The road to recovery for Noah Fayad started by scoring his first goal in 2015.
That’s when the 15-year-old St. Albert hockey player could see the finish line after being diagnosed with Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
“It was a good feeling just to get to that point,” said Fayad, who is headed in the right direction to be chemo free in April of 2018.
Fayad lit the lamp of hope Nov. 2 in his fourth game with the St. Albert Royals in the Rural and Edmonton Midget 15 AA Hockey League after missing the first three season-opening contests while still building up his speed and stamina.
“When you haven’t scored a goal in like 10 months and then you get a goal, it’s like, ‘Wow. That’s cool,’” Fayad said. “You can’t take it for granted.”
It marked a milestone on the journey of recovery after Fayad started treatments on the eve of the John Reid Memorial Tournament and was sidelined for the rest of the bantam AAA season with the St. Albert Gregg Distributors Sabres.
“I was counting down the days when things would get back to normal,” Fayad said of his return to hockey.
When asked if he was back to normal as a hockey player, Fayad didn’t stickhandle around the question.
“I would say so,” said the Sabres’ second-leading scorer with 23 points in 24 games as a left winger before the most common type of cancer in children was identified in his body.
“I’m probably pretty close I would say to when I was with Sabres. The shifts are normal. Endurance is good. I get quite of bit of ice on this team.
“It’s all coming back pretty good.”
However, there were dark days along the way before Fayad returned to the sport he loves.
“I’m pretty relieved, I would say,” said the Grade 10 Paul Kane High School student. “There definitely was a period of doubt, that’s a good word to describe it, but you use the support from everyone around you. The whole community really. The hockey team. Different parents. Kids from school. Neighbours. I was very thankful for them. I don’t know what I would’ve done without all that support.”
Fayad was a typical Grade 9 student at Lorne Akins School and playing the highest level of bantam hockey in Alberta when things took a turn for the worse. Fayad’s dad, Sammy, noticed his recovery from shift to shift wasn’t as strong as before and he seemed somewhat lethargic. Then, after a game on January 2, Fayad revealed his heart was beating erratically and admitted he was gassed and winded after a shift.
Fayad was taken to the Stollery Children’s Hospital that night for blood work and five hours later he was being prepped for treatments.
“We didn’t know. We thought he had a cold and why can’t he get over this cold. Maybe it’s a touch of the flu. But really it was the leukemia and he had got down to I think around 172 pounds,” explained Fayad’s mom, Hanna.
“He was teetering around 185 when he was at his peak but you could tell,” Sammy added.
“He was leaning out but he was still eating. He was just tired. He almost looked yellow,” Hanna said. “I personally think Noah is physically stronger than he even was before.”
The five-foot-nine Fayad now tips the scales at 200 pounds while averaging three to four days a week working out under the direction of Max Larocque, a former St. Albert goalie, at World Health St. Albert Trail.
“He spends quite a bit of time at the gym. He has a personal trainer so he is kind of getting his strength and stamina and endurance back,” Sammy said.
It was with aching hearts the Sabres hosted the John Reid tournament without their teammate. They dedicated the rest of the season to Fayad and his No. 12 was embroidered on their pants.
An ill-looking Fayad was able to perform the ceremonial puck drop during the opening ceremonies and met Hall-of-Famer Joe Sakic, an assistant coach for the Colorado Thunderbirds at the tournament.
But two days later, Fayad was unable to attend the awards banquet, where he was recognized as the recipient of the John Reid Memorial Award for heart and hustle. The John Reid award is presented annually at the tournament banquet to the Sabre who symbolizes the person and hockey player Reid was. Reid lost his battle with leukemia at age 41 in 2003 and the next year the tournament was renamed in his memory.
“That was very thoughtful of them,” Fayad said of the John Reid award. “It was cool to get it.”
It was that first month when Fayad realized the Stollery was his second home instead of the rink.
“Obviously I’m very grateful for that facility to be so close and convenient so not to travel or stay places,” Fayad said. “I’m always thankful for that help.”
“The staff is unbelievable,” Hanna added.
“If you’re ill you want to be there,” Sammy stressed. “When you get admitted you’re kind of like in a room with a certain amount of kids and parents and every two or three weeks there is a whole new community of kids and parents so you kind of work in your group and you go through the treatments and protocol together and when you go for your monthly exams you sometimes meet the same people because they’re all on the same schedule.
But in two to three weeks there is a whole new influx of patents, which is unfortunate.”
A protocol of treatments is needed to beat the disease and Fayad was fortunate the leukemia was discovered at an early stage.
“He had a transfusion right out of the gate because his blood counts were almost nothing,” Sammy said. “And a whole bunch of drugs too.
“His initial phase is called induction so the process of induction is to reach remission automatically. It’s a high percentage that will get remission in induction,” Sammy explained. “Every day is pretty much scheduled for him.”
Hanna estimated from May to August, “We spent weeks and weeks in the hospital.”
“There were times where we went every day of the week. We would stay there at stretches and he would get litres of drugs. He would also get injections in the spine,” Sammy said.
The stage Fayad is now in is called maintenance.
“He takes oral medicine daily for the next three years and once a month he goes in for injection treatments and April of 2018 he should be done with his chemotherapy,” Sammy said.
“Every 29 days he gets IV chemotherapy and he gets his blood counts checked, everything,” Hanna added.
A big breakthrough for Fayad was the removal of a device under his chest that went into a vein straight into the heart for easy administration of chemo and other drugs.
“You’ve got a direct line to the heart and it allows it to pump right in,” Hanna said. “They just stab it so they don’t have to go through your vein.”
It was surgically implanted but complications resulted with blood clots.
“We had it taken out just so he can have a normal life and play hockey and get back to normal, otherwise it would still be in his chest for the next three years,” Hanna said “We decided to do it and his doctor said it was OK.”
Back on the ice, Fayad is playing centre for the first time since novice and in 14 games with the Royals (5-7-5) posted three goals and four assists before the Christmas break.
“My goal is to have fun,” said the assistant captain.
Fayad never looked happier when he found the back of the net at the 9:41 of the third period against the Southgate Lions Mustangs at Mark Messier Arena. Hayden Vetsch assisted on Fayad’s first goal and second point in his comeback season
“I got a pass in front of the net. I spun around and shot the puck,” Fayad said. “It felt really good.”
Ten seconds later, he helped set up the game-tying marker by David Gowans in the 3-3 contest.
Royals head coach Dave Ridd saved a spot on the team roster for Fayad because, “I knew he can be an impact player.”
“He is getting stronger every game for us. Obviously what he went through took a lot out of him so mostly his strength and conditioning is slowly coming back,” said Ridd who is coaching Fayad for the third time in the St. Albert Minor Hockey Association. “He was voted alternate captain so his teammates have enormous respect for him. He is an inspiration to his teammates and coaching staff. His attitude is great. I believe he is having fun playing a game that he loves and luckily he is able to enjoy this again. In a couple of years, I would love to see Noah make midget AAA and complete his comeback.”
Fayad’s parents are grateful the Royals have Fayad’s back while he rounds into form.
“The coaches have been really supportive of Noah and helping him out,” Sammy said. “His teammates are really good. They’re very good kids.”
“They’re all amazing,” Hanna agreed.
The Fayad family, including their youngest son, Adam, have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for Noah.
“We can’t say thank you enough. You’re in a very dark place and without family and support of the community and especially the hockey community, even beyond the hockey community, just St. Albert as a whole, it would be very tough. You met a lot of people at the Stollery and you feel sad for them because they don’t have that support lots of times. They’re alone and it’s a very tough time for them to deal with it. For us we have very good immediate family to help us out, especially Hanna’s family. They are very close to us and helped us quite a bit. Our neighbours, the Deets and the Pollards, we can’t commend them enough for helping us out and of course the people in the St. Albert community.
“You just can’t thank enough people. You can’t just thank one person because you have to have collective support right across the board.”
The best advice Noah can give to individuals stricken with the disease is to soldier on despite the odds.
“Definitely stay positive. It will make you a stronger person in the end.”