Gray I will match whatever the boys raise Saturday, dollar-for-dollar, so their donation to the local cancer hospital will be twice as large. I then will double that figure as a contribution to Hockey Fights Cancer.

I also ordered a bracelet, in purple. I hadn't asked for a bracelet bearing a message, but was thrilled with what I received: Interlocked purple rubber bands, with block letters describing cancer in family-friendly and age-appropriate terms. Because it is so very true: Cancer Stinks.

Induction Monday was one of my favorite events during my years at the NHL. I always noted the quiet pride of the people honored previously, the glowing smiles of the ones being inducted that night. I would see players I covered, also players who had stepped off the ice and into the front office, people with whom I worked at the League.

For every Hall of Famer who made me think the passing years hadn't been kind, there always were a few who looked like they could still skate and score and thrill the fans. Well or weathered, they returned on Induction Monday to celebrate the game they loved to play -- to reunite with old teammates or opponents, to reflect on the astonishing careers that led them there. I would look at their faces and see expressions that had nothing to do with what they had given to hockey -- and everything to do with the amazing gifts the game and the fans had given them.

I will think about all those things tonight. I will think of Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy and Guy Lapointe and all the others who earned their blazers on the ice -- and who now fight cancer off it. I will think of Tony Esposito, who died of pancreatic cancer five days after Nancy did. I will think of the media honorees killed by the same affliction.

They will be in my thoughts tonight at Meridian Hall, thoughts colored purple at the confluence of joy and sorrow, thoughts skating on a rink of frozen tears.

Nancy will be in my heart. I fight for Nancy, today, tonight and forever.

"Cancer Stinks" bracelets can be ordered via e-mail, [email protected] Supplies are extremely limited.

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