matt cook para fights cancer

A legacy left behind

A decade after Matt Cook passed far too soon, the foundation that bears his name is helping young cancer patients navigate their treatment much the same way he did

Chris Jurewicz
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November 12, 2020
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Lynn Cook chuckles about the day her son’s first sled arrived. Not Lynn, nor her husband Donald, nor Matt himself, knew how the thing worked.

Matt had attended the 2007 RBC Royal Bank Cup in Prince George, B.C., where his brother Brady was captaining the Camrose Kodiaks. After seeing a para hockey demonstration during an intermission, Brady thought the sport would be perfect for Matt.

“At the event, Matt met some of the national team and, soon after, Adam Crockatt (then manager of the national team) arranged for an old sled to be sent to Matthew so that he could try it out. I laugh when I think about it because, the day that sled arrived, it was foreign to us,” Lynn says from the family home in Edmonton. “It was like having two skates under your butt. We put it out in the front room and I put a bread board under the blade so I wouldn’t damage the floor and I sat on this sled and I tipped over instantly.”

Matt Cook was 19 years old at the time. A year prior, he had his left leg amputated below the knee after he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer. That procedure ended Matt’s promising able-bodied hockey career, which saw him rise through the minor hockey ranks in Edmonton and then with the Bonnyville Pontiacs of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

As a junior player, Matt was a giant on the ice, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 220 pounds. Fans noticed him, coaches noticed him and, certainly, opponents noticed him. But what made Matt Matt wasn’t just his work on the ice, but his personality off it.

“He was such a good hockey player and such a good positive spirit and person,” says Greg Westlake, a longtime member of Canada’s National Para Hockey Team who lived with Matt in Ontario when they were training for the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. “It’s hard to put your finger on why somebody has that X factor, that star quality. He had the big smile, the tremendous positive energy.

“At the same time, he’s a 6-foot-2, 220-pound guy that could kill you. He was a tough Junior A hockey player that we couldn’t wait to get into our program and see what he could do with it and what kind of player he’d become. And then you get to know him and you’re like, ‘This is THE nicest guy with the most positive energy’ and we hit it off right away.”

Meeting guys like Westlake and others went a long way to Matt wanting to not only try para hockey (or sledge hockey, as it was known when he got into the game), but excel at it. When that sled arrived, he was a man on a mission, striving to reach the peak of the para hockey mountain by playing at the Paralympics.

He worked at the craft tirelessly, learning from friends like Westlake, Adam Dixon and Brad Bowden, all of whom ranked among the world’s best.

“Matt realized, these guys really are dedicated athletes and they worked hard,” says Donald. “Like every sledge hockey player, anyone who has tried it, Matthew would come home with blisters and his hands would be bleeding. But he was always holding onto his sled, always trying to improve.”

Matt worked his way to the national team and helped Canada win bronze at the 2009 IPC Sledge Hockey World Championship. Although he was in prime position to earn a spot on Canada’s 2010 Paralympic team, his cancer progressed too rapidly, his health declined and he wasn’t able to compete in Vancouver.

Matt passed away at the age of 22 on April 4, 2010 in Edmonton, about three weeks after the Paralympics ended. His is a name that hasn’t been, nor ever will be, forgotten by so many in the hockey community.

Soon after his passing, Matt’s family created the Matt Cook Foundation, with the objective of providing comfort to young adults undergoing cancer treatment. Matt’s parents saw how difficult his journey was, from 18 when he was first diagnosed, to his death at 22. In between, Matt faced over 30 rounds of chemotherapy, along with multiple surgeries, including the amputation of his leg.

“A few months before Matthew passed away, we had conversations about various things we could do to make life better for young adults who were undergoing cancer treatment as in-patients,” says Lynn. “When you’re 18 years old and you’re thrown into an adult cancer treatment system, there are very few people who fit that demographic. You go in for cancer treatment and you’re sharing a room and hallways with elderly people and you are at that age in your life where you haven’t launched a career.

“All of a sudden, you’re cut off from your friends and all of those important things that happen during a young adult’s life, between 18 and 24 – the socializing, the Saturday nights, the camping trips with your friends. If you put yourself in the place of someone that age and all of a sudden you’re now expected to spend four days a week, in-patient in the hospital and do that for 30 weeks and lose your leg in between when your friends are all getting on with their lives, it’s really tough.”

The Foundation celebrated 10 years earlier this year. Its main initiative is the Matt Cook Foundation Cares Package, filled with items that Matt needed and enjoyed when he was going through treatment. Each package contains an iPad, travel bag, soft warm blanket, headphones, iTunes and Skip the Dishes gift cards, a flashlight and a journal.

To date, about 80 packages have been delivered to young adults fighting cancer at the Cross Cancer Institute (CCI) in Edmonton. Many of those packages have been delivered by Lynn, Donald, Brady and daughter Marina. They have witnessed first-hand the impact the care packages have had.

Prior to the pandemic, the Matt Cook Foundation started another initiative – to renovate a room at the CCI into a space that is akin to a gorgeous hotel room, allowing those undergoing cancer treatment to host family and friends and allow for a little bit of normalcy. Lynn calls it a home away from home.

Bowden keeps pictures of Matt on his TV stand and fridge. He says Cook’s legacy isn’t a surprise, given what kind of a person he was.

“I honestly look back too and think [that] if he would have gone on longer, he would have been a leader of the [Team Canada] program, for sure. He was such a natural leader and a hard worker too,” Bowden says.

“I believe with Matt, anything he wanted to do, he was going to do it. I was so convinced that if anyone was going to fight through it, it was him. Just thinking about that and how much everybody misses him, it’s a no-brainer that he would have a foundation named after him. Whether he was alive, whether he is somewhere else, he’s the kind of person, and his family … just the type of people who always want to help and learn and grow. They’re very selfless people.”

To donate and learn more about the Matt Cook Foundation, visit mattcookfoundation.com.

For more information:

Dominick Saillant
Director, Communications
Hockey Canada
514-895-9706
[email protected]

 

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
403-284-6484
[email protected]

 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
Office: 403-777-4567
Mobile: 905-906-5327
[email protected]

 

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