But those big-league battles on the ice are hardly the toughest challenges Leland Irving has faced in his lifetime.
When he was 7 years old, Irving was just like any other Canadian boy his age, playing minor hockey and dedicated to a dream of making it to the NHL. But unlike other boys who spent their time off the ice in the playground, Irving spent his enduring rounds of chemotherapy, in a fight to overcome rhabdomyosarcoma.
If you’ve never heard of rhabdomyosarcoma before, it’s because it’s an extremely rare form of cancer that often presents itself in children under the age of 19.
The cancer was discovered in Irving after a biopsy revealed that what appeared to be an insect bite above his ear was indeed a cancerous tumor. After removing the tumor, Irving endured 13 months of chemotherapy before doctors could successfully say he was cancer free.
While chemotherapy is the most commonly used treatment for various types of cancer, it is a grueling ordeal, especially for children.
To sum up the treatment as simply as possible, the chemotherapy agents act by killing cells in the body that divide unusually rapidly. While this does target the cancerous cells, it also tends to affect other parts of the body, like bone marrow cells, the digestive tract and hair follicles.
So you can imagine that, even though the treatment is aiming to cure the cancer, it also leaves the patient feeling really, really crappy.
And all the while Leland Irving was going through this painful process, he continued to play hockey and managed to miss only one practice and one game.
And at the age of 23, Irving does have a lot under his belt, now the official backup goalie for the Flames as Henrik Karlsson is out with an injury. And his teammates have nothing but praises to sing for Irving, calling him confident, solid and a great player all around.
But as he rises through the ranks of the NHL, you can count on Irving to remain humbled by the experience he went through as a child.
“I feel like I hold a special place in my heart for any kids —-or anybody—- who had to go through cancer or is affected by this terrible disease,” says Irving. “I hope to give anyone who’s had to go through their own battles a little bit of hope and realize that things can work out, and as you can see I am still able to live my dreams.”