Tim Benz: Ex-RMU coach's cancer battle furthers hockey bond between Pittsburgh, Vegas
If you drive by PPG Paints Arena, you can probably still hear the cheers echoing. Last week's return of former Penguins goalie Marc Andre Fleury drew thunderous applause and a lot of hype.
But there is a connection between Fleury's new team, the Vegas Golden Knights, and the Pittsburgh hockey community that has gotten significantly less attention.
Yet it is significantly more important.
Former Robert Morris men's hockey associate head coach Mark Workman left the program in 2016 to become an amateur scout for the NHL expansion club in Las Vegas. He was an assistant on coach Derek Schooley's staff for seven seasons.
“We had some of our best years with Mark here,” Schooley said Saturday. “Mark was a little bit of everything. He ran our penalty killing. He became our recruiting coordinator. Mark was a jack of all trades.”
Now, Workman's greatest challenge isn't diagramming a better penalty kill or recruiting the next great college prospect or scouting for Vegas' first future Hall of Fame draft choice.
It's a fight to stay alive against an advanced form of liver cancer.
Workman first showed some elevated liver enzymes in October. After a battery of tests to rule out ailments including Hepatitis A or C, distention in the stomach occurred a week before Christmas. MRI results were examined. It was determined not only did Workman have cancer in his liver, but the disease also spread to his lungs.
Workman is having trouble talking. His younger brother Eric spoke to me on the phone from Minnesota where Mark is being treated.
“The type of cancer that he has is called cholangiocarcinoma. Bile duct cancer is sort of a layman's term,” Eric Workman said. “It's the most aggressive form of liver cancer. Because it had already metastasized to his lungs, there's really not a cure for it. Treatment is to extend and improve the quality of life.”
Mark Workman, 47, began chemotherapy shortly after New Year's Day. The doctors told his family the hope was to extend his life six months. Maybe a year.
His disease, though, is advanced. Eric revealed the tumor covered 70 percent of his brother's liver.
Fluid build-up in his stomach has made it difficult for Workman to eat. Lack of protein absorption has been complicated by the constant need to drain his stomach.
Workman's family is in the midst of exploring all options for care, including a potential hospice situation for his brother.
Eric Workman said the medical staff treating Mark has struggled to find the cause. Alcohol is not believed to be a factor. Nor is there much of a family history aside from one grandmother who died of uterine cancer at age 57.
News of Workman's prognosis was difficult for his former players to grasp. Schooley called a team meeting to break the bad news.
“They were shaken,” Schooley said. “Mark was close with a lot of players.”
Two of those players are seniors Tim Moore and Robert Powers, both of whom met with Schooley and decided they wanted to honor Workman from afar.
Prior to Friday night's home game against RIT, the Colonials donned jerseys with none of their names on the nameplates. Everyone simply wore the name “Workman.” On Saturday, a jersey with Workman's name on the back hung over the bench during the second game against the Tigers.
It will be there every game moving forward for the rest of the season.
“He was always there for me,” Moore said Monday morning. “My freshman year when I was in and out of the lineup, if I needed someone to talk to, he was always there. Worky was always on the ice helping me.”
The team has also sent videos of support to Workman.
“He felt a very close connection by the outpouring of support,” Eric Workman said. “Mark isn't married. He doesn't have any kids. The kids that he did have were his hockey players.”
Eric Workman — a scholastic and youth hockey official in Minnesota — also praised the Vegas organization for the support they have given his brother to take time off and fight the disease.
“We couldn't have asked anything more than what they have given us,” he said.
As we all saw last week, the bonds between Pittsburgh and Vegas have become oddly strong in a short amount of time.
The bond between this coach and his players is more understandable and even stronger as time has gone on, and strife has tested them.
Hopefully, for Workman, that bond with his former Robert Morris players is something he can draw on during the challenging times ahead.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.