“It seems like a death sentence:” College hockey player who battled cancer forms unique bond with trainer

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Eric Tien has a lofty goal. He wants to play hockey for the Milwaukee Admirals. Don't be surprised if the college freshman overcomes the odds of playing at such a high level. He has overcome a far bigger challenge -- one that's making the difference in the lives of others.

"I love the feeling of being on the ice. Just the freedom you have on the ice," Tien said.

Tien's passion and joy for hockey can be seen not only in his eyes, but also when he skates. The Milwaukee School of Engineering freshman was born in Canada and grew up in Midland, Wisconsin. The hockey bug hit him almost from day one -- literally.

"It's kind of in my blood. I started playing when I was two. I was probably on skates before then. My mom and dad both loved the game, and my brother started before me, so I kind of grew up around the rink watching him play," Tien said.

Before long, young Eric Tien began his journey to become the best hockey player possible.

"I played hometown hockey in Midland. From there, I went to play Richmond, Virginia Juniors. Played a little bit of Juniors in Pennsylvania and then back -- finishing in Richmond," Tien said.

Tien says he's chasing the dream, and he's excited about what lies ahead -- both on and off the ice. On the other hand, he is mature beyond his years. Perhaps because he's dealt with the nightmare of having to deal with and then beat cancer.

"I was diagnosed when I was 16. We didn't know what it was at first. I went in with kidney failure. We had a CT scan which showed a mass behind my kidneys which was making my kidneys fail, and then further tests figured out that it was rhabdomyosarcoma. It's a skeleto-muscle tissue cancer," Tien said.

Tien has never backed down on the ice, but cancer was an opponent like none other.

"It seems like a death sentence, to be honest, when you first hear that you have cancer -- but my mom and dad, God bless their hearts, they told me right away, right after I was diagnosed that I would make it. From that point on, we never thought that we would lose, so that's one of the main reasons why I am here today," Tien said.

Today, Tien is in remission, but the story doesn't end there. When he was being recruited, Tien heard about Gavin Bugalski's battle. Two-and-a-half years ago, the now five-year-old son of Raiders Director of Sports Medicine David Bugalski was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. At the time, "Gavin Strong" wristbands were going around campus.

Gavin Bugalski

Gavin Bugalski

"Eric said to Dave, he said 'do you have another one of those?' And Dave said 'yes,' and he went into the filing cabinet, pulled it out. As Eric was putting it on, he said 'hey, this is going to stay on until your son is in full remission,'" Raiders Coach Mark Ostapina said.

"I got a little bit emotional. For someone who truly doesn't even know myself, my family or my son, it just shows the type of character he has and the type of person he is. It's like he knew. He knew what was going on and they can relate to one another," David Bugalski said.

"I promised him that I would keep it on until he was done with his fight, so we have one more year to go and I'll be able to take it off, because he won't need it anymore," Tien said.

Tien hopes to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering and then open a mountain bike shop with his brother. Tien would be the "brains," and his brother would handle the business side.

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