Eddie Olczyk is a tough guy. His 16-year career in the National Hockey League tells you that, let alone the 342 goals and 794 points he tallied. But he admits he's not tough enough to beat cancer by himself.
Which is why the support he's received from his nuclear family, and his extended families at NBC, the NHL, and throughout horse racing have proven so crucial to his recovery from the colon cancer that he was diagnoed with last August.
Olczyk, 51, in just three years has carved out a significant niche as NBC's lead analyst on its coverage of horse racing. He's had an unrequited love affair with the sport from age 12, when he first visited Arlington International Racecourse near his native Chicago. On his very first racing telecast three years ago, Olczyk gave out 10-1 and 14-1 winners in the two races he covered.
But he's been about much more than picking winners. The likeable Olczyk has time for a word with everyone, and he's tirelessly promoted horse racing even when he's had to squeeze his picks into brief stoppages of play while covering NHL games. And he's being paid back now, in his time of greatest need.
"I've been overwhelmed by the support I've received from people," he said Dec. 19. "The calls, texts, coins, horseshoes, cards. There's so much good out there and the human spirit is strong and special."
Olczyk had to back out from covering the Betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) last summer when he wasn't feeling well. Less that a week later he was having a tumor and part of his colon removed, and his life thrown into crisis.
"I was scared. I'm still scared," he said. "You think about your mortality, your legacy. You feel like you've let everyone down and you don't want people worrying about you. You go through all these thought before you realize you didn't let anyone down; you just got sick. I've got a great chance to beat this, so now I want to inspire other people by sharing my story. I want to prevent somebody from going through this. So if they get a check-up or a colonoscopy early, it's worth it. Go see a doctor; don't try to shake it off."
Olczyk has gone through seven of 12 chemotherapy treatments to date, with the last one scheduled for mid-February. He has begun appearing on hockey telecasts on the weeks in between his treatments, and also made a cameo appearance during NBC's coverage of the Breeders' Cup World Championships, giving out the cold exacta in the Classic (G1), so he hasn't lost his touch.
"Working has been great medicine," said Olczyk. "The word 'distraction' doesn't do it justice. It's really helped me mentally to try to get back to what I'm used to doing. I've had enough quiet time to last a lifetime these past months, so when you have something that moves the clock along, it's great."
Handicapping has proven a welcome diversion as well. Although some days it's tough concentrating, Olczyk has done his best to keep up with what's been happening in racing.
"It helps to watch and wager when I'm feeling good," he said. "There's no worries when I'm handicapping a 20 claimer at Gulfstream Park or opening day at Santa Anita Park because it's a love and a passion. My betting spirit hasn't been dented. I'm firing with both hands when I'm feeling good."
Olczyk has gotten through the pain by setting goals such as returning to work at hockey games, attending his daughter's graduation from the University of Alabama, and getting back to covering racing. He has marked down working the Triple Crown series as a big goal going forward.
"Once I get through my treatments, I'll get a scan and hopefully the thumbs up that I'm winning this battle and get a clean bill of health," he said. "So the plan is to be ready to go for the Triple Crown and the NHL playoffs, a return to normalcy. It will be exciting to get back to doing what I love."