Back in the game
Double-lung transplant gives goaltender chance to move from beer league to the big leagues
By LAURA FRASER Staff Reporter
Thu, Aug 18 - 6:35 PM
EIGHT SECONDS into his first game in two years, a slapshot ricocheted off Trevor Umlah’s breastbone. The goaltender sucked a breath into the pair of healthy pink lungs that had been transplanted into his chest only six months before. He touched his sternum — strengthened, perhaps, by a little titanium.
Then he smiled and got ready to block the next shot.
"My only worry (was) that my sternum would not hold up, but that was put to rest in about 10 seconds," he laughed Wednesday, recalling the game in early 2008.
"I was really surprised that I still had the skills. I didn’t have the strength or the endurance at the time, but I still had the reflexes. My mind was still with the game."
Today, Umlah’s lungs are stronger, his goalie pads brand new. The Dartmouth man hopes both will serve him well when he tries out next month with the Elmira Jackals of the minor-pro ECHL.
Umlah, a contract manager with Air Canada Jazz, turned 43 earlier this month. That’s the same age at which Gordie Howe first retired from the NHL in 1971. (Umlah points out that Howe later returned for an incredible seven more seasons.)
But Umlah doesn’t expect to be the next Gordie Howe. He doesn’t expect to make the Jackals.
"There were no scouts looking for me," he jokes. "I’m really doing this to promote organ and tissue donation. A lot of people may be hesitant to be an organ donor simply because they think the quality of the person’s life who may receive that organ may . . . not be up to their expectation.
"So I’m trying to show that this is the quality of life that can be achieved."
Since Umlah’s transplant in August 2007, he has started biking again, and he runs and swims. He did all three sports together in his first triathlon last month.
And he’s back in the "beer league" hockey he’s been a part of for 22 years. He had to take a sabbatical in March 2006 when his cystic fibrosis became so advanced that he would soon begin using a portable oxygen tank.
The next spring, he started playing the waiting game.
Umlah learned in February 2007 that he needed a double lung transplant to survive. He left for Toronto that June — the surgery isn’t performed in Nova Scotia.
"It felt like lugging a refrigerator on my back everywhere I went," he says. "Towards the end, I was really . . . tethered to an oxygen line so I didn’t have a lot of freedom. When I had the opportunity for a lung transplant and an improved quality of life, I jumped at it. There was no decision for me."
Some people wait months for a donor to be found. Umlah got the call about three weeks after he arrived in Ontario, while he was at St. Michael’s Hospital listening to a doctor tell him he would have to be put on a ventilator to breathe at night.
He spent a month in hospital after the surgery and three more in rehab. By the six-month mark, he was back in net.
And while he doesn’t expect the New York state team to sign him, he hopes to hold his own against men 20 years his junior who have been groomed for the sport since they first laced up a pair of skates.
"I play at the rink on a weekly basis with a number of my buddies (and) most of them are in their 20s and 30s so they work me pretty hard," he says. "I get a lot of difficult shots . . . so I think I’m as prepared as I’m going to be to face these pro-level shooters."
And if he does get an offer?
"Then I’ve got a real big decision to make," he laughs.