You’d be hard pressed to find anyone involved in the SIJHL happier to see a return to action than referee Andrew Bartlett.
Bartlett was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer a year ago. It’s been 12 months since he put on the blades. His first game back was an exhibition tilt involving the Dryden Ice Dogs and the home town Red Lake Miners last weekend.
“I was excited because I missed it. I think I might be the oldest ref in the SIJHL,” said Bartlett from his workplace in Kenora, ON. “But I love the ability to go out there and skate with the kids, see if I could still do it. There was a bit of nerves because I can’t say my body was the same as it was a year ago. Nervousness, excitement. There was a nice acknowledgement from the Red Lake team and the crowd. Kind of brought a tear to your eye, but you keep it in and not let your emotions get the best of you.”
Many players on both teams gave Bartlett a pre-game tap.
It’s been a tough year for Bartlett. A routine test, an irregularity, a colonoscopy, a cancer diagnosis, chemo, doubts, support from family, friends and the hockey fraternity, and finally good news.
“It’s a huge . . . it’s one of those things where you know the news is coming and you don’t know what it is. When you get it you take a deep breath and let it out, close your office door, and have five minutes to yourself. It’s a pretty emotional thing.”
The chemo treatment has left the 53-year-old father of two with tingling in his hands and feet.
“I don’t really feel my feet too much. I think the nervous part for me on Friday night up in Red Lake was I was terrified of falling. There’s an unwritten rule among refs that if you fall you have to buy a round,” chuckled Bartlett.
A routine test revealed an abnormality in a stool sample. A colonoscopy followed.
“That’s when they found a mass between large intestine and my small intestine. Scheduled surgery right away. They ended up removing 15 inches of my colon. Then they took some lymph nodes samples and found out it had spread to my lymph nodes. So I was diagnosed with Stage 3. Basically it’s the same as Eddie Olczyk (16-year NHL veteran) went through.”
Six months of chemo followed, “which put a damper on my plans to ref last year,” he laughed.
The hardest part for Bartlett was watching others go through their battles with cancer.
“When you’re in that (situation),” said Bartlett, pausing to collect his emotions, “When you’re in that room and you see what others are going through . . .I feel almost sorrier for those than I did for myself. You talk to someone who is taking chemo because they want to live an extra month, it’s sad. Tough.
“I think one of the things that hit me the hardest is when I went into the doctor’s office. He’s not sure, right? He’s got to be upfront with you. He looks you in the eye, I’m 52-years-old, and says ‘you could have two to five years to live. I don’t know’. Stops you right in your tracks.”
Bartlett’s latest tests have come back clean, cancer-free.
“I appreciate it (life) a lot more. I’ve always been the guy who’s appreciated the smaller things. Even more so now. You go out of your way to do the smaller things. To say thanks to do things for people.”
A soccer ref for 35 years, Bartlett used those experiences to help him as a hockey official. Former SIJHL Commissioner Bryan Graham and fellow official Scott Wrigley got him going.
“As it went I developed a passion for it,” said Bartlett, who joined the refereeing ranks to help supplement his income to travel around and watch his son play hockey.
“He’s really helped me a lot, especially in the junior ranks,” said Bartlett of Graham. “Scott Wrigley, another one. Rigs has done a lot for my confidence. I never dreamed of reffing in the SIJHL. . . I did the odd game here and there. One day they threw me into reffing. I fought hard not to do it. I was extremely nervous. But, I enjoyed it. I guess I’ve just stuck at it a few years now. Funny when something’s taken away from you, you really miss it. I couldn’t wait to get back out there.”
Bartlett’s a communicator on the ice. And a tough day at the rink translates into a tough night trying to put it behind him.
Bartlett spent a lot of time following his son, Brendan, around. Brendan Bartlett played one playoff game for Dryden, and then fashioned a three-year stint with the Winnipeg Blues of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. in 56, 58 and 60 games he registered 14, 18 and 41 points respectively as a defenseman, and 144 penalty minutes. He continued his career at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, AB.
Now 23, Brendan works in the Dryden Mill as an instrument technician.
Daughter Abby is an environmental technologist with a mining company in Dryden.
“It’s very important when you go through something like this that you have a great support group. My mom and dad, Gale (Bartlett’s partner), my kids, really strong support group.”
Bartlett used his parting remarks to acknowledge the league.
“This is an opportunity for me to say thanks to the SIJHL,” Bartlett added. “I can honestly say Bryan Graham, Scott Wrigley probably checked up on me weekly. . . There were a lot of refs, coaches, teams that sent well wishes and stuff like that. I am very appreciative of everybody who has anything to do with the SIJHL.
“People have no idea how much a little text or a little e-mail letting you know they’re thinking about you, means. Darrin (Nicholas, SIJHL Commissioner) didn’t know anything about my story. I told him. This is nice of him to do something like this and give me the opportunity to give back to the folks in the SIJHL for all their thoughts and prayers.”