Prospect gets dose of reality

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

Matt Hubbauer wasn't right.

He had been skating at the Detroit Red Wings training camp. He was a prospect, albeit an unsigned and undrafted one, who had advanced past the Stanley Cup champions' rookie camp to sharing the ice with the big boys.

But he didn't care. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out why, after a life devoted to hockey, first on the "outdoors" around the corner from his home in Winnipeg and then as a productive centre with the Western League's Regina Pats, he didn't care. He cared. He cared a lot.

"I wasn't myself, I was very indifferent, almost out of it," Hubbauer was saying yesterday during the St. John's Maple Leafs' first day of camp.

There were other symptoms. Every couple of months, blood would rush inexplicably from his nose.

BLOOD VESSEL

"The doctors just thought it was a burst blood vessel or something," Hubbauer said. "They would cauterize it and eventually it would stop on its own."

Hubbauer suspected something else was wrong. "You believe the doctors because they're the experts, but I always felt, inside, there was something else."

He left Detroit to return to junior and arranged another examination. A CT scan found a tumour, one the size of a small apple, growing on the left side of his sinus. It was only a few millimetres removed from his brain.

It was November 2002. And so it was that a player, who holds modest hopes of someday skating with the Maple Leafs, earned his first and forever most important trip to Toronto.

Hubbauer's tumour was so unique, so rare, there were only a few people in the country qualified to remove it. He flew to Toronto and surgery at Princess Margaret Hospital on Nov. 17, 2002.

Initially, his doctors believed the surgery would abort any hopes of a professional career. They created an incision from his eye socket down past the side of his nose and peeled open the side of his face to expose the sinus. To get the tumour, they needed to shave away some bone.

He was treated to the marvellous news that the tumour was not cancerous and had been completely removed.

He went back home and then, after a few months, to Regina.

Hubbauer finished out the season with the Pats and since then has lived the rounder's life of a player with some upside but no contract.

Last year he was invited to the Boston Bruins camp and then spent some time in Providence with the AHL Bruins and with the East Coast Hockey League's Atlantic City franchise. He struggled there and scored only three goals in 21 games before returning for a semester at the University of Manitoba.

But Matt Hubbauer can tell you from experience that there is something wrong when he doesn't burn to play hockey. When he heard about CBC's Making The Cut series, he immediately signed up and volunteered for tryouts convened by celebrity coaches Mike Keenan and Scotty Bowman. He will learn next month whether he advances to the next round.

Meanwhile, beginning today in Kitchener, he will contest a tryout more harrowing than anything even the CBC could devise. He is a tweener with NHL speed but trouble finishing, a kid who at 5-foot-10 needs to flash the kind of top-drawer polish he has yet to show as a pro.

Still, Hubbauer scored six goals in four games during the club's rookie camp in September. He's only 21 years old.

"I knew about his surgery," Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. said. "I watched him when I was in St. Louis. It'll be very interesting to see how he progresses with us."

Hubbauer has no game plan on how long he will give this hockey thing a go.

He will play until they tell him to stop and then when they do, he will try to find someplace else. No contract. No problem. He has been in worse spots.

"I don't think anybody can really say how they have changed, when something big happens," said Matt Hubbauer, reality show veteran and survivor. "But every once in a while, I think it's a bit easier to stop and appreciate what you've got."


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