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Skating by Cancer Toward Goal

By Pete Iorizzo

Albany Times Union, August 29, 2006

TROY - He curled the tape around his red and white hockey socks, both worn and tattered, as if Kirk MacDonald never went a season without wearing them. He laced his skates, tied a string on his pants and wiggled his arms through his pads, stealing an eye at the clock before pulling the white jersey over his head.

"4:25, right?" MacDonald said to teammate Paul Kerins, sitting at an adjacent locker.

"4:25," Kerins said.

One year ago Monday, MacDonald lay in surgery, undergoing his third operation in four months. This one removed a bowel obstruction, one more complication from the testicular cancer with which he had been diagnosed in April 2005. In the months that followed, MacDonald lost 50 pounds before building himself back into the hockey player that led RPI in scoring during the 2004-05 season.

At 4:25 p.m., his mission crept one stride closer to accomplishment.

MacDonald took the ice at Houston Field House with three teammates and two coaches, then participated in an RPI team workout for the first time since his cancer diagnosis. During the 20-minute session, which several teammates pressed their faces against the glass to watch, MacDonald skated, shot and passed - all the things he loves to do, and all the things that cancer threatened to take away.

"I'm thrilled to be back," MacDonald said.

Though MacDonald, a fifth-year senior forward from British Columbia, worked out all summer and two weeks ago participated in a developmental clinic run by the San Jose Sharks, this marked his first time playing with teammates since April 2005.

MacDonald said he is cancer-free. He takes no medications and needs only occasional checkups. He weighs 195 pounds, 10 pounds lighter than his previous playing weight.

"I feel a lot quicker out there," MacDonald said. "I was always pretty fast once I got going, but now I feel like I've got a better first step."

MacDonald participated in several drills during the workout, which included teammates Kerins, Tyler Eaves and Jake Morissette. Coaches Jim Montgomery and Shawn Kurulak ran the small-group session, which is allowed under NCAA rules because classes at RPI started Monday.

"It's just exciting to have Kirk back on the ice," Kurulak said. "It's a special story."

Indeed, MacDonald's story spurred sentiment throughout last season. When MacDonald went bald from chemotherapy, teammates shaved their heads. They greeted him at Albany International Airport when he flew into town. And coach Dan Fridgen, whose contract was not renewed after the season, paid visits.

When MacDonald returned to RPI this past week, new head coach Seth Appert made a brief introduction in the locker room, saying, in essence, "Welcome back." MacDonald said simply, "It's good to be back."

"It wasn't much," said Kerins, a freshman. "But it was something about the way he said it, the way he kind of sat there afterward."

"I wasn't here to see what he went through. But I can see the scars on his stomach. He's a warrior. I don't know if I could go through what he went through."

Without MacDonald, who in 2004-05 scored a team-high 16 goals and added 20 assists, RPI finished a disappointing 14-17-6. Quinnipiac swept RPI from the ECAC Tournament in two games, both at home.

RPI's 2006-07 season begins Oct. 7 against York, a day on which MacDonald anticipates a whirlwind of emotions. He felt some of those Monday when he left the ice and removed his helmet, sending sweat pouring down his face.

"Here is just another step," MacDonald said. "I'm not really looking at this as a monumental step. But I'm not going to lie. I am looking forward to that first game."