From cancer to clearing the crease: The Owen Brady story
It had been almost three years between real games for 18-year-old Owen Brady. But the fact that he's even playing at all is worth a major celly
COLLINGWOOD, Ont. - After playing his first real hockey game in 1,050 days, Owen Brady stood at the visitors’ bench of the Eddie Bush Memorial Arena in a small tourist town where they hold an Elvis Festival every year. After posing for a couple of pictures with his parents Chris and Deirdre, he took each one into one sweat-soaked arm and said, “We did it, guys! We did it!”
They did it, indeed. This courageous young man and his family had every right to celebrate Saturday night. Owen Brady’s journey from discovering a cancerous tumor in his left knee almost three years ago to suiting up on defense for the Pickering Panthers Jr. A team Saturday night is nowhere near being over. But a chapter of it has been closed and a major triumph has been recorded. “Today was kind of a point of reflection on the journey,” Brady said after his first game. “From the first time I went to Sick Kids (the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto) to now is a big change. But I’m kind of back where I started, so that’s really exciting.”
Where it started, and where it has always been for him, is on the ice. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed. Owen Brady’s last game was Nov. 16, 2018 with the Whitby Wildcats Under-16 AAA team. At the time, he was a hulking and promising defenseman, on the verge of fulfilling a lifelong dream of being taken the first or second round of the 2019 Ontario Hockey League draft. Just prior to the prestigious Silver Stick Tournament, Owen Brady’s world came crashing down on him. What started as a visit to a walk-in clinic quickly accelerated to a diagnosis of osteosarcoma – the same form of cancer Terry Fox had – and a 19-hour surgical procedure to remove the tumor and reconstruct his shin. That was followed by months of energy-depleting chemotherapy, which made returning to the ice in any short order impossible. But from a wheelchair to crutches to sneakers to skates, Owen Brady never, ever gave up. He worked and worked himself back into shape and skated for hours by himself. A sixth-round pick of the Oshawa Generals in 2019, Brady finally got to go to training camp and joined the Panthers after the Generals, who had reservations of his ability to handle the rigors of a full OHL season, cut him.
So now the dream changes. Three years ago, Owen Brady would never have envisioned struggling to keep up at the Jr. A level the season after his NHL draft year. He was supposed to play, and star, in the OHL. He expected he would have been property of an NHL team by now, likely playing for a major junior team and hoping to be signed to a contract. But after being a scratch for Pickering’s first game of the season, he got into Game No. 2, a 4-2 victory over the Collingwood Blues. His shifts were short and he was a little tentative at times, but simply getting on the ice and competing represented a major triumph. “Really, just being part of a team again just kind of makes everything come together,” he said. “This afternoon, we went on a team hike and it’s those little things like that you appreciate. And it makes it so much more fun on the ice when you get a win. That really makes it special.”
Where this goes from here is uncertain, but nothing like the uncertainty Brady has experienced the past three years. Losing that amount of time at a crucial juncture in a player’s development can have a devastating effect. But it’s not unprecedented for a player to overcome setbacks at this age and emerge as a late-blooming prospect. The prospect of playing major junior hockey is likely gone now, but by playing Jr. A, Brady has kept the possibility of playing college hockey, either in the U.S. or at a Canadian university, in the mix. And you might be tempted to say that it doesn’t matter, that Owen Brady has already triumphed just by getting back on the ice after a serious, invasive and body-sapping surgery. That might be true, but when you’ve lived and worked your entire life for something, that might not be enough. It’s what drives Owen Brady to keep playing and it’s what drives him to get better. So it would not be wise to bet against a young man with that level of determination.
When Brady was first diagnosed, I was writing for The Hockey News. I wrote extensively about his journey from the time he learned of the cancer, through the surgery, to his completion of chemotherapy, to visits with Auston Matthews and Mike Babcock, to his long physical journey to get back to playing. I also promised to see it through to the first time he stepped back on the ice to play a real game. That happened Saturday night, so now it’s time to give Owen Brady his space and allow him to become the player and person he is going to be. To have gotten where he is now will always be an integral part of his story, but it no longer has to define him. On Saturday night, Owen Brady became just another teenager chasing his dreams.
I’ve never been so happy to close the loop on a story.