Shea Theodore will never forget the moment. It was almost a year ago, on Nov. 21, 2019, when his grandma Kay Darlington dropped the ceremonial puck before the Vegas Golden Knights played the San Jose Sharks at T-Mobile Arena.
It was Hockey Fights Cancer Night in Las Vegas.
The Golden Knights defenseman had recovered from surgery for stage 1 testicular cancer, discovered thanks to a series of events that started with a stunning loss to the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Grandma Kay had stage 4 breast cancer.
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Theodore skated to center ice, where Grandma Kay stood under a spotlight in a lavender and black Hockey Fights Cancer version of his No. 27 Golden Knights jersey, holding a cane. She dropped the puck, smiled for the cameras, shook hands with Sharks captain Logan Couture and gave Theodore a hug.
“To be able to be on the ice and have her drop the puck and look at all the people there in support and showing the lights on their phones, I mean, that’s definitely one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me,” Theodore said.
Darlington died June 15 at age 78.
In her honor, Theodore created a fund with the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, in partnership with Susan G. Komen Nevada. Called Kay’s Power Play, it raises awareness and provides proactive measures to fight breast cancer, particularly for the uninsured, underinsured and patients younger than 40 whose mammograms aren’t covered by insurance.
Theodore presented a check for $50,000 to Susan G. Komen Nevada on Friday.
“I think it’s very important, and it’s going to help a lot of people,” Theodore said.
For Hockey Fights Cancer, a joint initiative of the NHL and NHL Players’ Association that includes Hockey Fights Cancer Month each November, Theodore is sharing his story to send a message: Get checked.
Grandma Kay had a mastectomy that bought her several good years of life. Early detection saved Theodore from larger problems, and he came back from surgery to have the best season of his NHL career: 46 points (13 goals, 33 assists) in 71 regular-season games and 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 20 postseason games.
“I want people to get tested,” Theodore said. “I was very fortunate to find out early enough where I could have surgery and have it removed, and if that urges a couple people to call their doctor and book tests that they normally wouldn’t or even self-check, I think that’s the most important thing. If this can help save lives, then that’s all I’m trying to do.”
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Theodore didn’t know it at the time, but he was lucky the Golden Knights lost to the Sharks 5-4 in overtime in Game 7 of the Western Conference First Round in 2019 after blowing a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series and a 3-0 third-period lead in Game 7.
He expected to contend for the Stanley Cup. Instead, facing the prospect of a long offseason, he accepted an invitation from Canada to compete at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.
Canada lost to Finland 3-1 in the championship game in Bratislava on May 26. As Theodore was walking to the locker room, an official told him he needed to be tested for banned substances. He thought it was strange. He had already taken a routine random test earlier in the tournament.
Turns out, that test had caught something.
“I was in shock,” Theodore said. “Immediately, I was like, ‘Hey, can we get our team doctor in here?’ There’s four guys in suits kind of explaining a whole bunch of stuff in kind of broken English.”
Theodore had tested positive for HCG, a hormone that is usually found in women during pregnancy but sometimes can be a sign of testicular cancer.
No one knew for sure what it meant.
For two weeks, Theodore toured Europe as he had planned to do before the tournament, the test result in the back of his mind. After returning to Las Vegas, he underwent tests and scans. Eventually, he ended up in a doctor’s office.
“As soon as I sit down, he starts flipping through his calendar,” Theodore said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, I think next Saturday will work out just fine.’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa, slow it down here a little bit. Like, what’s going on?’ He goes, ‘Well, you do have cancer, and we’re going to have to have surgery to remove it.’ There’s so many things that went through my mind.”
Theodore had a mass in his testicle, 5 millimeters by 5 millimeters. He said doctors ended up finding three types of cancer, one of which was aggressive.
“I was told that it could have been pretty ugly if it was undetected for a number of years,” Theodore said.
But because it was detected and removed, it didn’t have a chance to spread. Theodore didn’t need chemotherapy. He was back on the ice by training camp in September.
What if the Golden Knights hadn’t lost to the Sharks in the playoffs? What if Theodore hadn’t played for Canada at the World Championship?
“If it wasn’t for that test, I’m not exactly sure where my life would have ended up, whether something would have come up now or a couple years down the road,” he said. “I think it was very fortunate.”
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Theodore said he had no issue telling his teammates. The hardest part was going public with his story via a first-person account in The Players’ Tribune on Sept. 12, knowing that even if you have cancer removed, it can come back.
But he found his message resonated with people. He received hundreds of messages. Some people said they got checked. Many said they had gone through the same thing or knew someone who did, a friend, a father, a cousin.
“I think it allowed me to really look at kind of what mattered in life, really enjoy the small things,” Theodore said. “I’m very fortunate to play in the NHL, to live that day to day, to be able to travel and kind of go all over the country doing what I love to do, and I think you can really just take a step back and really appreciate every single day.”
Theodore has mentioned the butterfly effect, the idea that a small thing, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, can start a chain reaction and have a profound effect in ways no one can predict.
The loss to San Jose led to Theodore getting tested, catching his cancer and overcoming it, but the butterfly effect continues to be felt through Kay’s Power Play and even this story right here.
He can’t say it enough.
“My whole message that I’m trying to get across is to go get tested, do your self-checks,” Theodore said. “You never know when it could come up or who it can affect.”