Two years ago, former Komet Chris Auger considered quitting hockey. After playing in Scotland, the game wasn't as fun and he wondered if this was his time to get a real job, a more normal life.
"I had experienced enough," he said. "I was getting worn out with the lifestyle."
But he decided to play another season and about a year ago after a late trade from Brampton to Atlanta and missing the playoffs for the first time in his career, there was plenty to think about on a road trip home to Belleville, Ontario. While sometimes sleeping in his car as he visited South Carolina, Nashville, Fort Wayne and Niagara Falls, the left winger was fighting through a cold but decided to wait to get it checked out.
"I was being a typical guy, taking more medication until it went away," Auger said. "I figured I was just worn down, and when I got home, I thought I'd go in for some antibiotics."
The doctor gave him a full physical and found bronchitis and a lump on the side of his neck. After numerous appointments and without a diagnosis, Auger underwent surgery in July at Toronto General Hospital, to remove the mass. Sporting a five inch scar and after three days in hospital Auger was able to go home. Initially thought to be a benign mass, Auger learned in August that he had leimyosarcoma, a cancer affecting soft tissues. Within days of receiving his diagnosis Auger moved to Toronto to receive radiation treatments, five days a week for seven weeks, at Princess Margaret Hospital.
Part of getting through any serious health problem is having something to look forward to.
"Being a hockey player gave me a purpose and a goal," Auger said. "Obviously, the first thing I wanted to do was get healthy, but my purpose had always been hockey, and this became about what I needed to do to be able to go back and do what I love. With all that time to think, I realized that hockey has given me so much, and I had taken it for granted a little bit.
"I was so easily ready to walk away from the game two years ago, and now my thinking was, `Why would I leave something if I'm healthy and able to do it?'"
So he could be close to home, family and his doctors, Auger asked Atlanta to release him so he could re-sign with Brampton to play again for former Komets teammate and Beast coach Colin Chaulk. Chaulk saw renewed purpose in his former linemate.
"As he got to be an older player and after a few years in Fort Wayne and in Europe, sometimes you stat to get stale, and I think that's what happened to Chris," Chaulk said. "We sat down and had a conversation with Chris where we said, 'We need you to want to be here.'"
Auger had the hunger back, but then he had a find a way to get ready to play again, but he couldn't even start skating until October. The best guess is that he'd be ready to maybe play by January.
"They had signed a really good team in the summer, so I knew it was going to be kind of an interesting situation," Auger said. "You kind of have to start from scratch and earn your spot again, and here I was 10 pounds lighter than I had played the last few years, and I'm not a big guy as it is."
It didn't help things that Auger wanted to keep his health situation a secret because he didn't want it to be a distraction. Most fans figured it was a flair up of a previously suffered shoulder injury that had required surgery, but he simply wasn't in good enough shape to compete.
Though fully participating in practice, Auger missed Brampton's first five games before injuries forced him into the lineup. The Beast couldn't afford to baby him along any more, and needed him to play. Playing against Fort Wayne, where he was part of the Komets' 2012 Central Hockey League title, Auger had a story-book return, scoring two goals in a 5-4 Brampton win.
"To be able to play in November was unbelievable because I was not ready," Auger said. "I don't think I started to feel normal until January for February where I felt like I could start to do what I normally could."
Auger finished with 21 goals and 37 points in 62 games, his best totals since getting 55 points with the Komets in 2013-14. He also led the team in blocked shots, was a mentor to some of the younger players and filled any role asked.
"The biggest change was Chris was happy and he had an attitude change as far as his outlook on everyday life," Chaulk said. "We would joke all the time that we loved the new Chris. He's was just happy."
A potential tragedy had returned Auger's passion for the game. The illness also added other perspective, showing him who his true friends were, whom he could count on during trouble. People don't have to return anything to you, he said, but they usually will if you were good to them to begin with.
"I appreciated everything hockey has done for me and everything I have gotten from it, the people you meet throughout the game," he said.
But the adversity also taught him a great deal about himself. He spent time with a psychologist, making sure his mind was right. Unlike many, he's willing to talk about what an advantage the counseling was. He told teammates about it when asked, saying that learning the strength of his mind is a great tool to have.
"We're quick to go to the doctor if we need something with our body, but one thing we kind of let slip is why not get your mind checked out and talk to somebody?" he said. "Sometimes, the most important thing is where you are in your own headspace. Being right in that way is the most important thing is the most important thing. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
Though he'll turn 30 in December, Auger knows he wants to play again. He's happy, enjoys what he does and loves life. He still gets nervous before check-ups, but that's getting better, too. Really, every part of life is better.
"It's been quite a year," Auger said. "From the low point of thinking you probably won't be able to play to getting to the high point you never thought was possible... To see the turnaround is very rewarding because of how you live your life and what you put into the things you care about."
For more on the Komets, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at @blakesebring, at his blog tailingthekomets.com and on Facebook at Blake Sebring.