As part of Hockey Fights Cancer month, the Springfield Thunderbirds are one of numerous AHL teams to join the NHL in its November tradition of shining the spotlight on cancer awareness and reflecting on the battles of those in their lives who inspire them to live with a greater purpose.
Some players, coaches and team staff members have been exposed to the emotional effects from a young age. Other fortunate people can go decades of their life without witnessing the first-hand impacts of cancer.
For Thunderbirds defenseman Matt Mangene, that is exactly how it went through the first quarter-century of his life, from his hockey beginnings on Long Island, New York.
Following his three-year collegiate career with the University of Maine, which included a 16-goal, 34-point season in his junior year of 2011-12, Mangene embarked on his pro hockey journey, which has seen him make AHL stops in Glens Falls, Bridgeport, Cedar Park and Springfield.
The 2016-17 season would prove to be the best one of the blueliner’s career –- he set career highs in each offensive category with eight goals, 19 assists and 27 points. While his Texas Stars would narrowly miss a playoff berth, it was a turning point for Mangene and the Dallas affiliates, who would go on to the Calder Cup Finals just 12 months later.
As off-season recovery began for Mangene, though, a seemingly normal day in the spring of 2017 would forever change the Mangene family.
More than 1,000 miles away in Louisiana, another star athlete -– Mangene’s 15-year-old cousin, Kate Launey — had just completed her freshman season playing volleyball for Metairie Park Country Day School, and the Cajuns captured a Louisiana high school state title in the fall 2016 season.
Not surprisingly, a full athletic season was not without its bumps and bruises, but after experiencing more than the usual pain in her leg, Launey was taken in for X-rays. What the Launeys and Mangenes thought would be a routine screening instead revealed a tumor, which would later be diagnosed as lymphoma.
“It was really hard to deal with (the news),” Mangene recalls. “My first instinct was: How can I help? What can I do?”
With Mangene’s season completed and his father Dave set to retire from 35 years working in air traffic control, the plans were in place for his parents to move down to Louisiana to be closer to family in the first place. However, with Kate’s diagnosis, the timeline became hurried. Mangene’s mother Shellie flew south in the immediate aftermath, and Matt returned home to New York to assist his dad in packing up the family home for the earlier-than-expected move.
As Mangene made his way to Louisiana in the summer of 2017, the profound impact of Kate’s battle proved to be the first major bout of cancer adversity in the 28-year-old’s life. Being in the room during one of his closest family member’s chemotherapy treatments, Matt felt the gravity of the situation.
“It really hit home for me,” Mangene said. “Seeing how sick she was, and how this can happen to someone who’s so genuine and always has a smile, it was a shock to everyone in the family.”
The days and weeks tested Kate, who lost her hair and had exhibited the fatigue-ridden effects of the treatments. While Matt has never been a stranger to battles and his bouts with pain on the hockey rink, this was one battle to which he had no relatable comparison.
“What I’m battling (while playing hockey) is never as difficult as what she was going through,” Mangene said. “After you see what she was going through… Compared to having a bad game or making a bad play, I say to myself, ‘I’m lucky right now to be playing a game I love.’ This isn’t even half the battle of what she’s facing.”
Yet despite all of the negativity that easily could have entered into her psyche, Kate remained determined, and her cousin did not lose sight of that fact.
“Even after chemotherapy, she was still positive. (When she would come home), she didn’t want to go into her room and be alone. She stayed with the family. She wanted everyone to be there to talk and have fun, and just be the family that we are.”
As the summer wound down, Mangene was doing his best to mentally prepare for another training camp in Dallas with the Stars. Understandably, his mind was constantly with his family and with Kate. With camp on the horizon, Mangene sat down to dinner out with his parents. Before he could eat though, Matt was greeted by a smiling face: Kate’s.
The news was everything out of a movie, with the happiest ending included. Kate was declared cancer-free, not even six months after her diagnosis.
“[It] was the best news ever,” Mangene recalls. “Usually going into an NHL camp, you are stressed out, but when I heard my little cousin was cancer free, that was all that mattered.”
Even with the hurdle cleared for his cousin, Mangene ensured he never forgot Kate’s strength. The hashtag #All4Kate became his stick and skates’ signature throughout the 2017-18 season, and for the first time in his professional career, he wore Kate’s number 4. It proved to hold some powers for Mangene, who overcame a broken hand late in the regular season to return to be a part of Texas’s run to the Calder Cup Finals, where they took the league’s top team, the Toronto Marlies, to a seventh and deciding game before falling.
Mangene credited Kate for giving him the drive to return earlier than expected from his injury.
“At the time (I broke my hand), your thoughts arise, and you ask yourself if you’re going to be able to play again this year,” he said. “But when the reality hits you that your little cousin went through chemotherapy and numerous tests, and I’m going through a hand surgery –- it suddenly feels like nothing. Knowing what she went through helped me recover faster and keep a positive mind through it all.”
Over a year later, Kate remains cancer-free while maintaining a regular schedule of follow-up checks. She has also become a Louisiana state volleyball champion twice more, reaching the pinnacle of her sport in each of her three seasons to date.
The scope of Kate’s fight has given Mangene a newfound respect for the Hockey Fights Cancer cause, and the veteran defenseman has seen its profound impact firsthand.
“We love (playing hockey) and it is our job, but it’s a game,” Mangene states. “It’s hard to watch someone go through (cancer), but to see people beat it – it shows how much strength they have in themselves and how much of an inspiration they are. As much as they look up to (you as a pro hockey player), I find myself looking up to them more, because of what they have gone through.”
Mangene and the Thunderbirds will sport lavender jerseys this Saturday as they host the Syracuse Crunch in the first-ever Hockey Fights Cancer Night in Springfield. For more information on the game and the cause, click here.