Wolves right wing Darren Haydar is accustomed to hearing cheers from hockey fans after scoring 162 goals in his six-year minor-league hockey career.
None of those, however, will compare to the ovation he will hear at 7 p.m. today at Allstate Arena for his fianceé Sara Schuster.
A throat cancer survivor, Schuster, who grew up in McHenry, will perform the ceremonial puck drop as part of the Wolves’ Fight Against Cancer weekend.
The Wolves, who host the Houston Aeros today, also have Rockford and San Antonio coming to town this weekend, and one cancer patient and one survivor also will drop the puck for those games.
The Wolves will be raising money, awareness and support for those affected by cancer with silent auctions and raffles of special “Fight Against Cancer” jerseys that the players will wear.
“It’s definitely something she’s looking forward to, not only for herself, but for other people who’ve had cancer,” said Haydar, who is second on the Wolves with 39 points. “It will be pretty special.”
Schuster, 27, learned she had a squamous cell carcinoma in March of 2008 and later had most of her voice box and part of her larynx removed during surgery.
She was declared cancer-cell free last April, but has endured 20 surgeries, most of which have come to clear her airway of scar tissue. She has a tracheostomy just to guard in case the airway closes up.
“I’m very honored to be a part of this,” Schuster said. “It affects you the rest of your life. For the fans, it’s a way to touch them personally, because now everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer.”
Haydar, 31, and Schuster are planning a July 2 wedding, which is nice, Schuster says, because it keeps her busy. By having to go back for throat surgeries every 12 weeks, she has not been able to work or go back to school. Since age 5 she has wanted to be a nurse and had completed 21⁄2 years of nursing at Milwaukee School of Engineering when she learned she had cancer.
Schuster lost her voice sometime around 2007 and it took medical personnel some time to figure out why. She had to go through therapy, but has learned to speak again, although she likely never will have her regular voice back.
She maintains a sense of humor about it, saying she sounds like Marge Simpson. And when people in restaurants bring her cough drops or a cup of hot tea, she appreciates their kindness, then explains it’s more than a sore throat.
The story of Haydar and Schuster is one of unconditional love and inspiration.
Haydar was playing with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2006, the same time Schuster was attending MSOE and working at McGillycuddy’s, a Milwaukee restaurant, as a waitress. Haydar noticed her and asked about her through friends. She eventually got the word and the rest is history in the making.
Although their first years have been rougher than most couples’, they say their relationship remains rock-solid.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” Haydar said. “There were times when I felt helpless, there was nothing I could do. Whenever she needed something, I tried to do whatever I could to help out. She has a very good support group with her family and friends. She’s held up strong, and I tried to instill some confidence and tell her to be positive.”
If anything, Schuster said she believes her situation helped them grow. Even when Haydar was playing and she was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., they would talk through Skype. If she was feeling particularly horrible because of the radiation, his teams often allowed him to take some time off.
“It actually didn’t strain our relationship, it almost made us stronger,” she said. “It was pretty tough for him. There was nothing he could do. When I was in my worst moods, my mom [Laurita] and Darren took the brunt of it. He stuck with me through everything.”
The worst is behind Schuster and Haydar now. She began working out last summer when she felt better and could eat more. She has a wedding to plan and has progressed so well that her tracheostomy soon might be removed.
She also has a “spiritual pick-me-up” in puppy Gilly, a miniature Goldendoodle Haydar bought her last summer. The dog is named for the restaurant where they met.
“I’m feeling a lot better the last eight months,” she said. “I never thought I’d be a patient and not a caregiver. I’d like to go back to school. I was on a four-year waiting list the first time just to get in. We’d have to be apart for me to finish school. I want to go back eventually.”