Back on the ice: Stelio Mattheos’ journey back from cancer

The Hurricanes prospect is finally feeling like his old self during this year's training camp

Cancer is something that will touch everyone’s life at some point. For those of us fortunate not to get a diagnosis or a scare, there are friends and relatives who won’t be so fortunate. Shawn Krest has been chosen by the American Cancer Society as one of the Real Men Wear Pink ambassadors for October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Each day of the month, he’ll be telling a story of how cancer has touched someone on one of the teams we root for. It could be a coach, a player, a retired legend or an arena worker. The disease doesn’t care how successful you are, how much money you have or, as we see in today’s first post, whether you are young and in peak physical condition.  To join in the fight against breast cancer, you can visit Shawn’s American Cancer Society page.

Stelio Mattheos laughs when someone compliments him on his hair. He runs his hand through it, black and matted to his head, still damp with sweat from the morning skate at Carolina Hurricanes training camp.

“Yeah, thanks,” he says. “Seems like it came back nicely. So, it’s a little curlier. Why, I don’t know. I’m having some fun with it now, and, you know, I get to show it sticking out of my helmet.”

The last time he was in PNC Arena for Hurricanes camp was in September 2019, when the then-20-year-old Hurricanes prospect was completely bald and in the fight of his life.

A third-round draft pick by Carolina in 2017, Mattheos made his professional debut with the Charlotte Checkers, then the Hurricanes’ top minor league affiliate, in March 2019, following back-to-back 40-goal seasons in the junior WHL. The 19-year-old helped lead Charlotte on a run through the playoffs, culminating with a victory in the Calder Cup Finals.

There had been some red flags in the days leading up to winning the championship. Mattheos felt pain while walking through the airport as the team was traveling to a playoff game, and, just before the final game of the championship series, he had trouble catching his breath.

“Something just didn’t feel right,” he says.

Two days after raising the Cup on the ice and four days before he was turning 20, Mattheos got back his test results explaining the symptoms. He had testicular cancer.

Mattheos would undergo surgery to have a testicle removed, followed by three rounds of chemotherapy.

“The low point was probably when I found out I needed treatment, because I thought I might get lucky and just have to get to surgery,” he says.

As a pro athlete, Mattheos was used to pushing his body to the limits and ignoring physical discomfort and pain. The cancer treatment, however, was something different, entirely.

“It’s probably not, not that close,” he says, struggling to find the right words, then having them pour out in a flood. “No, I don’t know. It’s …  it’s hard to really compare them, but you kind of just have to adopt that warrior mentality. But you’re just, you’re just never feeling good and you’re just, uncertain about things. And, again, just the hours, the hours at the hospital and, you know, all the stuff they put in through my veins and everything. It’s just … you can’t really can’t really mimic that or, you know, compare that to hockey, honestly. It’s just real life.”

Mattheos returned to the ice midway through the next season and has battled injury, as well as a pandemic-related shutdown, as he tries to get back to the shape he was in prediagnosis.

“Quite a long time, probably,” he says of when he started to feel like his old self. “Till this past offseason,  honestly. I had two groin surgeries, so it’s very tough, and I still have to do a lot of maintenance there.But  I’m feeling healthy again and ready to go.”

He lost 10 to 15 pounds during treatment and still hasn’t gained it all back.

Chances are, he’ll have trouble making the Hurricanes this season and will have to start the year with another trip to the minor leagues.

“You always root for guys like that,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour says, “But then, you’ve got a job to do. So I think you’ve just got to evaluate based on where he’s at.”

Where he’s at right now is certainly a better place than he was two years ago, and his journey back is still ongoing.

“It’s certainly tough,” Mattheos says. “Extremely tough, physically, and tougher mentally, as well. You know, I think we’re athletes. We’re really conditioned physically to deal with, you know, any injuries or illness that kind of comes our way, and mentally it’s … it’s a lot bigger grind, I found. It took awhile to, you know, feel like myself again. … Stuff doesn’t change overnight. So you just … I’ve always, had to keep working on things mentally and physically. And I’m going to just keep doing that and keep trying to improve every day and prove that I can show my old form and keep improving.”

To donate to the American Cancer Society’s fight against cancer, visit the Real Men Wear Pink campaign page.