Hockey: Dubliner overcomes cancer to captain country

When Ireland’s U-21 men line out on Friday at the EuroHockey Indoor Championships II in Porto, it will be another significant milestone in the regeneration of the shortened version of the sport. 

They face a six-team group, starting off against Ukraine on Friday morning, with an Irish team entering at this grade for the very first time. For all concerned it will be an emotional moment, but for skipper Ben O’Grady the December 10 tip-off date is particularly significant. 

It will mark exactly a year to the day since he was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare blood cancer which presented in his stomach which, if unchecked, could have proven far more harrowing than the 84 days he spent in hospital.

“It all happened very quickly,” the YMCA man said of the initial haze. “It’s one of the fastest growing cancers and can double in size in a day. I was having difficulty stomaching food and I knew pretty quickly something was up. 

“On the 2nd of December, I knew I had cancer, but not sure exactly which one. I had another biopsy, was diagnosed on the 10th and then treatment started on the 11th. It was as quick as possible, thankfully.”

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Despite the seriousness of the situation, there was inspiration close to hand in the hockey community, not just to recover but to reach the top level. 

Just this summer, Ian Stewart – who is also a graduate of Wesley College – made his senior international debut having overcome non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2016. 

Grace O’Flanagan discovered a sarcoma in her neck before playing a crucial role in the Irish women’s World Cup qualification and run to silver.

“It was very tough news to hear but I was confident knowing there is a high survival rate. I know Ian well; he also had a similar type of cancer. Seeing guys like Ian and Chris [Pelow – another Irish international who survived a synovial sarcoma] get through something like this with such a positive outlook and recovery, it gave me a big boost to stay in the moment and take each day, each step at a time.

“Throughout my stay in hospital, I was fortunate to have the support of a huge number of different groups, the hockey community for one all around me is something I am hugely grateful for.” 

“A group of school friends setup a page called Costa del Ireland, setting a fundraising challenge to virtually run, walk or cycle around the coast of Ireland. They covered the perimeter of Ireland twice over – I was able to partake while in hospital, doing a bit of walking when I could towards the end of my treatment when I was a bit more mobile.”

Indeed, he jokes that while there is no particularly good time to get cancer, this one worked out reasonably ok as his recovery coincided with a locked down hockey season and he was able to push UCD physiotherapy exams back to the summer.

And he was keen to get back to the sport when he could having previously played outdoors for Ireland at Under-16 and 21 level.

As soon as possible, he linked back up with his club for five-a-side through the summer, building up his energy reserves, describing himself as the “anti-Lance Armstrong” with his haemoglobin levels half where they should be when he started out.

But he was surprised at how quickly he was able to build up his strength and when delayed Under-21 trials got the green-light in the autumn from government restrictions on indoor sport, he jumped at the chance.

O’Grady had developed a passion for the format at Under-14 level via Portrane Hockey Club’s progressive initiative, the Tommy O’Sullivan Cup. The yearly competition, held over a series of weeks in January, has introduced a large cohort to the code over the last decade or so, filling a hole during a usually barren period for youth hockey.

Many of Ireland’s team this week cut their teeth in the six-a-side format there or at its Ulster Hockey Under-15 equivalent held at the Antrim Forum. It has fed into these new teams and the reintroduction of senior Irish international teams for the first time since the 1980s. The forum will host a series against Scotland on December 28 and 29 for men and women.

“Indoor hockey is in its early stages in Ireland but the potential to grow is huge,” O’Grady said. “Almost every school has a sports hall of sorts; all that’s needed is an investment in boards and the sport can grow which would be great to see, especially secondary schools potentially introducing a league.”

As for the task at hand, it is a complete journey into the unknown. Video of opponents from Ukraine, Portugal, Belarus, Croatia and Denmark is fleeting at best and so a significant part of the tactical planning will take place on the fly.

“In an outdoor tournament, we would know roughly what to expect from say, the English or the Belgians. We’ll be playing nations we wouldn’t typically associate with outdoor hockey; but with pitches freezing earlier in the season for these mainland European countries they play a lot of indoor hockey so I’m sure the tournament will be highly competitive. 

“It is a unique position, not knowing what to expect from a tournament we’ve never played in. It’s all very new and we don’t have a huge idea of what to expect from the teams so we take every game as it comes. It’s a hugely exciting prospect. 

“Whatever happens, it’s been a remarkable year, a lot of ups and downs, and I feel very fortunate to be part of this group. We have a very talented group of players and coaches and we’re all really looking forward to pulling on a green jersey and representing Ireland in the indoor Under-21 championships.”

EuroHockey U21 Men Indoor Championship II, Parades, Portugal , December 10-12 2021

  • Ben O’Grady (Captain, YMCA)
  • Jack Haycock (vice-captain, Cookstown)
  • Traoloch Butler (Pembroke Wanderers)
  • Ollie Kidd (Lisnagarvey)
  • Craig Mackay (Corinthian)
  • Harry McCarthy (YMCA)
  • Louis Murphy (Railway Union)
  • Jamie Orr (North Down)
  • Jake Pillow (Railway Union)
  • Ben Ryder (Three Rock Rovers)
  • Eoin Brennan  (Goalkeeper, Railway Union)
  • Ian O’Keeffe (GK, HC Oranje Rood (NED))
  • Manager: Neil Mackay
  • Head Coach: Kenny Carroll
  • Coach / Analyst: Ross Willis
  • Physio: Huw Rees

Fixture schedule (all times local)

  • Friday 10th December: Ireland v Ukraine, 11am; Ireland v Croatia, 6pm
  • Saturday 11th December: Ireland v Portugal , 1.30pm; Ireland v Belarus, 5.15pm
  • Sunday 12th December: Ireland v Denmark, 11.30am

YMCA’s Ben O’Grady will captain Ireland’s U-21s exactly a year to the day since he was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare blood  cancer discovered in his stomach

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