Cancer survivor Stevely back on the ice, just in time for U Sports nationals

University of Saskatchewan Huskies defence Brooklyn Stevely (10) during quarter final action against Concordia Stingers in the U Sports women's national hockey team tournament at Merlis Belsher Place in Saskatoon on March 14, 2024. PHOTO BY MICHELLE BERG /Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Darren Zary, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Against all odds, Brooklyn Stevely is back playing hockey this week.

The Regina native — who missed all of the University of Saskatchewan women’s hockey team’s regular season after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer — has spent more time battling cancer this winter than fighting off U Sports hockey opponents.

She returned to the ice Thursday night to make her season debut with the Huskies, just in time for the U Sports women’s hockey national championship tournament on home ice.

“All the girls were talking about how nervous they were, because it was a national championship game. I was, like, this is weird. This is kind of my first game back since February of last year,” quipped Stevely, a 5-foot-3 defender in her third season with the Huskies.

“I definitely felt jitters a little bit, but once I was out there, I was ready to go.”

Stevely, a kinesiology/education student, has undergone two surgeries this season, each time going through the necessary recovery. For a while, a return to the ice this season appeared to be out of the question.

“I was on the ice for two days and just got called back into the (doctors’) office and they said, ‘You don’t have good news … you’re not going to be on the ice this year, potential chemo(therapy),’” recalled Stevely.

“Had a second surgery and it went super, super well. Another six-week recovery and back on the ice for individual skills, then a week of no contact, then a week of contact. I definitely didn’t think I’d be on the ice at all this year, so coming back for nationals was a huge honour.”

The host Huskies played in front of a packed Merlis Belsher Place on Thursday night but lost a 4-0 decision to the No. 1 ranked Concordia University Stingers.

“That’s a warrior,” U of S head coach Steve Kook said of Stevely following Thursday’s quarterfinal loss.

“Two and a half months ago, she’s in an entirely different situation. And for her to come out … We kept asking her, ‘Brooker, you’ve got to tell me if your gas tank is empty.’ Even late in the third, she had a little extended zone (time), when her player curled up high. Sometimes, that’s when you lose your players, especially when you’re extended and not having a big enough gas tank, but I thought she played well.”

Saskatchewan will now play the St. Francis Xavier X-women in a consolation semifinal Saturday at 10 a.m.

The Huskies have lots to play for, including a cancer survivor in Stevely.

“If that’s not motivation (for the team), I don’t know what is, right?” noted Kook, whose team hopes to win Saturday to advance to the consolation final Sunday.

“I mean, there’s fifth-years playing for the end of their career. There’s always pressure to play well in front of a crowd like this. You look across the room and see a player who, two and a half months ago, was in an entirely different situation and just gutted it out.”

By playing in the national championship, Stevely burns a full year of eligibility.

“That’s kind of the question the coaches asked and, honestly, there was no doubt in my mind,” explained Stevely. “If I got the green light to go, I’m going to go no matter what. Also, my first year here was the COVID year, so that kind of helped, too. I got that extra year of eligibility, but, it’s always been ‘If you can go, you go.’

“It was definitely a quick turnaround. The coaches were, like, ‘We’ll see how it goes in practice’ and I was trying not to get my hopes up too high because the girls have been working so hard since August and we’ve got a great team, so it’s hard to earn a spot. I was very honoured.”

Captain Kennedy Brown, who missed a large chunk of the season herself due to injury, praised Stevely’s comeback.

“All of us have stood by her during her entire journey the entire year,” said Brown.

“To see her put that extra effort in the last couple of months, and dedicate herself to wanting to be on the ice here with us at nationals was incredibly special and I’m so proud of her. Seeing her as a first-year working up the ranks, to watch the work ethic. I heard Steve call her a warrior and that’s true on so many fronts. It’s so special to have her back in the dressing room with us. She played amazing, having had not been on the ice for over a year. We all had her back and I think she was amazing.”

Season spent in Saskatoon

Stevely chose to have her surgeries in Saskatoon rather than her hometown of Regina.

She chose to be close to her teammates.

“My support is all here,” she explained.

“All my family were only two-and-a-half hours down the highway. Honestly, it was no question in my mind — I’ll stay in Saskatoon. This is where all the girls were. We were joking, the day we found out, I thought I’d be in the hospital a little while and the girls were, like, ‘Make sure you ask for a room so that all 27 of us can hang out, right?’ I was, like, ‘Whoa, OK. I’ll try.’ But after that surgery, they told me I was staying overnight and I was home the next day. Girls were on my doorstep that night and brought me some ice cream.”

The support was second to none, she adds.

“I couldn’t ask for a better group of girls, for sure … All the girls, it was ‘Whatever you need.’ They were texting me every day, if you need a ride, if you need a movie night, if you need a chocolate bar or ice cream brought to the house. Every single one of them, every single girl, every single coach always checking in on you. It was very, very special.”

Hair-raising experience

Thursday was also very special.

“When we came out and there were all those sparklers for the starting line-up, I felt the hair on my arms stand up. ‘Wow, I’ve got the goosebumps,’” Stevely said. “But once I was out there for the game, I was ready to go.”

It was all systems go, more than a year between U Sports games.

“I think this journey made me understand life, almost,” offered Stevely, who still has two years of U Sports eligibility remaining.

“I learned a lot. I had a tough (university) paper before I was diagnosed. For sure, it was tough, but, you know what, everything else is actually really, really small. I think we forget about that sometimes and we take things for granted. It really made me take a step back and just think how special everything is and how lucky we all are.”