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Thursday, September 9, 1999
After beating leukemia, Holan tries to make it back with Thrashers
That's OK. The 28-year-old defenseman is not going to get uptight during training camp, wondering if this will be the day he gets called into the coach's office and told, "Thanks, but we don't have a spot for you."
Leukemia has a way of changing your perspective. For Holan, hockey stopped being the No. 1 thing in his life after he spent eight months staring at the walls of a hospital room.
"I'm just doing my best and then I will see what happens," said Holan, who hasn't played in the NHL since undergoing a bone-marrow transplant during the 1995-96 season. "If that's good enough, I'll stay. If not, I'll go home."
Holan was an up-and-coming player from the Czech Republic in October 1995 when a routine physical changed his life forever. Doctors discovered a frightful disease lurking within his seemingly healthy body: chronic granuloctic leukemia, a deadly form of blood cancer.
"I didn't clearly understand what the word leukemia meant," said Holan, speaking with a thick Czech accent. "I asked if I could die. The doctor said yes. That's when I started worrying."
He actually mustered the strength to play 16 games for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks while awaiting his marrow transplant. No one in his family was a match, so doctors searched for an anonymous donor who would be close enough to attempt the high-risk procedure.
In January 1996, a suitable donor was found and Holan entered the hospital, not knowing if he would leave alive. After massive doses of radiation and chemotherapy wiped out the cancerous cells -- but also killed his marrow and immune system -- he received the new marrow.
So began a tortuous ordeal of complications that tested his will to live.
"Heart, kidney, gall bladder. I couldn't eat for months," said Holan, who wilted from a strapping 200-pound athlete to a feeble, 140-pound patient. "I thought every day would be my last day."
His wife, Irena, remained with him around the clock. The couple already had a daughter and Irena was pregnant with their first son.
"In my mind, I kept fighting every day so I could see my son," Holan recalled. "That gave me a life."
He was finally released from the hospital for good on July 3, 1996, the same day Milos Jr. was sent home.
"Normally, patients that don't get a perfect match don't ever recover fully," said Dr. Stephen Foreman, who performed the surgery on Holan. "But his recovery has been amazing. Hockey players are tough guys."
There were trying times, like those first few days away from the hospital. Instead of feeling comforted about being at home, Holan was frightened.
"I thought no one was there to help me," he said. "I begged my wife to take me back to the hospital."
She didn't, and Holan gradually regained his strength. He served as a color commentator for Czech television during the 1998 Nagano Olympics, watching his countrymen capture the gold medal. He wrote a book about his ordeal. He attempted a comeback with the Mighty Ducks last year, but was cut without playing an exhibition game.
Holan began playing in the Czech league in November, totaling 22 points in 30 games for Vitkovice. He showed enough potential to earn one last chance at restarting his NHL career.
All he asks from the Thrashers is a legitimate shot to make the 23-man roster. If things don't work out, he will retire as a player and rejoin his family -- daughter Veronica is 7, Milos Jr. is 3 -- in the Czech Republic.
"I hope this team doesn't look at me as someone who got sick," said Holan, who has shown no signs of relapse. "I want them to look at me as someone who can help the team."
Defense is one of the strongest positions on the Thrashers, who already have nine players with NHL experience. But general manager Don Waddell remembered Holan's shooting and stick-handling skills, pre-leukemia.
"If we can bring his skill level back to where it was three years ago, it would certainly be a great addition to our hockey club," Waddell said. "He's still a young person."
Two months ago, Holan finally met the donor who provided the lifesaving marrow: Robert Stransky Jr., a nuclear engineer from Jessup, Md. They got together at the City of Hope hospital in southern California, where the transplant was performed.
"I said to him, 'Thank you for saving my life,"' Holan remembered. "It was as simple as that."
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