Gwilliam's Triumphant Return
Michigan Tech 6th-Year Senior Recovers From Stroke to Lead Huskies
by Joshua Berhow/CHN Writer
Malcolm Gwilliam found a loose puck in front of the net and buried it to give Michigan Tech a 1-0 lead just 19 seconds into a game against Ryerson Oct. 3, 2009, in MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton, Mich.
Tech won the game 3-1, but it didn’t matter. The game didn’t count. It was an exhibition, the Huskies’ first of the 2009-10 season. Gwilliam’s goal — just like the other three scored in the game — didn’t count, either.
But after looking at what Gwilliam, a senior forward for the Huskies, went through last season, it almost seemed as if his goal was pre-orchestrated.
Gwilliam’s goal against Ryerson came after a long offseason, but not just because the Kamloops, British Columbia, native had an obstacle to overcome — but because he had an obstacle the size of a mountain to overcome.
That game against Ryerson was Gwilliam’s first after suffering a season-ending stroke last November against Minnesota. And to Gwilliam, that goal meant a lot — whether it counted or not.
“In my first shift like that it was pretty special after what happened,” Gwilliam said. “It was big for me because I was out about 11 months. It was definitely nice to get the first one.”
The goal helped the Huskies win a meaningless exhibition game, but Gwilliam and the Huskies’ coaches knew how important it was.
“It was pretty special,” said Huskies head coach Jamie Russell. “To come back and work so hard and score 19 seconds into the game, that was a pretty special moment.”
The Huskies were coming off a 2-2 tie with Minnesota in Minneapolis Nov. 15, 2008, when one of Tech’s assistant coaches approached Russell prior to the series finale and said he needed to talk to Malcolm.
“I went out in the hallway and Malcolm couldn’t move anything on the left side of his body,” Russell said.
Gwilliam suffered a stroke and was rushed by an ambulance to the University of Minnesota Medical Center. There doctors found a hole in Gwilliam’s heart which was untraceable through medical tests. The only way it’s detectable is after a blood clot is formed and moves through the heart and eventually enters the brain.
Gwilliam had to then make undoubtedly the hardest decision of his life.
“He had a choice to take a drug that would dissolve the clot and return him to full health and allow him to play sports again,” Russell said. “But the possible side effect is that you get a hemorrhage in your brain and die. It’s a pretty life-altering decision to make at a pretty young age.”
The other option was to let the body heal on its own, but there were no guarantees that would be successful.
After talking with his parents who made the trip to Minneapolis, Gwilliam chose to take the drug and dissolve the clot, and once successful doctors then did a follow-up procedure to close the hole in his heart.
“If I didn’t take the medication I wouldn’t have been able to play sports ever again,” Gwilliam said. “That was a risk I wanted to take. I wanted to try and play hockey and that was pretty much the main reason why I did it.”
Russell and the rest of the Huskies’ coaches and players had to deal with a lot as well, as they thought about what might happen to one of their own.
“It certainly puts hockey in perspective as a coach,” Russell said. “To see a young man go through that is pretty difficult.”
The long road to recovery started after that, as Gwilliam began a two-month span of being limited to only his couch. He lost nearly 30 pounds from the surgery which he has since regained.
But Gwilliam is no stranger to lengthy-rehab sessions. He was redshirted his sophomore season because of a knee surgery, and an infection to the knee after surgery prolonged the healing process even further. After the stroke Gwilliam was granted his second medical redshirt — something not easily rewarded by the NCAA — and is now a rare sixth-year senior.
This season Gwilliam leads the Huskies with five goals through the team’s first eight games and is second on the team with nine points. He skates on Tech’s first line and is a valuable asset to the power play and penalty kill as well.
“We’re happy to have him back,” Russell said. “Not just from a player standpoint but the leadership he brings to our program is nothing short of amazing.”
Gwilliam’s playing his final season in a Huskies sweater with the captain’s “C” stitched onto it, a most-deserving honor after what he had to overcome.
And after a full recovery from a life-threatening stroke, a simple Aspirin tablet is the only lingering effect Gwilliam has to deal with, which he needs to take one of daily for the rest of his life to avoid his blood from clotting. A small price to pay for someone who just a year ago had his young life threatened, only to be playing Division I college hockey today.
“It’s a pretty minimal thing to do after everything I went through,” he said. “I’ll put up with taking Aspirin to be able to play hockey again.”
And so will the rest of the Huskies in order to get their leader back.
“To come back after his medical situation,” Russell said, “that’s a great story.”