Wild prospect Pavel Novak on his battle to beat cancer and what comes next
Wild prospect Pavel Novak on his battle to beat cancer and what comes next
By Michael Russo
In hindsight, after the interrupted World Junior Championship last winter, Pavel Novak wonders if the fatigue he felt during the second half of his season with the Kelowna Rockets was a symptom of a larger problem.
“I was sweating a lot and always sleeping,” the Minnesota Wild prospect remembers.
Other than that, though, Novak had no idea something was seriously wrong inside his body.
Then, in the third week of May, two weeks after signing his entry-level contract with the Wild, the talented center was asked to take a blood test to clear him to work out again after having had COVID-19 during the WHL playoffs.
Novak took the routine blood test but was surprised two days later when his doctor called and asked him to return to his office for more tests because there were some alarming numbers in his bloodwork.
That call turned life upside down for a young man who turned 20 only a month earlier. There were CT scans, more blood tests and dozens of appointments after a mass was discovered between his lungs and his heart.
Still, nobody ever told him he might have had cancer, even though Novak wasn’t born yesterday and noticed that at every doctor’s office he went to the other patients clearly had cancer.
“You know something is wrong because the people next to you don’t have hair,” Novak says, speaking over the phone from his home in Veseli nad Luznici, Czechia. “So I was doing the same appointments as people with cancer, so you start to realize something is not going very well. I was afraid I would hear the same news.”
That call did eventually come a month after that initial blood test.
Ten days after Novak underwent a biopsy, he was driving home with his parents, Pavel Sr., and Pavlina, from Kladno, Czechia, where he was attending school at 1.KSPA.
“It was an unknown number, so I had a feeling it was the doctor and was pretty nervous,” Novak says. “It was, and he told me I had cancer.”
Novak was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an aggressive but very treatable cancer that affects the lymphatic system and can spread quickly through the body.
“The same cancer Mario Lemieux had,” Novak says. “The doctor was pretty happy because he told me this is one of the best cancers to have and it could be a lot worse cancers, and that there was more than a 90 percent chance that everything’s going to be OK.
“He basically said it’s not really a big problem, but it is a big problem. My parents were upset but strong. I was actually pretty happy, not that I had cancer, but that I finally had an answer as to finally what was wrong with me and what’s going to happen. It was a long four weeks. Lots of appointments and not knowing what was going on.”
The doctor told Novak he had two options: To begin treatment in Budejovice, 20 minutes from his hometown, or at a hospital that specializes in cancer and especially Hodgkin’s lymphoma two hours away in Prague.
“I, of course, chose Prague,” Novak says.
During the ordeal, Novak called Matt Hendricks, the Wild’s assistant director of player development, and told him he was having health issues, needed to have more tests and wasn’t sure if he’d be able to attend development camp in July.
“But I couldn’t tell him what was going on because I didn’t know,” Novak says.
After Novak was diagnosed with cancer, he asked his Czechia-based agent, Ales Volek, who works with his North American-based agents, J.P. Barry and Pat Brisson with CAA, to call the Wild and inform them.
“It was just too sensitive for me and hard to talk about at the start,” Novak says. “So I asked Ales to call them.”
He says the Wild couldn’t have been more supportive. First, the team gave him a third option: To fly to Minnesota on their dime so he could be treated at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and “they’d take care of me.”
Novak decided against that option because it would be hard for his support system — his parents, 16-year-old sister Ema and girlfriend Kristina — to accompany him.
“It would have been tough for me. I needed my parents,” Novak says. “But the Wild called me right away. I had a call with Matt Hendricks, (director of player development) Brad (Bombardir) and (general manager) Bill Guerin, and they told me, ‘It’s OK. Don’t worry about hockey. We’ll wait for you and you’ll play for us one day.’ It was amazing for me to hear. It was a big relief.”
On June 24, Novak announced publicly that his career would need to be put on hold because of the diagnosis.
“It was tough for me to share the news,” he says.
Days later, Novak began four cycles of chemotherapy, with each cycle being three weeks. The first week was Monday through Wednesday lasting two to four hours.
“You’re not feeling very good after that,” Novak says. “Your stomach is really upset. You feel like you are going to throw up all the time, but you do not throw up. So, really weird. It almost feels like after a hard workout or hard practice or hard bike ride, where you feel like you’re going to throw up.
“But this was a lot worse than that.”
Still, throughout his treatment, Novak felt in his heart of hearts that he was getting better. He posted social media updates on Instagram and that was uplifting because so many well-wishers, especially Wild fans in Minnesota, direct messaged him with words of encouragement.
“I had so much support,” Novak says.
From teammates, too. The World Junior Championship where this all started, which was put on pause because of the pandemic, was eventually scheduled for August, and Czech players like Michal Gut showed their support for Novak by playing with a special stick with purple coloring on it.
“My parents were really strong,” says Novak of his dad, who owns a drywall company, and his mom, who manages a grocery store. “But it had to be very tough for them, especially when your 20-year-old is told he has cancer. You never expect that. But it’s part of life. They looked to me very strong, but I’m sure when I wasn’t home they were talking about it a lot.”
Last month, Novak dropped the puck for the ceremonial opening faceoff before the home opener for his old Czech team, HC Motor Ceske Budejovice.
He looked great and felt great as behind the scenes his latest CT scan no longer showed the mass on his chest. But he was awaiting results from a number of blood tests.
Earlier this month, Novak got those results.
“My doctor and the nurses were smiling wide, so it was the first time I realized they’re about to tell me good news,” Novak says. “My doctor looked at me and said, ‘You’re cancer-free. Everything is all right.’ I was so happy. Everything was finally different. I will remember that day probably for the rest of my life.”
But, Novak adds, “I expected it. During treatment, I felt the whole time, ‘I’m getting better. I’m getting better.’ For my parents, they were crying. It was a really nice moment for them.”
On Oct. 5, after informing the Wild, Novak announced to the world he was cancer-free. On Instagram, he posted a smiling picture of himself shaving the top of his head.
“Everybody keeps telling me I look good with my head shaved, and every time I posted a picture of myself without hair this summer, people messaged me, saying, ‘You will win this fight,’” Novak says, laughing. “I kind of thought maybe I would stay with my hair cut, but now that my hair is growing back, I may go back to my old one.”
One of the happiest people to receive the news was Wild director of amateur scouting Judd Brackett, who drafted Novak after a 25-goal, 58-point rookie year with Kelowna. Novak’s a shoot-first finisher who has an excellent wrist shot, reads the game well and often catches goalies by surprise.
But it’s his leadership and strength that attracted him to Brackett.
“He’s incredible,” Brackett says. “There was never a doubt he would win this fight. That’s the person we banked on in Round 5. He’s got ability, but his makeup is special.”
Novak scored 29 goals and 72 points in 62 games for Kelowna last season and cannot wait to get things started with the Iowa Wild.
If he can find a way to Des Moines this season, that would be a bonus. But he would need a green light from his doctors first. His body has fought hard, and he needs to take things slowly.
“I’ve started working out again and am skating, but slowly, taking it step by step,” Novak says. “The goal is to be ready and part of the team for next year.”
Novak is proud that he beat cancer and showed such strength throughout a scary, scary time.
“Hockey, for me, is very important, but when I knew I had cancer, it was second for me,” he says. “My only goal was to be healthy again. My only thought was, ‘I have to win this fight.’ I said to myself, ‘Worry about what happens next at a later time,’ because it doesn’t really matter if I don’t beat cancer.
“Well, I beat cancer.”
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