Six months ago, Spruce Grove Saints forward Shane Lehman celebrated an Alberta Junior Hockey League regular season championship by hoisting the Dave Duchak Trophy.
Lehman and his mates shared the honour with the first AJHL president, who, at 95, was on hand for the festivities.
It's easy to imagine that for the 20-year-old St. Albert son, opportunities in hockey and in life seemed both timeless and countless. Instead, that night was the beginning of the end of a hockey career for this winger, recognized in junior hockey circles for both his onice skill and his off-ice classy demeanour.
He could never have suspected that by 21, he might not live to see 22, never mind play hockey again.
He was undeniably on that path, even if he didn't know it, as the red carpet was rolled up that night.
Though his club would eventually be upset in the league final to the upstart Grande Prairie Storm, Lehman, who tallied 173 points as a Saint, topping the club's scoring stats in his final two campaigns with eerily consistent 75 and 74 point tallies, remained optimistic about his future.
Buoyed by new beginnings, he was committed to attend Edmonton technical school NAIT, garner an education, play more hockey with the storied Ooks, and all of this heading into his 21st birthday celebrations he and his friends would share in Las Vegas.
The celebrations soon took on an ominous tone.
A tired one.
Now, looking back, he says that during the team's semifinal series against the Olds Grizzlys he realized that there was something desperately wrong with his body.
"I didn't have any wind, I wasn't skating well ... just had no energy," recounts Lehman.
"I guess that explains why I was so (expletive) in the playoffs," he laughs casually. Teammate and league co-MVP Connor Hardowa, who now plays at the University of New Hampshire, certainly didn't suspect anything, but admits he wondered what was up with his longtime friend and teammate.
"Shane was a guy who has always been a great player, but moreso, he's always stepped it up in the playoffs and I could see he was struggling and I just didn't know why."
Vegas would be a real eye opener for all the wrong reasons.
"I couldn't keep any food down or even drink one beer," Lehman recounts.
"And when we came home, I couldn't even carry my luggage I had to have someone help me. I was so out of breath, weak. I knew something was definitely wrong."
Lehman says playing an aggressive league and playoff schedule of 75-plus games made him think he was "more out of shape and tired than he should have been," but that's all.Admittedly, in retrospect, he was in denial.
As the season ended, he resumed his aggressive physical conditioning, but instead of feeling re-energized, he said his workouts got shorter, harder and more difficult to complete.
Asthmatic and subject to allergies, Lehman thought this was the stem of his problem. He decided to visit his physician, who prescribed more asthma-directed medicine. It did no good.
Subsequent visits to various physicians yielded few clues.
Finally, Lehman found himself in an emergency ward and after a series of tests, he was transferred to the University of Alberta Hospital.
It was there he learned he might have a heart problem. "Shane was suffering from dilated cardio mypoia, which means his heart had enlarged to the point it could not pump enough blood to oxygenate the rest of his body," said Dr. Holger Bucholz, VAD (ventricle assistant device specialist) at the Mazankowski Heart Institute at the University of Alberta.
The facility -- dedicated to heart-related medical breakthroughs and treatment -- is named for the former deputy- PM and longtime Vegreville MP Don Mazankowski.
"This means his organs were starting to fail -- his liver, his kidneys -- and respiratory issues were also a concern as his lungs were filling up with fluid," said Bucholz.
The more Lehman learned about his mysterious condition, the more questions there were.
"They told me this doesn't happen overnight. How long had it been happening, who knows? So I guess I am very lucky I didn't have a heart attack and die out on the ice," Lehman says.
He learned he was to receive a battery-operated power supply for his heart. "I did a lot of reading about the (mechanisms) and they seemed to come in two kinds.
One is the size of a suitcase, the other, small and mobile," Lehman says. "I remember, as I was going under, I prayed 'not that big one!' "
A small, battery-version, housed in holsters, is now part of his everyday routine.
"I guess that means I won't be travelling in airports anytime soon," he laughs.
The humour is helping to mask what science, medicine, time and perhaps fate cannot promise him. Shane Lehman's hockey career is over.
It is this, what might seem insignificant to some, that becomes so painfully cruel for this brilliant young man who looked so far ahead to his life and saw hockey as a part of it.
"All I've done, all I have worked so hard for, for 15 years is to play hockey, to be a really good hockey player."
His silence, as he collects himself, hits you like he used to crunch opponents along the boards.
At the height of his AJHL career, Lehman was a sixfooter and weighed almost 180 pounds. Through the ordeal, he lost more than 50 of those pounds.
"I looked in the mirror and I couldn't stand it, couldn't bear to look at myself," he recounts.
"Shane was in denial, like we all kind of were," says his mom Marie, who stayed with him 24/7 at "the Maz" through the ordeal.
"He didn't want any of his friends to see him like that." Saints head coach and GM Steve Hamilton says Lehman was, even before the illness, one of the strongest character guys he has ever coached and one of the most dedicated individuals he has ever been around.
"When I heard the news, I was just just shocked, devastated. To see an elite athlete like him faced with this, it was very tough and unfair, you just don't expect that," says Hamilton. Many of his teammates -- his closest friends on the club, Ante Flaming, Jordan Draper, and Brett Cameron, along with Hardowa, attempted to see Lehman soon after his surgery.
But they were turned away.
"That was really tough," says Hardowa. "We wanted to be there for him and when he wouldn't see us, we were like, that's not Shane, and we were scared about what might be coming."
Says Draper: "When (Brett) Cameron called me and told me, I was in total shock. I thought, this is crazy, no way."
"He was so excited to go to Vegas and then, the next week, to be in the hospital because he was having trouble breathing, it was tough, you just don't expect that," adds Fleming.
The team at the Maz worked quickly to assess Lehman and decided that a VAD device, a Heartmate II, (a battery-powered pump to operate his heart's left ventricle) would be put in place.
Dr. Steve Meyer was the lead surgeon and soon Lehman had an implanted VAD which keeps his heart pumping and his body functioning.
"Shane is the third person to get this device here, but the first discharged," said Bucholz of the VAD which has been available for roughly three years.
"Some people describe it as an artificial heart, but it's not really, it is his own heart but with an implanted device which assists."
The device changed Lehman's existence almost overnight. "I just started feeling better and better and getting hungry, it was amazing," he said.
Marie Lehman agrees the turnaround was nothing short of a miracle. She says her family -- husband Ron and Shane's 23-year-old brother Jeff -- didn't know what to expect day after day other than it seemed things were worsening.
Soon, Lehman was well enough to see visitors and wanted his mates around.
"I don't think I was the most popular guy there with the nurses. Some of my friends stayed well into the night, and maybe we were a little loud, but it was big for me," he says.
Marie Lehman says the support of the Saints, his family and friends, co-workers and certainly the staff at the Maz made the situation tenable and even hopeful.
"Everyone was so supportive, 100%, just doing whatever they could for us, dropping everything -- it's pretty humbling," she says.
"You really learn a lot about your family and support network at times like these -- your perspective, I guess, changes forever. You don't care so much about work, or house stuff, things like that you are just totally focused on getting through it."
Lehman's comeback was more remarkable than any on-ice comparison.
"I just can't say enough about those people and the work they did. The doctors and nurses, they came to see him every single day," says Fleming. "It was just great to see him and support him and be with him. It was tough, but just to see him getting back, it was special."
Lehnam left the Mazankowski unit well ahead of schedule. His sheer physical fitness prior to the virus had him in better shape than most, perhaps the perfect candidate for the procedure.
"But in some respects," says Bucholz, "the fact he was in such great shape, that he was able to continue on doing normal things despite the fact he was so sick, delayed things a lot longer than other people could have functioned at all. He was very sick."
Fast forward to fall and a visit to the Grant Fuhr Arena in Spruce Grove in September. In the same rink, that just six months before Lehman had celebrated a regular season title with his mates, he returned a shadow of his physical self, but larger than life nevertheless.
"Shane came to our game (against Brooks) and came in to see the guys -- holsters ready," Hamilton says referring to his battery packs.
"And I can tell you there was not a dry eye in the room. It was just great to see him," he pauses to collect himself.
Normally, a patient going through this procedure would automatically go on the heart transplant list, and Lehman knows he still might be there. But Bucholz explains that the VAD restores the normal quality of life for a length of time that allows physicians to determine if his own heart can actually heal.
"We think it was viral, but we can never be 100% sure of that, so if it is, and the heart operates normally (with VAD) over time, it has the chance to heal. If not, we have the luxury of time to then look at the transplant," he said.
For Lehman, thoughts turned to the future. Before the procedure he worried he might not have any at all.
" I remember saying to myself: 'What am I going to do now?' "
More silence; a sniff says more than any words can.
"They told me I shouldn't stray too far from the hospital, so I figured I would study to go into nursing," says Lehman, who notes the pain of facing life without hockey will always be there, but he considers himself so incredibly lucky for the new lease on life.
"He can do pretty much anything any normal person can do," says Bucholz.
"He's driving now, he can run, play tennis -- he can't go swimming, really (or play) hockey," Bucholz says before pausing. " Yes, that would make me pretty ner vous, but apart from a few of those things, his quality of life is getting close to back to normal."
For the Saints, this season is a tribute to Lehman. And they're doing a pretty good job. It was only on Friday, 17 games into their season that the club lost its first game in regulation. Prior to that, the lone blemish on the record was an overtime loss, at home, to (you guessed it) Brooks, the game Lehman first attended.
" Yeah, that sucked, but what do you do?" Lehman says, again with a laugh.
"He showed us all what life is really about, not to take a shift off, a day off, or take anything for granted -- to appreciate every day and every skate and every game," says Draper.
"It could be your last." "There's no question the club is focused on getting it done this year for Shane," adds Fleming.
Hamilton says the life lesson is exactly that -- not wins, not losses, but the important things beyond a hockey rink. "He's taught us all an awful lot about character and about our outlook on life."