Ex-RMU player overcomes cancer, fulfills aspiration of playing pro hockey

Former Robert Morris captain Chris Kushneriuk is continuing his professional career with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL.
Former Robert Morris captain Chris Kushneriuk is continuing his professional career with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL.
Bob Cohn
| Tuesday, March 25, 2014, 10:57 p.m.

Chris Kushneriuk moved to Las Vegas recently, but he sticks mainly to the rink, the gym and his apartment. He gets around on a mountain bike. Sin City? It might as well be Stockton, Bakersfield or any other humdrum outpost in the geographically incorrect East Coast Hockey League.

“Ever since I got sick, I've been so focused on hockey and getting better every day and getting to the next level,” he said. “Friends ask me if I'm gonna do this and this and this in Vegas. I'm here, but I'm 100 percent playing for the Wranglers, and climbing the ladder.”

Kushneriuk, 27, has survived a rare form of testicular cancer. The former Robert Morris star joined the Las Vegas Wranglers in early March, nearly a year to the day after a surgeon in Indianapolis removed his gall bladder, a kidney, some of his lymph nodes and 35 percent of his liver.

He also withstood stem cell treatments and a blast of chemotherapy boosted to seven times stronger than normal. It was, he said, “as close to hell as I can ever get to on Earth.”

He said his doctor told him he would have died within six months if not for all of that.

“It's pretty remarkable,” said Kushneriuk, a right wing. “I feel better now than when I was playing before. Doctors were baffled that I was able to play.

“The thought (of returning) was just a hope and a dream, but it kind of stayed in the back of my mind and drove me to where I am now.”

Where he is, despite the bright lights, is a minor league hockey town. Recently, the Wranglers took the ice in Spiderman uniforms. The team is scheduled to move into a new arena built atop a casino. A game against San Francisco was canceled last week because that team folded.

Yet all that matters to Kushneriuk is the ice beneath his skates and an opponent to outmaneuver or outhustle. When he scored his first goal, “right away, I had like a flashback to when I was lying in bed in Indianapolis praying I'd get back that feeling,” he said. “It was a level of excitement I hadn't been able to experience for so long. This opportunity means more to me than anyone would imagine.”

The Ottawa, Ontario, native began his college career playing for coach Bill Wilkinson at Wayne State in Michigan, which dropped hockey after his freshman season. Wilkinson, who previously coached RMU coach Derek Schooley at Western Michigan, raved about Kushneriuk.

“He said, ‘You've got to take this kid. He's a warrior. He's a lot better than anybody gives him credit for,' ” Schooley recalled. “He said, ‘He will be your captain.' ”

Kushneriuk made assistant captain during his sophomore season at RMU and captain as a senior during the 2010-11 season. Tough, energetic and physical, “he played so hard that he created opportunities and got everything accomplished through effort and work,” Schooley said.

While playing for Bakersfield during the 2011-12 season and into summer workouts, Kushneriuk felt achy and fatigued, and his side hurt. Tests in June 2012 revealed Stage 4 cancer. A testicle was removed, but the cancer had spread throughout his abdomen.

Dissatisfied with what he was hearing from his Canadian doctors, Kushneriuk said he combed the Internet for an alternative before calling Dr. Lawrence Einhorn at Indiana University in Indianapolis. Einhorn treated cyclist Lance Armstrong and is regarded as the world's foremost authority on curing testicular cancer.

The aggressive treatment cost about $340,000, Kushneriuk said. His family paid $140,000, and fundraisers at RMU and elsewhere accounted for the rest. The Colonials dedicated their 2012-13 season to Kushneriuk and renamed their Most Inspirational Player award in his honor.

Recovery was grueling, a physical and mental struggle, he said. There were doubts and fears. His weight dropped 40 pounds to 150. In October, Kushneriuk, who is halfway toward his MBA, began working out with the hockey team and in the gym with strength coach Jeremy Hoy.

“I put him through a lot,” Hoy said. “It was extremely intense. And even if it wasn't, he's one of those guys who could make it intense. (His recovery) is a testament to his faith and who he is and his passion and how driven he is. It's totally Chris.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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