For the love of the game

LANCE HORNBY

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

Robert Mueller might never play goal again, but his eight minutes of mop-up duty last Nov. 16 is being celebrated in Germany and around the world.

The national team stopper stepped on to the ice not long after a second operation on an incurable fourth-degree brain tumour and received a huge ovation from his hometown club team, the Cologne Sharks, and the visiting Nuremburg Tigers.

"I was completely dumbfounded when the coach gave me the sign," the 28-year-old Mueller said. "It was so much fun.

Mueller, who is married with a 5-year-old daughter and year-old son, has tried to maximize his precious time with them. His doctor says he already has outlived most people with his condition, but says Mueller has persisted only with asking when he could play again.

"Hockey gives me everything in this situation. I wouldn't do all of this if it weren't for the sport. Besides my family, hockey is the most important thing in my life."

Mueller was first diagnosed exactly two years ago after suffering headaches and seizures. Most of the tumour was removed and he was able to resume playing, though he had to leave his Adler Mannheim club and work his way back with cellar-dwelling Fucshe Duisburg. He eventually landed with the Cologne-based Haie. Despite his chemo treatments, he delighted in beating Adler in a 5-4 marathon playoff that went 168 minutes and 16 seconds, just eight minutes shy of the NHL's record for longest game.

He had a .935 playoff save percentage and came to Quebec City to represent his country at the most recent world championship, where his three appearances included a 4-2 win over Slovakia.

However, it eventually was discovered that Mueller has Glioblastoma multiforme, which strikes in two or three cases per 100,000 people. The tumour returned in August, as big as a baby's fist according to reports, and the combined efforts of a second surgery, 16 chemotherapy sessions and other treatments have not improved his chances of survival.

"I never liked to talk about my feelings and it can't change the diagnosis," Mueller told Der Spiegel, adding that, if he played poorly, he expected the media to be critical.

MEDICAL LEAVE

After his latest surgery, he began practising in October and played some backup through November, but has since become too ill and has been put on medical leave until at least mid-January. Haie is giving him every break, telling its Canadian backup goalie Frank Doyle that he will be extended only a temporary contract until Mueller is No. 1 again.

"It's amazing to see how many people are touched by his story," Doyle told the New York Times. "When you see even opposition teams standing up shouting his name, it gives you shivers down your spine."

Teammate Andreas Renz told Bild magazine that someone should write a book on Mueller.

"He's an unbelievable guy who re-assures everyone despite his own suffering," Renz said. "He never let you feel how serious his illness is, just to not burden anyone with it."

Letters, get-well cards and e-mails have inundated the Sharks' office.

"There is no risk (in playing) at all, even if the tumour grows again," said Dr. Wolfgang Wick, whom Mueller released from medical confidentiality. "It is most astonishing how he copes with all the side-effects of the chemotherapy. Fortunately, I don't treat too many competitive athletes with brain tumors, but it is incredible to watch how endurance sports help him get over a lot of the impact a disease like this involves."

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MARIO RUNCO

Referee Mario Runco recalls the day he needed 100 tries to get the opening faceoff right.

But when you are 250 miles above the earth and battling zero gravity on the space shuttle, the puck tends to misbehave when released. Houston, we have a problem.

"I was trying to send it flat toward the camera we'd set up, but it just kept tumbling end over end," Runco said of staging a pre-game ceremony for the International Hockey League playoffs in 1996. "I had to do it so many times to get it to float with the IHL logo showing, but we finally did. I introduced the two teams, and said: 'Let's play hockey' and they showed the downlinked clip later on the video board before the start of the game."

Runco must have seen more ice than any other official (think of most of the mountain glaciers on the planet on the same day) and, in 1992, to mark the 75th anniversary of the National Hockey League, the native New Yorker took a puck into space and later dropped it at a Rangers-Islanders' game at Madison Square Garden. It was displayed at the Hockey Hall Of Fame.

When his day job as one of NASA's most experienced shuttle astronauts and instructors is done, a boyhood love of hockey makes it easy to switch from spacesuit to striped shirt at arenas around Houston and the Johnson Space Center.

The 56-year-old Runco learned the game on old-style roller skates in a parking lot of Yankee Stadium. The maintenance crew allowed Runco and his teen pals to store their plywood-and-chicken wire nets right in the stadium.

Ice hockey was a lot harder, requiring him to take transit or hitch rides around New York with his equipment to the far-flung rinks for pickup games, rising some days at 6 a.m.

He played for the City College of New York Beavers, but joining the U.S. Navy made it even harder to find good ice -- or any ice for that matter.

"I dragged my blades and roller skates around where I could, even on an amphibious assault ship," Runco said with a laugh. "With roller skates, you had to watch not to get caught in the aircraft's tie-down holes in the hangar deck. But we'd get about 12 guys playing with a roll of electrical tape, which actually slid on the deck's non-skid surface.

"As long as you didn't hit the Harrier jets or the choppers, it was okay. When I was ashore in the States or in Europe, I'd find a place for ice hockey."

Runco saw a lot of the world before blasting off from it, attending Rutgers University and becoming a New Jersey state policeman. While in the Navy, he served as a meteorological officer, surface warfare officer, laboratory instructor, and commander of an oceanographic survey vessel in the Java Sea and Indian Ocean. He was an active astronaut between 1987-94, part of three shuttle missions on the Atlantis and Endeavour and one of the first 50 Americans to walk in space.

When Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers came to Houston for an exhibition game against Detroit in 1987, Runco gave them a tour of the Space Center and the grateful Oilers invited him to practise with them next morning and provided him seats for the game.

"I never cut classes in college, but that was one day I didn't mind missing my astronaut training," Runco said.

FORMED LEAGUE

When he came back to terra firma to stay, Runco continued to play hockey and helped form the Afterburners League, an over-30 group in the Houston-Galveston area.

"We have astronauts, people from NASA in the space field as well as from the chemical and oil businesses," Runco said. "There are a lot of transplanted Canadians, too."

Runco turned to refereeing in the '90s when he put son Carl and daughter Maria in a youth league that had sprung up in the area, but had no quality officiating.

"There were some well-meaning volunteers, but they lacked experience," Runco said. "I thought I could help."

In almost 15 years with his whistle, Runco has moved up to Level III, which qualifies him to do competitive junior and collegiate leagues, though his plan to test for Level IV was cancelled when Hurricane Ike struck last summer and damaged his home.

"I don't usually bring up being an astronaut during the talk at a game, but sometimes," he said, "my reputation precedes me."

At the rink, Runco often will hear the wise guys in the seats shout: 'Hey ref, get yer head out of the clouds' or, 'There he goes, off in space, again'.

"I know where it's coming from and it's almost always tongue-in-cheek," Runco said.

"I'd like to think my experience in space helps me bring that temperament to the ice, that it gave me a larger picture of the world."

His most vivid memory was his space walk, 41/2 hours with fellow astronaut Greg Harbaugh, designed to test human endurance and performance for the future construction of the International Space Station.

"Just floating out there as we came over Houston, then seeing the entire Florida peninsula ... I could only imagine what it was like for the Apollo guys to have seen the whole planet at once.

"On earth, your view is generally horizontal, but up there, looking straight down, you see things very clearly. The geometric lines and shapes of cities, the buildings, railways and highways, jump out at you. For example, you can see Yankee Stadium and Fifth Ave., in New York, and if you were familiar with Toronto, the Air Canada Centre.

"At night, looking at the infinity of space ... it's unbelievable to describe."

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TONY HAND

Tony Hand always will regret not staying in North America for a chance to play with Wayne Gretzky and be part of the Edmonton Oilers' dynasty.

But the Scottish-born centre accomplished what the Great One can't ever match -- 4,000 points. And, he still is going strong in the British League at age 41 as player/coach of the Manchester Phoenix. Hand reached the 4,000 mark on Nov. 29 with an assist in a game at Hull, but said the milestone was hardly a classic play.

"I wasn't even looking when I dropped the puck back to our defenceman," Hand said. "He passed it to (Montreal native) David Beauregard for the goal. But they stopped the game, gave me a standing ovation and a bottle of champagne. We cracked it open in the room later."

Hand's first point was Oct. 17, 1981, as a 14-year-old for the Murrayfield Racers, the team near his Muirhouse birthplace. In 1986, the scoring phenom and already a veteran of his national team, won a tryout with the Calgary Flames, but went to camp with the Oilers, who had drafted him last overall in 1986. Hand and Glaswegian Colin Shields are the only two British League players drafted by the NHL. Shields was selected by Philadelphia in 2000.

On the first day of camp with the Oilers, Hand broke the only stick he had brought with him, borrowed one from Marty McSorley and survived player cuts for two weeks. He was offered a contract by Glen Sather but, after eight points in three games with the minor-league Victoria Cougars, felt too homesick and worn down by the heavy North American schedule and opted to play at home. That same season, he had 105 goals and 111 assists in 35 games.

He gave the Oilers camp one more shot the next year, playing for them against the Canadian Olympic team and assisting on a Kevin Lowe goal. Again, he was offered a contract with the farm team in Nova Scotia, but turned it down, afraid of being stuck in the AHL boondocks and earning less than his contract in Edinburgh.

'GREAT ABILITY'

Sather once said of Hand: "I could see that he had a great ability to read the ice and he was the smartest player there, other than Gretzky. He was a real prospect. He could have advanced in North America. His progress would have been celebrated".

"It's one thing I always think about. Bloody hell, I should have given it a go," Hand agreed. "I was naive what the NHL was all about back then."

But there are no real regrets more than two decades later, his place in European hockey firmly established along with a future behind the bench. He has been a coach for nine years and is assistant on the British national team.

"We played at the world championship in Italy a couple of years ago and I had Glen come in and say a few words to our team," Hand said. "Our guys were in shock."

The Phoenix play about 75 games a year and draw between 1,500 to 2,000 to home games.

Hand has 43 points in 31 BHL games thus far this year.

"I'll probably retire at the end of this season, but I'll see how I feel then," he said. "I've been very fortunate. My hands and my head are still there. I've done all right."


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