Tanya and Randy Malinoski didn’t immediately recognize the man standing in front of them in line at a Starbucks in Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital.
Dr. Michael Kelly first met Randy Malinoski when he was buying a wakeboard boat from him at Martin Motor Sports, the lone boat shop open in Saskatoon on that Saturday in December 2017. A firm handshake was followed by a conversation: Kelly had been recruited back to his home province of Saskatchewan to practice neurosurgery after a fellowship at Stanford University. He wanted to do as the locals do and spend summers on the water with his own teenage children.
In addition to his role as general manager at the shop, Malinoski was no stranger to wakeboard boats. His two sons, Hudson and Grayson, spent every summer as soon as they could swim on wakeboards on Sturgeon Lake in northern Saskatchewan. It fed into the need-for-speed tendencies of the unrequited daredevil, Hudson.
It had been years since that first joyful meeting. But now the Malinoskis were exhausted and gravely concerned. Hudson had sustained a serious and, at first, undetected neck injury. The Malinoskis were worried, but none of the medical professionals they encountered were moving with the sense of urgency they expected to see. After being bounced around for days, scans of Hudson’s neck and head were finally ordered.
That’s when Kelly and the Malinoskis bumped into each other in line for coffee. The Malinoskis told Kelly about their ordeal and how they were now waiting for the results of those crucial scans.
Kelly promised to get involved. What the Malinoskis didn’t know was what that might entail: An unprecedented brain surgery for a child in Saskatchewan. A surgery that could save Hudson’s hockey career, but one that also had profound risks for a 13-year-old whose health was worsening by the day.
Hudson Malinoski didn’t know how steep the drop-off was. All he knew was that he wanted to make the jump.
Fresh snow covered the ground outside the Malinoski home. Their yard backs out onto a slope that Hudson often used for snowboarding.
His mother, Tanya, was out watching his brother at a hockey game. Randy was out of town for work. And so that’s when then-13-year-old Hudson decided he’d jump from the roof of his house, a drop of 13 feet onto the slope, and then launch himself over a ramp of snow that he had built.
Small in stature at just shy of 5-foot-3 and with his Western Hockey League draft year on the horizon, Hudson wasn’t small in spirit. On playgrounds as a toddler, he was the one “crawling right to the top, and loved jumping off,” Tanya says. Surfing, wakeboarding, snowboarding, and of course, heading south on the ice with a high-octane style of play, Hudson wasn’t the type of kid to stay quiet.
When Tanya returned home that day, she knew, deep in her gut, something was wrong. Her ordinarily rambunctious son was barely speaking, his skin growing paler by the hour. He was afraid of the retribution that would come if he told his mother that he hurt himself after jumping off the roof. (To this day, Malinoski’s face tightens as he answers questions about the injury. “Dumb idea,” he says.)
Then the phone rang. Hudson’s friend had told his mother, a nurse, what had happened. She was calling to tell Tanya that Hudson probably needed to see a doctor.
By this time, Hudson was vomiting and a quick trip to the emergency room led to a diagnosis of a concussion.
“I thought he was going to be fine …” Tanya says, her voice trailing off.
After two more days of vomiting and lethargic behavior, Tanya took Hudson back to the hospital. She remembers the hospital staff not feeling the need to perform a CT scan or an MRI.
They returned home again, but Hudson’s energy levels depleted to the point that he was struggling to get out of bed or eat. They returned for a third visit to the hospital only after Tanya had asked a neurologist friend, Dr. Wendi Fitzpatrick, for help getting proper appointments for a CT scan, MRI and angiogram.
Minutes after Fitzpatrick received the imaging from those scans, she quite literally interrupted Dr. Lissa Peeling, a respected neurosurgeon at Royal University Hospital, in the middle of an operation.
Peeling noticed a “pattern of bleeding” in the images that didn’t sit right. Malinoski had suffered an aneurysm on initial contact.
Peeling understood immediately that Malinoski had an injury to a blood vessel in what she calls a “critical location.”
Malinoski had suffered much more than a concussion. The diagnosis they received still causes Tanya’s voice to grow quiet: a torn vertebral artery — which supplies blood to the brain — in his neck.
A stroke or another more harmful aneurysm was likely imminent if Hudson’s injury was untreated for much longer.
“A nightmare,” Tanya says.
Time was of the essence. A coronary stent insertion is generally the preferred course of treatment for this injury, and it was initially considered. In this procedure, an expandable mesh coil is placed into the artery to prevent it from narrowing.
But with a stent, Hudson would not be able to play contact sports again.
“I don’t feel like we were telling (Hudson) how bad it was or how serious it was. Because we were so scared, and we didn’t really want to scare him,” Tanya says.
The Malinoski family in the hospital with Hudson. (Courtesy of Tanya Malinoski)
That surgery would have effectively ended Hudson’s dream of becoming a professional hockey player.
That’s when Kelly, the surgeon from the coffee shop line, joined the treatment team and began working with Peeling on a plan for Hudson’s treatment. Both doctors spent the evening on the phone with multiple surgeons and shared screenshots of Hudson’s imaging with colleagues abroad. They wanted to obtain what Peeling calls a “secure” and “resilient” treatment that was strong enough to “endure his potential hockey career.”
Eventually, the doctors proposed a plan: They would clamp Hudson’s artery and then re-route his blood flow, leaving him with just one vertebral artery. It’s a surgery that had never been performed on a child in Saskatchewan.
“Vascular neurosurgery is inherently kind of what I refer to as a high-stakes poker game,” Peeling says. “And there’s an added element of stress when you’re treating someone so young, and with so much life to live.”
Come the morning, Peeling and Kelly stood at one end of Hudson’s room in the pediatric ward of the hospital. They looked into the welling eyes of Hudson’s parents, who stood close to their son.
“I don’t like to mince my words and thoughts when it comes to patients,” Peeling remembers telling the family. “We intend to do the operation tomorrow.”
Peeling remembers Hudson’s parents having very few questions, but one stood out: Would Hudson play sports again?
She told them the likelihood of that happening was far better, especially if he made it through the surgery without complications. There was a risk of stroke both during and after the surgery, which could have resulted in a neurological problem.
Tanya’s mind drifted to Hudson first walking at 9 months old, and wanting to play sports not long afterward. She thought of how wide the smile on his face would grow when he would pull off a flip while wakeboarding.
The thought of her always-in-motion son not being able to pursue his dream of playing hockey was almost too much to bear.
Even with the risks, his parents trusted the doctors and agreed to the rare surgery.
Hudson hardly said a word throughout the conversation.
“He was very stoic,” Peeling says. “Very, very stoic.”
As the surgery began, Tanya wanted to pace around the hospital waiting room. But she couldn’t. She was surrounded by 15 friends, family members and Hudson’s teammates.
“The doctors and nurses thought (Hudson) was some kind of celebrity because of the amount of people visiting,” she says.
For over three hours inside the hospital’s radiology department, Radiohead, Peeling’s favorite band, played while the surgeons manipulated wires and catheters inside of the blood vessel while staring at a video screen.
“The decision-making was the hardest part: Where to place the device and what device to use,” Peeling says.
The doctors ended up accessing the brain from, of all places, his right hip area. They used a microvascular plug that both Peeling and Kelly had previously used in different areas of the body but never the brain.
Hours after the surgery, Hudson awoke. He was OK.
“There’s never a certainty when it comes to brain surgery,” Peeling says. “We always worry patients may wake up with a new neurological deficit.”
There was only one thing on Hudson’s mind: When could he play hockey again?
It was too early to tell. Hudson needed good follow-up imaging from an angiogram 10 days later, and another the following year to ensure the artery was stable and strong and the aneurysm was eliminated. The recovery period lasted seven months. His parents insisted he take up gaming as a hobby to take his mind off the injury and prevent him from going stir-crazy. As he logged more hours than he cared to share playing “Fortnite,” he found himself wondering about his uncertain future.
“People told me it might not just be hockey: I might not play hockey, go surfing, snowboarding, golf, all those things I love,” Hudson says. “Hearing that, it really hit home.”
Even though Hudson was cleared to return to physical activities after that latest scan, Tanya was hesitant. She asked Kelly if he would let his own son play hockey after the procedure.
“You can’t keep him in a bubble,” she remembers hearing.
Hudson Malinoski shakes hands with Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan after being selected 153rd in the NHL Draft. (Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images)
Ask Tanya about Hudson’s first game back and you won’t get much of a scouting report.
“I had my eyes covered the entire time,” she says.
The family may have been shielding themselves from an uncomfortable reality: With almost an entire year of development lost, combined with his diminutive size, the talented kid was passed over in the WHL draft. Missing his shot to compete in Western Canada’s major junior hockey league quietly seemed to sink the idea of a career in professional hockey.
And even when Hudson hit a growth spurt when he was 16, eventually hitting 6-1, he still played triple-A hockey until he was 18, a rarity among players who want to turn pro.
“In Saskatchewan, typically, every kid goes through the WHL,” Tanya says. “Being the smallest kid and then growing only at grade 11, too, there have just been so many roadblocks.”
“I learned how to play small,” Hudson says of his development. “And then when I got my size, that helped me out a lot.”
After a move from triple-A to the Alberta Junior A league’s Brooks Bandits, he played his best hockey in the playoffs en route to a win in the Centennial Cup, Canada’s Junior A national championship. Malinoski finished second in scoring with four goals and 10 points in six Centennial Cup games.
Bandits head coach Ryan Papaioannou says Malinoski’s game is built on “offensive flair.”
“What makes him different from other players is his deceptive qualities,” he says.
Those qualities led the Maple Leafs’ Western Canada amateur scouts Darren Ritchie and Garth Malarchuk to argue passionately in scouting meetings in favor of selecting Malinoski in the NHL Draft in June. Once the Leafs started asking for in-depth medical reports in a way other NHL teams did not, it became clear they believed in his potential.
It’s the same potential his family believed in when they elected a rare surgery that both saved their son and allowed him to return to the ice.
And so Tanya could not contain her tears when she heard Hudson’s name called in the fifth round of the draft in Nashville.
Almost 3,000 kilometers away in Saskatoon on that same afternoon, Peeling fielded a steady stream of phone calls and excited messages from surgeons and other medical professionals after Malinoski was selected.
“That is one of the best things about doing my job,” Peeling says. “Having people recover from the difficult diseases and problems they’re experiencing and being able to go on and do amazing things.”
Malinoski being drafted represents not the culmination of his unlikely journey, but simply his next step. He could end up becoming a mobile center who can make a difference on the power play at the pro level.
The Malinoski that stood tall among his Maple Leafs development camp peers is not the child who wondered if a dumb mistake would cost him a career in hockey. Malinoski now wants to continue to make up for lost time as he enters Providence College this fall.
He might not be jumping off roofs anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s abandoned the fearless attitude he hopes will guide him toward an eventual NHL career.
“You’re always going to want to prove people wrong,” he says.
Serendipity and some quick thinking meant Malinoski could get to the draft floor. The outcome of that horrendous week isn’t lost on him.
“It made me realize how much the game means to me.”
(Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic. Photos courtesy Tanya Malinoski; Dave Sandford / Getty Images)
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