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Canada's Schwartz battles on for ailing sister

Jaden Schwartz agreed to take one question because, really, he figured, one was all he could take and still keep his emotions in check. It was Christmas Day, the eve of the biggest tournament of his promising career. His parents were 1,700 miles away. And he probably couldn't have found the right words.

Mandi's cancer had returned.

Schwartz had digested that sobering reality two years ago, when she was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She had more treatments and setbacks than anyone could count, but she was winning the battle and became a national inspiration in Canada, a poster child for stem-cell transplant and a champion for research.

Cancer never seems to go away meekly, as we know. It lurks and terrorizes its victims and the people around them. Too often, as was confirmed last week when she received her latest test results, it returns. The jolt was no less intense the second time around for her and her family than it was the first.

What could he possibly say before his first game in the World Under-20 Championship that could wrap a frightening disease into a nice, neat little package? He was still trying to make sense of it all, wishing he was with his family and knowing they would say he belonged with Team Canada.

"Obviously, Christmas is a time you want to spend with your family, and we have some family problems with Mandi," Schwartz said before playing against Russia in the preliminary round. "I know she's in good hands right now. The whole family is there with her now."

In a fair world, Mandi Schwartz would have been in HSBC Arena with all the other maple leaf-wearing, flag-waving crazies Sunday who watched while her little brother was wheeling and dealing and scrapping when it mattered most, the way she has for the past two years and counting, and helping Canada to a 6-3 victory.

Mandi was the first person he called last week when he made Team Canada. On Sunday, she was back home in Wilcox, Sask., undergoing more rounds of chemotherapy.

The reality of hockey pales in comparison to the reality of life. It would be easy to suggest the game offered him an escape from his sister's plight, and perhaps it did. Mandi wasn't about to trivialize its importance because she was fighting cancer.

At 22, she's the oldest of three hockey-loving Schwartz kids and a player herself at Yale before cancer took hockey away. If there was a loose parallel, the courage and persistence she has shown while battling the disease has motivated her little brother to compete for every inch of ice.

No wonder Schwartz fought through traffic, handcuffing goalie Igor Bobkov with a wrist shot and setting up Ryan Johansen's winner. Less than three minutes later, he drew two men into the corner and slipped a pass to Sabres prospect Zack Kassian, leading to Braden Schenn's clincher.

Schwartz wasn't available after the game. His play and his teammates did his talking for him. Buffalo-born teammate Marcus Foligno, who scored the first goal for Canada, understood what his teammate was going through Sunday. He lost his mother to cancer.

"Losing my mother is different than his sister," Foligno said. "The biggest thing for him is to have family around. The biggest thing was to keep positive. We clicked from there. We had something in common. He's a great friend."

He's also a great player.

Jaden, 18, is one of the most promising teenagers in North America. He evolved from an eighth-round pick in the Western Hockey League to a first-round pick in the NHL last June, when St. Louis selected him 14th overall. The left winger bears a striking resemblance to Tyler Ennis in terms of size, skill, style and creativity.

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound freshman is the leading scorer for Colorado College, where he's playing with older brother Rylan. He's an entertaining player who is worth following as the tournament moves along. Even before playing his first game, he knew one person who would be watching.

"My sister wants me to stay focused on the task at hand, which is to win a gold medal and play my role for Team Canada," Jaden said. "Obviously, I'm still thinking about her and want to win a gold medal for her more than anything."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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