'You can still see her smiling'
By Scott Burnside
ST. LOUIS -- They walk toward the cancer clinic at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and he reaches for her hand, an instinct no more conscious than the last breath he took. He opens the door for her, his hand gently in the small of her back, retracing steps traveled many times over the past three years.
It's quiet here on a sunny Sunday morning, and the couple is greeted warmly like old friends by the staff at the clinic. Tim, one of the health care staff, who has been here for so many of these visits, tells Larry Pleau and his wife, Wendy, that he's sorry they missed his homemade turtles the day before. They joke about the missed opportunity before Tim disappears and returns a short while later with a box of the candy for Wendy.
Jane, another staffer, works on the three-pronged catheter that has been embedded near the tip of Wendy's aorta since June 15, 2007, drawing blood and then redoing the dressing around the device.
The device has made the regular blood transfusions and tests and administering of antibiotics easier, but it also has been a constant reminder of what has been taken from her.
Every time Wendy takes a shower, she has to methodically tape a covering on the catheter. One of the many things she dreams of is the day when she will simply step into a shower without a second thought.
"When that day comes, I'll be very happy," she says.
Larry attended the same summer hockey school in Worcester, Mass., for three straight years in his early teens. In those days, NHLers worked at hockey schools in the offseason to earn some much-needed cash. Among the instructors at this camp were Montreal Canadiens forward Ralph Backstrom and Chicago great Stan Mikita. During Pleau's third year, Backstrom called Sam Pollock of the Habs and suggested the Canadiens call someone to take a look at the American prospect.
A scout named Scotty Bowman showed up at a Sunday afternoon pickup game and offered Pleau a chance to play with the junior Canadiens. When Pleau arrived in Montreal, he was met at the airplane by Bowman and future Hall of Famer Cliff Fletcher.
Not long after his arrival, he caught the eye of a girl working at the YMCA. It was Wendy. The following season, the two began dating.
A love story? To be sure.
A story of the power of determination and belief? Yes.
A hockey story? That too.
Robust and perpetually happy, a devoted hockey fan and rabid Blues supporter, Wendy initially diagnosed herself as having a kidney stone after developing sharp pain in her lower abdomen around Thanksgiving in 2006.
But after a third visit to the doctors, they discovered an unusually large tumor near her tailbone. The morning of the first diagnosis, Dec. 26, 2006, doctors told Wendy and Larry that the tumor was inoperable and she had six months to a year to live.
Even now, Wendy recalls little of that day. While she rested at the hospital, Larry drove to the house of new Blues president John Davidson. The two had known each other for years -- Pleau was an assistant GM with the Stanley Cup-winning Rangers in 1994 when Davidson was a TV analyst in New York -- but they had only recently started working together during a change in ownership.
"He knocked on my door. He had nowhere else to go," Davidson recalled.
They talked, and Davidson tried to think positively. But what do you say, really? By the end of the day, Pleau returned to Davidson's home to tell him that they had gotten lucky. The doctors reversed their initial diagnosis and said the cancer, a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called Burkitt's lymphoma, was curable, but it was fast moving, and treatment would need to be aggressive and undertaken quickly. Larry suggested they start the next day. And so the battle began.
"That was some day," Davidson said. "Being told something no one wants to hear to being told that you've got a fighting chance, it was a remarkable day. Remarkable."
In the beginning, it looked like this story would end both quickly and happily. Wendy underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, and the doctors said the cancer had gone into remission. Larry likened it to a march to the Stanley Cup with its four rounds of grueling competition. The Blues presented Wendy with a cardboard cutout of the Stanley Cup with their signatures and well-wishes.
But eight weeks later, doctors found another tumor, a midgrade non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which they decided to fight with a combination of more chemotherapy, radiation and a stem-cell transplant that took place July 5, 2007.
That brought with it more complications. After the operation, doctors discovered a large area of infection. A regimen of antibiotics did not reduce the infection. Wendy's weight continued to drop, and she grew more and more frail, confined to a hospital bed for long stretches.
"Nothing was getting any better," Larry recalled. "It just went on and on and on."
The doctors were afraid to operate and remove the infection because of problems with her bone marrow, which, although noncancerous, had been affected by the months of treatment.
After weeks of trying to settle on a course of action, they decided the only chance for Wendy to have a relatively normal life was to go in after the infection and cut it out. And that's what they did July 1, 2008, removing a baseball-sized abscess almost a full year after the stem-cell operation.
It was a seminal moment on what had been a trying road to recovery.
From the moment Wendy was diagnosed with cancer, the axis on which Larry's world turned shifted. He stopped traveling with the team, and while he was at the office as often as possible, he beat a regular path to the hospital. When Wendy was convalescing at home, Larry sometimes would leave after the second period of a game to make sure she was OK. Wendy sometimes would banish Larry from the hospital room, as his pacing and fidgeting would make her bananas. "He wouldn't sit still," she complained in mock despair.
He often would wander into the little restaurant district that borders the hospital campus and found a diner run by a Greek fellow who happened to be a hockey fan. Morning, noon and night, Larry would drop by for a snack or a coffee, biding his time until he would return to his wife.
That was her bedtime story.
By the time she woke up the next morning, Larry would be back at the hospital by her side, waiting for the doctors' morning rounds.
They laugh now at how their daughter, Shannon, had to put sticky notes all over the house to explain the basic household operations to Larry.
This is where the detergent goes.
This is how to work the microwave.
Here's what you do with the cat's litter box.
This is how to start the washing machine.
"I couldn't even put clothes in the washing machine," Larry recalled with a wry laugh.
What did he need help with?
"Everything," he said.
Here's what happens sometimes to people who get really sick. In the beginning, family and friends are eager to help. There are visitors and casseroles and calls and gifts. And then, after time, it becomes a little less and a little less. Not that people don't care, but life happens. Wendy said she wondered whether it would happen to her.
"But it never stopped," she said. "It surprised me unbelievably that people were so caring."
The first Christmas after her diagnosis, she got a call from Davidson's wife, Diana, and from the wife of longtime Blue Keith Tkachuk. They said some of the girls just wanted to drop some stuff by the house. About 20 people stopped by with turkey and gifts.
Early after Wendy went into the hospital, gourmet food started showing up at the Pleau house, a service arranged by the team. Larry asked someone in the office after a week or so when it would stop. The response: when he didn't need it.
Davidson seems both humbled and yet largely unsurprised by the part he and his team -- and we ascribe the widest possible description when using that term -- have played in sharing the Pleaus' trials.
"What can't be forgotten in all of this is that what goes around comes around," Davidson said. "[Wendy and Larry are] two world-class people."
Davidson recalled a story from a couple of years ago, when the Blues were going to buy captain Dallas Drake out of his contract during the offseason. Larry flew to Traverse City, Mich., to tell Drake in person.
"Larry's always done it the right way," Davidson said.
Professionally, the past few years have not been easy for Larry, either. No one will say so publically, but sources close to the team said previous ownership forced him to trade Chris Pronger to Edmonton after the lockout. There also was the end of the Blues' 25-season playoff streak. Fans stayed away, and while they weren't going to the games, they filled their time flaying Pleau.
So, what is a team, then? A bunch of players, coaches, managers and scouts who exist in their own orbit, consumed by wins, losses, goals and saves, impervious to what most of us consider the "real" world? Or is it something more?
What has transpired over the past three years in St. Louis suggests something deeper and more textured.
Take the day the Blues turned out for a blood drive at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Tents were set up outside facing the room in which Wendy was recovering. There were players and their wives and staff and fans, some of whom had driven in from neighboring states to give blood. They held up signs that read, "Hi Wendy!" and "Blood For Wendy." Wendy could barely get out of bed, let alone walk, but somehow managed to get to the window to wave down at the crowd.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Blues GM Larry Pleau turned to friend and team president John Davidson during his family's ordeal.
"It was just so emotional. I was really sick at that point. I could hardly get out of my room," she recalled. "To see them out there, what a feeling."
"You see her in that window, and you can still see that smile," said veteran defenseman Barret Jackman, who's been with the Blues since 2002. "You're a couple of hundred of yards away, and you can still see her smiling, no matter what she was going through."
In the fall of 2007, Blues coach Andy Murray introduced the Determination Cup, which was named in honor of Wendy and would be awarded to the team that won a camp tournament.
This year, the team unfurled a red carpet, and Wendy, looking as healthy as anyone had seen her in a long time, appeared to deliver the trophy to the winning team. Veteran Keith Tkachuk escorted Wendy onto the carpet to deliver the award.
"Which was really kind of special. I have to say there were tears being shed. It was pretty emotional when she walked out," Murray said. "There were a lot of people in the building, fans, others."
Tkachuk has known the Pleaus for many years.
"It puts a lot of things in perspective," Tkachuk said. "All the different ups and downs that they went through, and she fought and she kept on fighting and she wouldn't give up. It's a miracle. It really is.
"I went over and visited her a couple of times," Tkachuk added. "I've seen the good and the not so good, and she was always positive. And just seeing what she went through was enough for us to see how strong she was. And everything focused, when you go to visit her, wasn't on her. She always seemed to ask about your family, your kids; it was like it wasn't going to bother her. It was just how strong she was. It was amazing for me to see."
Wendy's eyes light up at the memory of the Determination Cup presentation; she's still amazed they actually put out the red carpet for her, as though she were a dignitary or something.
"That was really, really special," she said. "They slammed their sticks down on the ice. That was a wonderful day because I felt so good."
They are small things, things of normalcy that are second nature to most of us, like getting in the car to go to the store or walking into Scottrade Center to watch a Blues game or walking from the coffee shop into the hospital for blood tests. These are things within Wendy's grasp now.
She used to lie in her hospital bed, watching the people walk by in the hallway and being so envious of them and their freedom. Her view of herself, sitting up in bed, also added to the sense of distance from her old life.
"I worried that I'd have fat ankles because that's all I could see of me," she joked.
But for all of the small ups followed by large downs -- the pneumonia, the infections, the trips to the emergency room -- Wendy says she never really lost faith that there would be anything but a positive end to this story. She says there was only "one or two times when I thought, 'This is it.'"
One was when she was nearing release from the hospital after the stem-cell operation and she suffered congestive heart failure.
At the time, the couple was told that most patients who undergo the kind of chemotherapy Wendy had undergone rarely see their hearts return to normal. But recent tests have shown Wendy's heart has done just that. Larry recalled the doctor being amazed at the test results.
"He gave her a high five," he said proudly.
These new, recent moments of independence and progress are signposts that suggest the Pleaus' hope and belief have been rewarded and the past three years are just that, the past.
"It's not like it didn't happen. But it's surreal," she said. "A year ago, I could do one thing a day."
"She's taken some of my responsibilities away," Larry added with a laugh.
Now, she is driving and walking, helping out around the house. Earlier this season, the Blues hosted a Hockey Fights Cancer night with two suites set aside for cancer survivors and their families. Wendy was there, laughing, doing interviews, as though she'd never been away.
The Pleaus have two children -- Shannon, who lives in Massachusetts, and Steve, who is a junior hockey coach in Edmonton. They have three grandchildren and one on the way. Thanksgiving weekend, three years after Wendy felt those first pains, she was headed to Alberta, Canada.
"There's nothing nicer," she said. "You can't have a grandma who can't fly."
After her stem-cell transplant, Wendy became what is known as "transfusion dependent." She required a blood transfusion almost every week, as she could not totally regain her strength, and succumbed to dizziness and weakness that left her unable to do many things.
Now, it's been 14 weeks since Wendy has needed a blood transfusion, meaning her blood numbers are strong. Larry carries the weekly results in a bag with him, just as he might be carrying copies of the NHL's power-play and penalty-killing stats.
Each week represents another signpost along the way.
Do they fret over what the results might be? No, they say, it's part of life. By springtime, they hope the time between visits will become longer and longer, as long as the numbers continue to be positive.
It takes less than 15 minutes, and the results are back. Jane, who has been drawing the blood, jokes that Wendy didn't even get her Sunday paper out.
There is a moment of apprehension as Tim hands over the sheet containing the blood test results, but the numbers remain above the threshold. Another week, another step away from the disease, another step toward a different journey.
Next summer, Doug Armstrong is slated to take over the general manager's duties full time. Larry can stay on as a consultant, but he's not sure.
"I can't ask for anything more than how they've treated me," Larry said of the Blues.
Much depends on Wendy, of course -- how she holds up, whether there are setbacks or relapses. But there are other chapters for them to write, trips to Hawaii and the like. So maybe the hockey story will be finished, just as they hope the cancer story is at an end.
We leave Larry and Wendy in the parking garage, and happen to hear a song by Dave Matthews called "Trouble."
Trouble get behind me now, trouble let me be.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com