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Hockey Fights Cancer: Oliver Felixson

(Espoo, FIN) -- Felixson's story is one of twists, turns and triumph.

via QMJHL, article by Will MacLaren.

At 6 feet and 6 inches tall, reports from hockey scouts on Oliver Felixson in years gone by contained many of the words you would expect from a player of such stature; rangy, rugged, sturdy.

But since the Spring of 2017, when he was last patrolling the blue line for the Saint John Sea Dogs, a number of other tags have been added to the list. Ones he never expected to hear, but all have been honestly earned; courageous, resilient, inspirational.

And, most importantly, survivor.

When Felixson, a Finnish blueliner who joined the Sea Dogs for a two-year stint beginning in 2015, came back to his junior club after spending Christmas of 2016 at home, something felt off. Not alarming, just off.

“On my way back to Saint John, there were a lot of flight delays,” he recalls. “I was super tired for a couple weeks after I got back, but I figured it was from travelling.”

Then came night sweats and, within a few more weeks, swollen lymph nodes. Felixson alerted the coaching staff of Danny Flynn, Paul Boutilier and Jeff Cowan. That prompted an immediate call for blood tests.

“I still didn’t think anything was really wrong,” he says. “Within 48 hours, I had the diagnosis.”

That diagnosis was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer that affects the body’s germ-fighting lymphatic system. It’s also no stranger within the world of hockey, coming most famously to the forefront when Mario Lemieux was diagnosed and, subsequently, beat the disease during the 1992-93 NHL season.

Felixson tells his story – which is anything but straightforward – in an easy, factual manner. Speaking from his home in Espoo, Finland, where he’s a few months shy of graduating from college, he even chuckles lightly when discussing some of the life-defining moments he’s had to experience over the past six years.

But when he thinks about the moments immediately following his diagnosis, he still speaks in tones of disbelief.

“I was listening to the doctor, but I had no idea what to say,” says the now 25-year-old Felixson. “I was in shock. But the hardest part was knowing I had to tell my parents.”

Chemotherapy happened in rapid fashion; the first treatment occurring at Saint John Regional Hospital where his billet mother, Mary, worked as a nurse. The remaining treatments from that round occurred in Finland.

Meanwhile, his teammates were on the verge of embarking on a playoff run that would end with the organization’s third President Cup. When they posed with the championship trophy, Felixson’s sweater was in full view. The feeling of togetherness depicted in that photo was not lost on him.

“[The Sea Dogs] helped me out so much,” Felixson recounts. “I didn’t have to think about anything. They gave me privacy but I also had great support. The hospital also handled everything so well.”

The Sea Dogs were, by that time, no strangers to cancer. Long-time trainer David “DK” Kelly was well into his own fight against the disease. Kelly, who passed away in 2019, was a rock for Felixson in those early post-diagnosis days.

“I can’t describe [how much DK helped],” the defenseman admits. “We all saw what he was going through at that time. Something like that happens but at the same time, you have someone you can talk to. I asked him what would happen next as I was starting treatments and he knew. He could guide me.”

Once back at home, Felixson soon found himself in the eye of an emotional hurricane that was about to take a number of turns.

“There were a lot of ups and downs,” Felixson explains. “We found out the first round of chemo didn’t work. That was really tough. I then went for six rounds of a stronger chemo. Finally, I had to switch to the strongest dose. By the Fall of 2017, I was in remission for the first time but it was tough, both physically and mentally. It was rough on everybody.”

It turned out to be another step on what truly became an odyssey. In the spring of 2018, the lymphoma returned. Chemo was no longer an option and so a trial drug was prescribed. Still unsure of what it was, Felixson was concerned with two things; it avoided the same draining side effects of chemotherapy, and it was working.

By the fall of 2018, he was able to get back on the ice, this time with Jokerit in the Finnish Under-20 ranks.

“After being at rock bottom, this was really important to me,” Felixson stresses.

Unbelievably, the disease returned in late 2018. This time, it was 19 rounds of radiation and, finally, a stem cell transplant in the spring of 2019. Felixson’s brother was the donor. Six weeks in hospital, one year of rehabilitation and a three additional years later and Felixson remains cancer-free. He also remains positive.

“Mentally, I’m still all right,” he proclaims. “I was talking to a bunch of my friends a couple years ago about everything that had happened and they reminded me, when I was growing up and playing hockey in Finland, I was told I couldn’t skate. But I always found a way to make the team. I always had that mentality!”

Felixson would find a way to make the team on a couple more occasions. In 2020, he was given a tryout with IPK, who play in Mestis, the second highest ranking professional circuit in Finland. Though never known for his offensive ability – he scored four goals in 126 games with the Sea Dogs – what happened next would be a fitting closing scene should someone ever decide to put the big man’s life on the big screen.

“I made the opening night lineup as a walk-on,” he says with a grin in his voice. “I scored our opening goal of the season. That was one of the most satisfying feelings of my life!”

After spending the 2021-22 campaign in Mestis with Kiekko-Vantaa, Felixson replaced blades for books. His time with the game has dwindled to the occasional pond hockey get together, though he admits, with a laugh, he may “join his buddies in beer league” after graduating.

Felixson stayed in contact with a few of his hockey ties to North America, in particular his former teammates Luke and Matthew Green, as well as fellow countryman and former Halifax Mooseheads forward, Otto Somppi. And he still follows the Sea Dogs.

He also tries to reach out to people who are going through what he once battled, particularly in the hockey world and in his home nation. Remembering calls and letters from the likes of fellow cancer survivors and former players such as Saku Koivu and Lemieux, he understands the impact of paying it forward.

“My story has a lot of ups and downs,” Felixson reiterates. “But I managed to keep a positive attitude throughout. It’s not always easy, but it’s the best advice I can give.”

Much like the style of game he was known for, his advice is both simple and effective.

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