IRVINE — Ducks assistant coach Mike Stothers stood in a room at Great Park Ice with a handful of media members and several team staffers and started to talk about the series of events leading to his recent diagnosis with stage three melanoma of the lymph node.
Stothers got to the day he heard the news from his oncologist Maki Yamamoto on Feb. 21 when the Ducks were in Tampa, only a few hours before their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Give me a moment,” said an emotional Stothers on Saturday, pausing for a few seconds.
Stothers, who turned 61 in February, is in charge of the defensemen and penalty-killing units.
In a three-plus decades coaching career, Stothers is of an old-school ethic, using tough love when necessary but possessing genuine affection for the well-being of his players. When he informed the Ducks’ players after practice in Raleigh, N.C., on Feb. 24, Stothers did so with two goals in mind: to let them know of his own situation, but also urging them to be aware of their own health and to get checked out if something doesn’t feel right.
“I’m a dad, and my whole life as a player I was a protector of my teammates and stuff like that,” Stothers said. “Figuring now maybe it’s time to help protect others from something turning into more than it should have been, if you could have got to it early and dealt with it then.”
Said Ducks coach Dallas Eakins: “He’s one of the most giving, selfless people I know. For him to handle it this way is not surprising at all. His main concern right now is, ‘How can I help someone else get ahead of where I am right now?’
“That’s all you need to know about that man.”
Defenseman Cam Fowler said there were tears and a lot of emotion when Stothers spoke to the players in Raleigh. Stothers finished the meeting by hugging each of the players, Fowler said.
“It hit us pretty hard,” Fowler said. “He’s a big part of the organization – heart-and-soul guy that means a lot to all of us. We’re all in it together. We know how difficult it’s been for him. And, like you said, for him to be open about it and help other people, that’s the kind of person he is.”
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was emotional in recalling the day: “As soon as Dallas (Eakins) got the ball rolling, I knew right away as soon as he started to choke up. It was tough, a lot of tears. It was just a tough thing to hear. He’s meant a lot to me.”
Stothers had melanoma more than 20 years ago, a spot on the back of his leg. Since then, he’s had regular skin checkups, including during training camp this season. In mid- to late November, Stothers noticed a lump in his groin area but thought it was a hernia. Now he is under the care of UCI Health in Orange and is scheduled for more testing this week and won’t travel with the Ducks on their upcoming four-game trip, which starts Tuesday in Seattle.
“My first thought – like everything I handle – just get it out,” Stothers said. “Rip it out and move on. But I am fully supportive of the better judgment of my oncologist, Dr. Yamamoto. So they know best, right? I’m not going to tell them their job.
“They’re not going to tell me how to run the PK (penalty kill), although I would always take some help in that regard.”
That was just another example of the well-crafted Stothers wit, and he also made a point of saying he wanted to operate the same way as before, business as usual.
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“Monday morning, he wasn’t here for pregame skate, but I was leaving the rink and he was just coming in quickly and he beeped his horn at me and called me over,” Shattenkirk said. “Thinking he was going to give me an update but, ‘Hey, for the PK tonight, make sure that we’re covering the back post.’ His brain certainly doesn’t sleep on that.
“He’s optimistic about it. We know he’s a fighter and he’s going to do everything he can to make sure this doesn’t turn the wrong way.”
Stothers left no doubt of where he stood on the matter.
“It might be a little bit of a battle,” he said. “But I’ve never backed away from a battle all my life. Ready for this one too.”