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A Mysterious Illness Derailed His N.H.L. Career. Now He’s Making a Comeback.

SportA Mysterious Illness Derailed His N.H.L. Career. Now He’s Making a Comeback.

The game was already won when the puck slid to Cody Hodgson for the tap-in.

The Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League, the Nashville Predators’ top minor league affiliate, had a comfortable 3-0 lead over the Chicago Wolves. On a historic win streak — they were en route to their 18th consecutive victory — the Admirals juggled their lines.

Off of a rush chance in the final minute, Predators prospect Juuso Pärssinen pulled off a slick toe-drag deke and waited patiently for a lane to open up. Then he feathered a perfect pass to Hodgson for the goal.

As the Wolves goaltender broke his stick against the post, Hodgson’s Admirals teammates mobbed him. Captain Kevin Gravel went to the net front to retrieve the puck. Netminder Yaroslav Askarov skated nearly the length of the ice to celebrate with his teammates.

And as the seemingly over-the-top celebration for a 4-0 goal unfolded, Hodgson didn’t think about the 2,920 days that had elapsed since he last scored a goal in a professional hockey game.

Hodgson didn’t think about the mysterious illness that caused him to walk away from the game. Or the tests for lung cancer, brain cancer and liver cancer that he’d endured in a fruitless quest to figure out what was making him sick.

He wasn’t thinking about the months of on-ice work and yoga and a grueling weight-loss regimen that led him to this point.

He wasn’t even feeling the blunt soreness of the broken rib he had sustained in his first professional game after his long layoff.

All he was thinking about was the gimme pass he’d just received.

“If I hadn’t scored on that one,” Hodgson joked, “I might’ve had to shut it down.”

Back in the locker room, Gravel gave the puck to Admirals equipment trainers and an informal debate broke out about what to write on the tape that’s commonly used to wrap milestone pucks in hockey.

“That was the joke in the room when we gave him the puck. ‘What do we call this?’ I suggested ‘Second First Pro Goal,’ but we were laughing about it after the game,” Gravel said.

“First goal in a very, very long time,” was another suggestion, but it was too many words.

So Hodgson posed with an unwrapped game puck.

If the milestone was undefined, it was still significant.

As a younger man, Hodgson had been one of the NHL’s brightest young stars. He was a top-10 draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks and set scoring records on a line with Toronto Maple Leafs superstar John Tavares at the World Junior Hockey Championship. For a time, he was one of the highest-rated prospects in the sport.

His professional career, however, was set back by injuries early, including a bulging disc in his back that he sustained during the season he turned 20. He was eventually productive in Vancouver, but struggled to cement himself in the lineup. At the 2013 NHL trade deadline, Hodgson was dealt to the Buffalo Sabres in a surprising trade. In Buffalo, Hodgson quickly became one of Buffalo’s most productive forwards, leading the club in scoring in the 2013-14 campaign, after which he signed a six-year, $25 million contract.

Cody Hodgson, pictured in his rookie season with teammates Henrik and Daniel Sedin at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in January 2012. (Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)

Suddenly, however, Hodgson’s career derailed. Following up on the 20-goal, 44-point season that secured Hodgson that big extension, he managed just 13 points the next year. He was becoming conscious of repetitive muscle strain and shortness of breath. He was fighting for his career, and battling through an illness that appeared to be worsening.

Bought out by the Sabres, Hodgson caught on with the Predators. And his symptoms worsened.

“It’s a scary feeling waking up in the middle of the night and your lungs aren’t working and you can’t breathe in,” Hodgson said. “Your body is shaking, you get super hot, you can’t stand up without passing out. I was on about five different medications for blood pressure, and muscle relaxants, everything you can name.

“I knew there was no way I could possibly play.”

In addition to the extreme susceptibility to temperature and struggles breathing, Hodgson was dealing with repeated muscle strains.

“I couldn’t shoot, my mechanics weren’t the same, my skating was stiff,” he said. “I couldn’t turn, I’d torn all these muscles in my neck, and below my shoulders, and throughout my whole body, and for no reason. The muscles were just tearing.”

“He was skating with me in the summer, but he would be really sick,” said Brad Wheeler, Hodgson’s longtime trainer and coach. “He’d say stuff like, ‘I can’t hold a hockey stick,’ or ‘I can’t skate,’ or ‘I feel like I’m going to die.’”

By December of his sixth professional season, Hodgson was out of the NHL. By January he was out of professional hockey entirely.

Hodgson, with the Predators’ support at the time, furiously searched for the cause of his muscle issues, shortness of breath and liver problems. In the process, he was tested for brain cancer, lung cancer and liver cancer.

Eventually, Hodgson decided to get tested for malignant hyperthermia, a genetic disorder that various members of Hodgson’s family had contended with in the past — although not to this extent.

For most patients, malignant hyperthermia presents as an adverse reaction to general anesthetia. About 50 percent of those afflicted, however, including Hodgson, are also susceptible to exertion-induced reactions.

These reactions can be extreme, as they were in Hodgson’s case. The symptoms that presented sabotaged his ability to play professional hockey. At the time he was dealing with rhabdomyolysis, a type of muscle breakdown in which damaged tissue releases proteins and electrolytes into the blood that attack various organs.

“There was always an understanding among our family that if I had a car accident or got hurt on the ice, and couldn’t speak for myself, that I’d already let people around me know that I couldn’t use general anesthesia,” Hodgson said. “Trainers all knew, my teams all knew, my circle knew I had this thing that would matter if I had to go in for surgery, but we never put it all together.”

Once the source of Hodgson’s illness was identified, it was clear that he would have to retire.

It was a tough blow, but also a relief, given that many doctors who initially treated him suspected the source of his ailments might be terminal.

“Knowing I couldn’t play hockey sucked, but in the grand scheme of things, I knew that people deal with way worse,” Hodgson said.

For eight years, Hodgson was mostly away from the game. He was able to live a normal life, closely monitoring his exercise levels while working with the Predators organization in their Learn to Play program and building a career in real estate. He got involved in the RYR-1 Foundation to try and use his story to educate folks about his disease.

Publicly, Hodgson would occasionally give interviews and describe himself as lucky and at peace.

Cody Hodgson, seen here at a game at Bridgestone Arena in October 2015, last played in the NHL on Jan. 12, 2016. (John Russell / NHLI via Getty Images)

For those who knew him best, however, the way it had all ended was still a source of real pain. That desire to compete, to still play hockey, wasn’t extinguished.

“When he got the test and they found out what it was, that killed him,” said Wheeler. “That’s all he ever wanted to do: play hockey.

“He’s been sad for eight years. … He’d go to the park on a Saturday night and just shoot pucks at the local rink, just pushing the local guys. He’s just so passionate about it”

Occasionally, Hodgson would play. With some close monitoring of his creatine kinase (CK) levels, he was able to work out and attend an on-ice session once a week, often with Wheeler and his NHL clients — a group that, in the summer, includes NHL-level players such as Dylan and Ryan Strome and Mark Giordano.

Hodgson would push it on occasion. In at least one of those instances, his symptoms returned so harshly that he was hospitalized.

Then last summer, something flipped.

In May, Hodgson moved back to Ontario. His brother had just had a child and his sister was pregnant.

Going home to Canada, however, brought him close to the game he loved.

“It sounds kind of crazy, but everything kind of switched this summer,” Hodgson said. “My body started being able to respond to physical activity. I was going out with buddies and playing some hockey and I noticed that I could keep pushing it. Normally, when I skate, even in the summers just for fun, my body would have some of the symptoms I’d have when I was playing.

“Suddenly I realized I could respond a lot better. I didn’t need to shut it down right away, the same way I used to.”

Hodgson consulted with his doctors, including the University of Toronto’s Dr. Sheila Riazi, a leading academic anesthesiologist who has focused her research efforts on understanding malignant hyperthermia.

In consultation with his physician, Hodgson got the green light to monitor his symptoms and health while ramping up his exercise levels.

Through caution and some trial and error, an appropriate method of managing his illness was found, although he’s still under the close observation of his physician and gets his CK levels tested weekly.

“I got a little excited,” Hodgson said. “I’m always cautious, but I always told myself that if I had the ability to play I’d at least try.”

Hodgson started skating more regularly, first one session a week. Then two or three. And then three or four.

He put the call out to old teammates and pro-level players asking for an invite to their summer scrimmages. He’d join alumni games hosted by former NHL superstars like Eric Lindros, just looking for reps.

By early August, Hodgson was beginning to think about a comeback. And that’s when he enlisted the help of Wheeler.

“What is it going to take, Wheels?” he asked.

Wheeler told him, “You can do it if you want to.”

Hodgson called Wheeler “a driving force” in his training.

The first thing he insisted Hodgson do? Drop 40 pounds.

“In this business everything is first impressions,” Wheeler said.

Hodgson traveled to Florida for a noninvasive procedure called a disc seal to strengthen his back, an injury that had troubled him on occasion in his playing career. And then he went about shedding 40 pounds in two months, going from about 235 to under 200.

“Once I had a goal, a bigger purpose, it seemed to melt off,” Hodgson said. “I changed a lot of my eating habits, sleep patterns to give me more energy.”

Despite his sensitivity to severe temperature changes, Hodgson found a way to integrate cold tub recovery into his regimen. He got deeply into yoga, Wim Hof breathing exercises and various stretches to target his muscles. And in the early fall, he headed back to Ontario to work with Wheeler.

“Before, the harder I worked, the more my body broke down,” Hodgson said. “Now it’s completely flipped. Now the more I work the better I get, the more confident I get.”

Despite some early trepidation from his family, they “got on the bandwagon.” And Wheeler, familiar with the work rate of NHL players given his star-studded roster of clients, put Hodgson through the ringer.

“If he isn’t sick and hurting after those skates, he’ll never be sick and hurting,” Wheeler said. “I pushed him so hard that anybody else might quit hockey. And his body didn’t hurt. He didn’t feel bad. His muscles were good.”

By December, Hodgson was ready to get into game situations. The feeling was that there wasn’t much he could do to improve any further by simply training. He had to find a team.

Hodgson asked former NHL head coach Terry Crisp how to structure a professional tryout, how to manage his expectations, how to target getting back in the game.

He offered to pay his own way to practice with a minor league team in an effort to earn a professional tryout. His contacts put the word out, and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported about Hodgson’s attempted comeback on “Hockey Night in Canada.”

Hodgson was overwhelmed by the response. He began hearing from old friends, former general managers and experienced hockey people offering advice. And eventually the call came in from a Predators organization that Hodgson knew well, offering him a spot on a tryout deal with the Admirals.

“(Admirals general manager) Scott Nichol, when I called him, I think he was a little bit skeptical to get that call at midseason,” Hodgson said. “I told him that I’d been training for a while and I’d love to get a chance, even if it’s just to come practice with them, then if they thought I could help the team they could sign me to a PTO.

“For him to take a chance like that and then push to put me on this team, it’s something I want to reward their faith in for sure.”

Hodgson showed up, 33 years old, eight years removed from his most recent professional game, with off-the-shelf gear and 10-year-old skates, and earned a spot. The club signed him to a professional tryout and had him take warmups before he actually made his AHL re-debut.

With his brother and brother-in-law in attendance, Hodgson stepped onto a professional ice sheet. And in the very first period of his very first game back, Hodgson broke a rib and bruised a lung.

“He told me he feels like he’s 17,” said Hodgson’s longtime trainer, Brad Wheeler, of his return to professional hockey. (Courtesy Milwaukee Admirals)

“Yeah, I was hoping it would go a bit smoother,” Hodgson said with a laugh.

“I played the rest of that game,” Hodgson said. “I moved some equipment around and then I played the next one. By the third game, I was having trouble breathing. So at first I thought, I just got back and I probably triggered this thing, but my CK levels were low, we tested everything. It was fine. … It was just a broken rib.”

Hodgson was concerned he would get cut.

The Admirals, however, were impressed by his toughness. Hodgson was just the kind of veteran they wanted to complement their young players.

Once he was cleared to return, however, the Admirals were on a double digit win streak. When The Athletic caught up with Hodgson in Winnipeg in mid-February, he was a healthy scratch.

“Our team is playing great, everyone is performing, so I understand it,” he said. “But when I get my chance again, I’ll be ready.”

Hodgson’s chance arrived five days later, the game in the Chicago suburbs when he scored his first professional goal in eight years. Two days later, he was in the lineup again and scored again — this time off the rush, a goal that showed real speed and skill.

“I don’t know how he’s doing it,” said Gravel of his teammate’s form after so many years away. “But we’re lucky to have him and he’s helped us out a ton.”

The next day, in the second leg of a back-to-back, Hodgson dressed again and scored again, extending his goal-scoring streak to three games. The game after that, he scored twice.

“He told me he feels like he’s 17,” Wheeler said. “He feels better and faster than ever. And every game I watch, he’s getting better every shift.”

And he’s back to doing what he loves.

“It’s just nice to be back in the rhythm of things,” Hodgson said. “You feel good when you’re scoring, but I want to keep going. A four-game scoring streak is great, but I want to keep pushing the envelope.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photos: left, Jen Fuller / Getty; other photos, courtesy Milwaukee Admirals)


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