Liam Kirkwood never backed down from anything in life. When it came time to fight cancer he took it head on with a positive attitude and showed us all, even at the worst times, people can be their best.
Liam was a fighter, a hero and an inspiration.
On April 7, Liam passed away at the age of 18 after battling acute myeloid leukemia for nearly two years.
Liam was diagnosed in May 2010, and from then on, he put up a spirited scrap. His story was one of courage in the face of death and inspiration against all the odds. He was one of the bravest and toughest human beings I have ever met.
His funeral mass last week featured many people wearing hockey jerseys. It was a poignant display by family and friends as they paid their respects to Liam. It is what he would have wanted to see.
I talked to Liam a long time ago after he was diagnosed and he joked with me about giving me an exclusive one day when he finally beat cancer so the readers could gain inspiration from his fight.
In his mind, Liam didn’t want to give readers a story about his fight with cancer, he wanted to give readers a story about his victory over cancer. I had to respect it.
Sadly, this story will never come to press with Liam’s own words. I feel obligated to write a piece about Liam and the impact he had on Greater Sudbury and the people who were blessed to earn his friendship.
Liam Kirkwood sits with the family dog, Yukon, in Copper Cliff. Supplied photo.
I write what I write with a heavy heart. I wore the orange rubber band with the words Stay Strong Liam in support for the kid and his family. I’ve known the Kirkwood family for more than 10 years. My family considers the Kirkwood clan to be an extension of ours.
This hit me on two levels, one as a friend and one as a father. Over the years, I have gotten to know Liam’s father, Rick, quite well.
I’ve spent hours chatting with Rick about all things hockey, especially the local scene. He is darn proud of his boys — Kyllian, Liam, Devyn and Sheehan. Whenever I heard Liam was going through a rough patch, I couldn’t help but feel for Rick. It brought me to tears on many occasions. I have two daughters and I couldn’t imagine the grief and pain Rick, and his family, endured every day and will continue to feel.
Liam stood out as a hockey player in the AAA ranks in the Nickel City. He was a hard-nosed, no nonsense defenceman who stuck up for his teammates no matter what. He could change the tide with a thunderous body check. He was also no slouch with the puck and had a high panic threshold.
In short, he was a great hockey player. He was picked by the Kingston Frontenacs in the 2009 Ontario Hockey League Priority Draft. An OHL scout told me Liam would have made the OHL, no doubt, if not for cancer.
I love hearing the story of Liam’s first camp in Kingston. It shows what kind of guy he was. He went into the corner and battled with the biggest guy on the team before coming out to block a slapshot from the point. Without flinching or hesitation, Liam knelt down and blocked the shot by taking it right in the groin.
Liam didn’t have his jock on. He had forgot it, but still sacrificed his body during a scrimmage. He had to go to the hospital afterward for repairs and he never complained once. Hockey people loved how Liam had no fear and was a team player.
One of my favourite stories to hear about Liam comes from a couple of local hockey scouts. Years ago, when Liam was about 14, these scouts were at a game and Liam was coming up the stairs with some nachos. He tripped on a step and spilt his nachos. One of the scouts let out a laugh. Liam looked the scout in the eyes and asked him what his problem was. The scout thought Liam was going to beat him up and said there wasn’t a problem. It always makes me smile, and I always bug those scouts about it.
I interviewed Liam last summer at the pediatric oncology unit at Health Sciences North. He was there meeting NHL hockey players who were visiting the hospital to give a boost to kids fighting cancer.
Liam was smiling from ear-to-ear.
Never once did Liam get negative or play the pity card or even feel sorry for himself. This kid was just too darn tough, both mentally and physically. He was more concerned with the younger kids who were battling cancer.
Liam made it a point to draw attention away from himself that day. He looked around the centre and put the focus on the younger kids, some younger than 10 years old, who were also in the same scrap with a disease known for taking no prisoners. He was amazed at their courage, despite being so young. It’s unreal, because I was looking at Liam at the same time and thinking the same thing about him — I was amazed at the courage of this young man.
I think this sums up Liam in a nutshell: tough as nails and the hammer that pounds them in, but also with a genuine big, caring heart.
Liam Kirkwood on the golf course with his father, Rick. Supplied photo.
Liam put up one heck of a fight. I really do wish I could say he was still fighting it — he would still be with us. The battle took its toll. My heart sinks when I think of his family — his mother and father, his brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins. They’re a close family and have a lot of love and did all they could to help.
In August 2010, his older brother, Kyllian, gave Liam a bone marrow transplant to help him in his fight. I asked Kyllian for a few words about his brother and his defiance against the disease.
“The way Liam handled his disease was truly inspirational and motivational, especially at his age,” he said. “Not once did he complain about why it happened to him or how much pain he was in. He always had a smile on his face.
“The most amazing part was his attitude,” he continued. “It never came across Liam’s mind that he was going to lose his fight. He was always thinking positive. He never used his disease as an excuse for anything. Only a select few could handle what Liam handled with the attitude and optimism he possessed.
“While visiting Liam at Sick Kids Hospital, he rarely asked you for help with anything. Most of the time he was helping other people, when he was the one in need of being helped. Its selfless acts like these that describe Liam as a person. Always thinking of other people first, even during his sickness.”
Liam will be missed, and he will not be forgotten. He was too much of a quality person to ever fade away from our memories. Liam’s Facebook page was flooded with well wishes, prayers and words of support following his passing — a genuine showing of grief and love by hundreds of people.
In his time, Liam taught us a lot about resolve, resiliency and bravery indirectly with his actions and words in his battle with cancer. He taught us how to stand up for ourselves and not take any crap from people dishing it out in life.
He was a remarkable young man with passion and purpose.