“I’m a hockey player” was how Alex Shapiro would most likely describe himself. He was a beloved member of the Toronto Eagles’ Minor Peewee AA team when he passed away from cancer on April 12, 2013. Alex was relentless, fearless and beyond compare in his devotion to the game. He was 11 years old.
In the summer of 2012, Alex was diagnosed with Undifferentiated Sarcoma, a rare form of childhood cancer. He immediately underwent treatment, including a major surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. For the next few months, Alex was in and out of the hospital for his weekly treatments, and all the while, he would continue playing hockey as much as he could. His story attracted national attention when, on a day he was supposed to receive chemotherapy, but couldn’t because a hospital bed wasn’t available, he went home, got his gear, joined his teammates and scored his first goal of the year. He became The Fighting Eagle. TSN created a moving and inspiring video feature about Alex and his fighting spirit.
Alex played in his team’s last game of the season. Nobody knew that during the last month of that season, the cancer in Alex’s body was multiplying rapidly. Unaware of this, Alex used his focus, determination, and passion for the game and his team, to put his cancer on the back burner. The day after the team was eliminated in the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) West Conference finals, Alex told his parents that he wasn’t feeling well. They took him to the hospital and discovered that the cancer had returned with a vengeance. He died 2 weeks later. It’s hard to imagine that he was able to play through so much pain and discomfort.
Alex’s coach, Mike McCutcheon, spoke at Alex’s funeral about some of the qualities that made Alex so special:
- Determination: Alex had that intangible quality – passion. He was tenacious; he played with grit; he was tough as nails; and he didn’t know the meaning of the word quit.
- Respect: Alex had a great deal of respect for his coaches, teammates, opponents, and for the game itself. He played the game harder than most but always fairly. He got the odd penalty because he wanted the puck so badly that he would sometimes try to go through other players to get it, but he was not dirty. And for all of the cross checks and slashes and punches he received standing in the other team’s crease, he never retaliated.
- Team Play: Alex meant a great deal to his Eagles team. He was quiet in the dressing room, but he was a strong leader. He was the best kind of leader – he led by example. He exemplified the motto “don’t explain, don’t complain” He just got out there and got the job done.
Alex’s last season was the first year that his team had assigned captains and alternates for the whole season. When Alex was asked to be an alternate, he was apprehensive about accepting, fearing that he wouldn’t be able to uphold the responsibilities that came with the job. He didn’t look at the “A” as an affirmation of his skills or a pat on the back. Instead, he really felt the weight of the obligation of a leader to his team. Somehow he understood this intuitively.
While Alex’s spot on the team’s bench can never really be filled, the Fighting Eagle Tournament is a way to remember Alex and his love of hockey and his friends, as well as raising funds to support SickKids.
The funds raised will go to support SickKids Foundation, Dr. Gerstle’s research and the new SickKids campus.