Following an aggressive form of bone cancer that put his hockey career in question, Ethan Smolinski returned to the ice for the first time in 15 months, and to life as a teenager.
At the age of 14, Smolinski has been through a serious physical and emotional battle, but the young athlete’s tenacity helped him overcome and get back to what he loves most.
“I wanted to get back to hockey as fast as I could,” Smolinski said. “(The doctor) said I might have been able to play hockey, but I would have to wait two years. But I’m playing hockey now.
“It was great to get back to hockey, skating with my friends and doing all the things (they) could do.”
Smolinski was diagnosed with his bone cancer July 7, 2016, after he noticed a bump on his head. The bump turned out to be a cancerous tumor in his skull. Three days later he underwent a four-hour operation to remove the tumor.
Following the procedure, it was determined the cancer was Ewing sarcoma, a rare and aggressive bone cancer, which had begun in his left leg and spread to his skull. Fortunately, the cancer hadn’t spread anywhere else within his body.
“At that moment, we didn’t know exactly what it was or what was going to happen,” said Smolinski’s mother, Julie. “It was a little surprising it went straight from his leg to his skull. It often stops in your lungs.”
Following surgery, Smolinski began chemotherapy treatment and went through another 16-hour procedure in November 2016 to replace the tibia in his left leg.
He said the procedure required surgeons to remove the healthy fibula from his right leg, place it within a donor tibia and then used the “new” tibia to replace his left, cancerous tibia.
The surgery was a success, but left the athlete bedridden for months.
Between surgeries, Smolinski was told he might not be able to return to hockey, a sport he had played since he was four. Smolinski said he was determined to return to the sport he loved and did everything he could to be ready.
Regaining his strength and getting accustomed to his restructured legs was a long process, but through hard work and dedication he built his strength up and returned to the ice with the Airdrie Bantam Dawgs Nov. 5.
“I was just excited to get back out there and play with my friends and be back out on the ice as a player,” Smolinski said. “They were very supportive, a bunch of my friends always visited.
“It helped me because at the end of the day, you just want to do nothing. It’s nice to have a friend over allowing you to be you again.”
Julie said she saw a strength in her son that was more than she thought he was capable of.
“We’re very fortunate that Ethan was so strong,” Julie said. “He surprised me even more. I was shocked at the amount of grit that he had and the depth of that strength.
“There were many times where I thought I didn’t know if I could be doing this with such grace that he did.”