Before every Randolph ice hockey game, head coach Rich McLaughlin makes up his starting lineup. It always includes forward Stefan Tamminga.
But Tamminga, a Rams captain, hasn’t skated during a game yet. The scrappy senior has been dealing with a much bigger challenge: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Tamminga noticed a lump on his collarbone in early October. When it didn’t go away for a week, he told his parents, Bill and Dana Tamminga, and they took him to the doctor. They were sent to the emergency room. Two days later, the Tammingas knew it was Hodgkin’s.
Stefan had two questions.
“Am I going to die?”
“Can I play hockey?”
The second question startled pediatric oncologist John Joseph Gregory Jr., but he cleared Tamminga — for the moment.
Tamminga, who had turned 18 a week earlier, was on the ice with the New Jersey Colonials for almost two weeks between his diagnosis and the start of chemotherapy at Atlantic Health’s Valerie Fund Children’s Center.
Randolph seniors Mitchell Gaudioso and Andrew Holowko, who also play for the Colonials, were the first to hear the disturbing news — but Tamminga swore them to secrecy. He scored four goals in as many games over two weekends, then had surgery to implant a port in his chest and start chemotherapy on Oct. 15.
About 13 percent of Hodgkin’s cases are diagnosed in children and teens, according to the National Cancer Institute. One of the most treatable forms of cancer, it has a 10-year survival rate of more than 80 percent.
“I didn’t cry in front of him, but when he dropped me off after telling me, I was a mess,” said Holowko, the Rams goaltender. “I was holding it in for the first couple of days, and finally, after I took the SAT, my mom told me (Tamminga’s mother) had told her he had it. My mom was crying and I was crying and it was just bad. … I realized how fragile our lives are, and how anything can happen at any moment to any one of us. In regard to hockey, every time I go out there, all I can think about is how he wishes he was out there too.”
Healing through hockey
The Rams, who normally grow their hair from November until the end of the season, broke with tradition and shaved their heads when Tamminga started losing his hair from chemo. Chris Tamminga took care of his younger brother, as a normal family ritual became “definitely weirder. I’ve never really felt my bald head before.” Gaudioso lost his long, dirty blonde curls and Holowko his shorter, darker locks to Stefan Tamminga’s razor.
Randolph students sold “Stay Strong Stefan” rubber bracelets, and they held a “purple out” for Hodgkin’s awareness at the season opener, a 2-1 victory over Morris Knolls. The players wear a sticker reading “HEF” — a childhood nickname of Tamminga’s — on their helmets, have purple laces in their skates, and wrap the grips and blades of their sticks in purple tape. Still undefeated, the Rams say “Play for Stef” before taking the ice for games.
“I can’t be out there when we’re enjoying the game, just passing, shooting and scoring,” said Tamminga, a Pittsburgh Penguins fan who spends a lot of time on the makeshift rink his father built in their front yard. “I also can’t be out there when we’re not doing so good. It has its ups and downs.”
Tamminga still skates at every Randolph practice, showing up in sweats and getting on the ice for the first 15 minutes or so. He has been at all the games too, watching from the stands and usually avoiding the locker room to protect his depressed immune system. Tamminga even attends pasta parties, movie nights and other group events — always quick to share his hand sanitizer.
Tamminga is “like a coach now,” according to Holowko, demonstrating drills in practice and offering suggestions to individual teammates.
“I don’t know how he does it,” McLaughlin said. “He never says anything. He comes out, skates, and the next thing I know he’s getting dressed and going home. He’s always there. … These kids realize every minute, every shift, every practice, ever game counts.”
Back in the game
Tamminga was scheduled for his final chemotherapy treatment on Tuesday, after a grueling week of 13 hours over three days. Even after eight hours at the Valerie Center on Dec. 17, Tamminga still wanted to skip the saline flush so he could get to practice on time — and was released only after agreeing to drink a 16-ounce bottle of water on the way to the rink, another while he was there, and one more on the way home.
The family hopes for a clean prognosis, though radiation is still a possibility. Tamminga has already been assured he can get back to full-contact hockey while having radiation treatments. He expects to be “back out on the ice and competing with my brothers, my teammates” within a month. Randolph (2-0-1) has already had two games postponed due to bad weather, but that means more potential opportunities for Tamminga to play.
His goal of a fourth straight NJSIAA Public A championship hasn’t changed.
“(Hockey) was always something to go to when things weren’t right,” Tamminga said. “It helps, knowing I have my team with me. I’ll get past this, and eventually beat it. I try to keep my life normal, and I know that’s what I would be doing anyway, so I’ll try to keep doing it, and support the team. … Hockey’s always been more fun, more enjoyable. There’s something about being on the ice that makes everything good.”