From: Twin Cities
A long, but great read from Russo about Tom Kurvers....
Diagnosed with lung cancer, Wild’s Tom Kurvers prepares for his toughest battle
Michael Russo Feb 8, 2019 50
It was Monday afternoon, and Tom Kurvers took a bite of his ham and cheese omelette.
The former NHL defenseman and Minnesota hockey star gently placed his fork on his plate, then suddenly slammed his left index finger onto the back of his iPhone.
Kurvers, tired and stressed, looked up, and his eyes welled.
“I have too many things going on in my head right now,” the Wild’s assistant general manager said, his voice shaking. “I can’t keep up with medical information, and I’ve got a phone full of loving and caring notes from friends and hockey people. It’s going to take me a month to get back to everyone. Anybody that’s ever talked about the hockey community has undersold it by a mile because this is living proof of how overwhelming it is to the good and how they rally around their own.
“I’ve felt it since we started telling people Friday. Conversations are wicked hard … and really good.”
“But,” Kurvers, struggling to get the words out, added … with a touch of guilt, “I don’t have the time and energy to talk to everybody I’d like to talk to. I just can’t. You run out of fuel … and you run out of tears.”
With one phone call late last month from the Wild’s team doctor, Kurvers’ life has been turned upside down a mere seven months after ending his 10-year run with the Tampa Bay Lightning to excitedly take a job in his hometown as first-year Wild GM Paul Fenton’s right-hand man.
The father of four takes care of himself.
He keeps himself in exceptional shape. He eats healthy food. He has never smoked. He looks way younger than his 56 years on this planet.
Despite all of this, Kurvers says, “I was chosen for the fight.”
“So,” he says, with a smile, “I’m going to fight. I’m living with cancer now.”
Back in November, Kurvers, who once helped bring Bloomington-Jefferson High School to its first state hockey tournament and four years later at the University of Minnesota Duluth won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey, developed a cough.
He didn’t think anything of it.
But to this day, it hasn’t gone away.
On Dec. 4, after having a little pinch at the end of a deep breath the week before, Kurvers was “feeling kind of crummy.” He thought it was his heart, went to see the Wild physicians, took a chest X-ray, and everything checked out clean.
But he never got better.
Five weeks later, before a Wild game against Winnipeg, Kurvers went down to the locker room and told one of the team doctors that he wasn’t getting worse but definitely not getting better. Along with the rest of the front office, Kurvers was leaving in a few days to Florida for hockey ops meetings. He traveled south and had a rough week.
After returning to Minnesota, Kurvers went down to the locker room before the Jan. 19 game against Columbus to see Wild doctor Sheldon Burns.
“I said, ‘It’s getting worse. I’m not feeling good,” Kurvers recalled.
Pneumonia was suspected. A CT scan was ordered two mornings later. Instead of pneumonia, doctors discovered what they feared was a nodule on the right upper lobe of his lung.
Kurvers received the shocking call on the night of the 21st.
“Dr. Burns said, ‘Tom, I’ve got some very bad news. There’s indications of cancer in your right lung, and I’m very worried,’” Kurvers said. “I spoke to him for a few minutes. You can’t process it. I don’t even know what I said. I remember handing my phone to my wife (Heather). And she wrote some stuff down.
“That night was tough. A no-sleep night. Your mind races. Plenty of dark thoughts. Not all bad. It’s hard to explain. Your brain just starts moving around and you can’t catch up to it.”
After a storied career at Bloomington-Jefferson and Minnesota Duluth, Tom Kurvers played 11 NHL seasons for seven different teams. (Graig Abel / Getty Images)
The next morning, Kurvers had an appointment with an oncologist. A PET scan was ordered for Jan. 23. The specialist who conducted the test looked at his CT scan and was on the fence whether he actually had cancer. The PET scan results ended up showing a 30 percent chance for cancer. But still, it was not a definite read.
Kurvers then underwent a biopsy Jan. 28. Two days later, the results confirmed cancer.
Kurvers was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, a type of non-small cell lung cancer that is most often found in current and former smokers. But it’s also the most common type of lung cancer for non-smokers like Kurvers. The cancer has spread into the lymph nodes in his sternum but not beyond there.
For now though, it’s inoperable.
One of the first people he reached out to is one of his best friends, Todd Walsh, the longtime Arizona Coyotes and Diamondbacks Fox Sports Arizona reporter.
“It was numbing,” Walsh said. “His mom (Julie) suffered through a five-year battle with cancer and died a horrible death last year. It was painful and hard to watch, and he was pretty adamant that, ‘I don’t want to go through that.’ But a day later, he was like, I’m ready to fight. And I told him, ‘Your very nature is going to help you through this.’”
On Jan. 31, Kurvers informed his four children — Madison, 24, and Rose, 18, from his first marriage, and Weston, 12, and Roman, 10, from his second marriage.
“They’re resilient,” Kurvers said. “My boys, they’re doing OK, I think. They can read tone. You can sense them sizing things up.”
In fact, since the diagnosis, Kurvers has coincidentally gone through a big, dusty bin of old hockey memorabilia and pictures with his two boys. They were blown away by all the stuff their dad has accomplished in his hockey career, and for Kurvers, the trip down memory lane has been therapeutic.
His wife, Kurvers says, “she’s been so strong.”
Throughout the ordeal, he has leaned on good friends like Walsh and Chicago Blackhawks assistant GM Norm Maciver, his college roommate, teammate and one of his closest friends. Sadly, Maciver’s dad died of lung cancer, so Kurvers instantly called his friend to ask questions and have a shoulder to cry on.
And, one of his first calls was of course to his father, Jim, in Arizona. Jim is who Tom, a three-sport athlete in high school, got his sports DNA from.
Jim Kurvers played 110 rounds of golf last year. He was an all-state football player and played football at North Dakota State. He was on one of the state’s great high school basketball teams of all-time at Hopkins, winning state championships in 1952 and 1953. He was a four-letter winner in baseball.
Knowing his dad had already dealt with the deterioration and loss of his wife, Tom was worried about his father’s reaction.
“It was hard, but he’s a tough dude,” Kurvers said. “I still remember it was around Thanksgiving a year ago when my mother was really fading. I brought my daughters down to Arizona to see her. She was having a bad day and didn’t want visitors. My dad came down, and it’s the first time I’ve really saw him break down. He just said, ‘I’m sorry, she can’t catch a break.’ He’s just a strong guy. He handles life, and he’s handling this.”
After making sure his entire family knew last Thursday, Kurvers called Fenton and broke the news to him.
It was obvious Friday morning at the Wild’s morning skate in Dallas that Fenton was pretty rattled. He has known Kurvers since the 1983 Winter Olympic tryouts.
“For somebody that is as healthy as he is and the way he takes care of himself and conducts himself with professionalism every day, it’s very difficult for us to watch,” said Fenton, who informed his staff of the news last Friday. “But he’s always so upbeat. Everybody’s giving him as much space as he possibly can have. Now that he knows what it is, we’re going to see the guy we all know, the guy that will fight to make everything right.”
That was evident two days ago — two days after Kurvers’ first sitdown with The Athletic.
He received some outstanding news Wednesday.
Kurvers initially thought there would be only two options for treatment: immunotherapy drugs or chemotherapy on a three-week interval that was supposed to start this upcoming Monday.
“All the while, you’re buying time for more drugs for a cure, which provides hope,” Kurvers said.
But earlier this week, Kurvers was approved for Tagrisso, a pill-form medication used to treat non-small cell lung cancer.
“There was a five-percent chance to match this targeted therapy drug, and we hit it, we nailed it,” Kurvers said. “It’s a far more aggressive cancer killer with far less side effects than chemotherapy, so it was a gigantic win. It was so overwhelming when I found out, I was mentally wiped out.”
Wife Heather, his brother, Mike, and his sister, Kathy, are acting as his medical advocates.
“The doctors are really reluctant to give a prognosis,” Kurvers said. “They’re saying it’s Stage 3, but I got this very hopeful news now and they say I should start feeling better in about a week. The idea with this drug is that it goes in and targets the cancer cells and bombs them out. The results have been great. It’s not 100 percent. Chances are it doesn’t work at all, but it’s way up there that they can knock out a bunch of this. The doctor even said that maybe we can get it down to that one tumor and then we can possibly go in and get the tumor out.
“That’s mind-boggling that he would say that to me after what sounds so grim a week ago. The hope is the drug is good enough where it allows a quality of life that this is just something you have and you live and you deal with it. So it was quite the day (Wednesday). My wife was in tears of joy. She had done her homework and knew what the options were and what the percentages were and she started weeping with a big smile on her face. I was kind of in the dark and like, What’s going on here?
“But she knew that the doctor was talking about the best option there is at the moment.”
For the last two decades, Kurvers has scouted or worked in management for the Coyotes, Lightning and Wild, so he has friends everywhere.
One of the hardest parts of the past week has been informing his friends amongst the scouting brethren in the Wild press box.
Throughout history, there’s a competitiveness and spy game almost with the amateur scouts. But there’s a brotherhood amongst pro scouts. They travel together, are usually assigned to the same territories, you’ve usually played with or against them.
There’s a really good fraternity.
In order to get a distraction from all that’s been going on, Kurvers has attended the past two home games.
There have been hugs and tears shed, especially with former Philadelphia Flyers assistant GM Chris Pryor last Saturday night. Pryor was also part of that 1983 Olympic tryout, played a few games with Kurvers in the New York Islanders’ system and has been on the same scouting path with Kurvers for 22 years.
Kurvers, who had an emotional moment with the coaching staff just prior to the Wild’s game against Chicago, intentionally waited until gametime to come up to the press box so he wouldn’t see any of his friends. But during the first intermission, scouts, many of whom had started to get word, came up to him.
“I handled it pretty well the first few times, but I don’t know why, Chris Pryor is a hard guy with a big heart,” Kurvers said. “It was his two-year-old grandchild’s birthday party, but his wife told him, ‘You can’t be here. Go down there and see Tom.’ I broke down because he broke down. He’s been a good friend for a long time.
“You make good friends and then you move on in this business. You’re teammates, and then you’re traded. But they’re still your good friends. You just don’t spend as much time together anymore.”
This is one big reason three years ago Kurvers organized a weekly get-together at a local Caribou Coffee for many in the Minnesota hockey community, especially scouts.
Every Tuesday at 9 a.m., Kurvers and a handful of others meet to talk about life and hockey.
“He was a captain in college and he’s been the captain of all his friends for a long time,” Walsh said.
The stories are plentiful. Lots of laughs are shared. Sometimes it’s three or four people who show up, sometimes it’s nine or 10.
The constants are guys like Maciver, New Jersey Devils scout Jim Mill, Wild scout Brian Hunter and Lightning scout John Rosso. But every who’s-who in Minnesota hockey shows up at some point, from people like Paul Ranheim and Dave Maley, to agent and former Gophers player Ben Hankinson.
“It’s a corny, little thing that brings guys together, and everybody walks away sober,” Kurvers said, laughing. “We’re all part of this hockey thing, and it’s astounding how strong and swift and loving and caring everyone is. The amount of calls I’ve gotten, from guys like Wayne Gretzky and Chris Chelios to people that I barely know like Jamie Langenbrunner, it’s been flooring.”
Said Walsh, “He does things for people when no one is looking a lot, and I think he’s getting a lot of that back in spades. In typical Tom fashion, he’s turning around to all these people reaching out and telling them what they mean to him.”
Well, this past Tuesday was pretty emotional when Kurvers revealed at his weekly coffee jaunt with his friends what was going on.
“If Kurvs hadn’t broken it up, if he didn’t get up and finally say, ‘Alright boys, let’s go about our day now,’ I think we would still all be sitting there,” said Mill, a former member of the Wild’s front office. “I mean, this guy was at our house Christmas Eve out skating with his boys in the backyard. And now this? But he’s got a great attitude, and a good approach. And as he told us, that’s half the battle.”
In order to fight this battle, Kurvers will step back from some of his duties with the Wild.
He doubles as Iowa’s GM, and over the past few weeks, he has been slowly sweeping lots of tasks and responsibilities off his desk.
“Right now, I don’t get the sense going hard on the road like I have for 21 years is going to be a real part of the equation,” Kurvers said, sarcastically.
Since being blindsided, Kurvers’ new normal, officially, is nine days old. He has met with the Wild’s team psychologist to learn techniques to better balance the down times of handling his diagnosis.
“I’d rather talk about it than sit around alone and think about it. That’s hard,” Kurvers said. “Talking about it, I’m getting better at that. I’m going to invent something: I want to get rid of the tissue and invent a crying towel, like a Shammy, because tissues aren’t working.
“I was talking to (former NHLer) Ray Ferraro (Thursday). We played together. He has two older children, then remarried and has two younger children, so we’ve lived parallel lives, kind of. He said, ‘I can’t imagine taking this phone call.’ And I said, ‘I can’t imagine taking it about my wife or children.’ And he instantly understood.
“Nobody can be ready for this phone call. But at least it’s not … them.”
Friday, Kurvers received his first 30-day supply of Tagrisso.
In a text to The Athletic, Kurvers sent a picture of the bottle and wrote, “Treatment has begun.”
“Everybody has a story,” Kurvers said. “This is now part of my story. I hope it’s a happy ending. I plan on it being so.”
Tom Kurvers does have an incredible story. He has been in the crosshairs of so many big events, from being the unenviable guy traded to Toronto for the draft pick that wound up being Scott Niedermayer, to being unknowingly in the potential way of history when Mario Lemieux scored a goal all five ways possible (even-strength, power play, shorthanded, penalty shot and empty-net), to being one of the first — if not the first — NHLers to lose his job after the teardown of the Iron Curtain because of Slava Fetisov’s arrival in the NHL. He has so many stories to tell. This is the first in a series of features on Kurvers. Throughout his battle with lung cancer, The Athletic will be there to tell his story.