DURHAM — Bill Bowes faced the news like he faces everything in life: Head on and with an upbeat attitude.
Then came the next question. How was Bowes, an assistant coach with the University of New Hampshire women’s hockey team alongside head coach Hilary Witt and associate head coach Stephanie Jones the last four-plus years, going to share that news with the players on the team?
“Hilary and Stephanie and I got together and we knew we had to tell them because I missed a couple of practices and they were wondering where I was,” Bowes said. “I never miss anything. None of us do.”
In the end, the answer was simple: He’d pass on the news straight on and with his trademark positive approach as well.
A few days after Thanksgiving, he addressed the team in its locker room at the Whittemore Center.
“You know one of my core beliefs is it’s all about attitude,” Bowes told the team. “Every success you have, everything you do in the world, is about your attitude. Goal scoring is an attitude. It’s not just some special skill set. You’ve got to have the attitude to be a goal scorer. That core belief is never going to play a bigger role in my life than right now. Because I need to battle this cancer I have.”
Bill Bowes got the results of his biopsy back the day before Thanksgiving: Yes, it was confirmed, he has prostate cancer.
His primary care physician had noticed elevated numbers in a test during a routine physical and explored further, just in case. Tests led to more tests and then a biopsy and the diagnosis.
The fight was on. How can we help, UNH’s hockey players wanted to know.
“Our players really wanted to do something,” Witt said. “When it hits home, it hits home. It’s something we obviously care a lot about every day, but this time it’s one of our own, one of our family, and we wanted to bring awareness to it.”
The team already had its initiatives for the season scheduled — a Stick It to Stigma game for mental health awareness and a Skating Strides Against Breast Cancer game among them — and decided to add another.
They decided to make their game against Holy Cross on the last Saturday in January a Hockey Fights Cancer game.
Along with their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, fathers and brothers, all the family and friends, the players announced they were fighting for coach Bowes, too.
“It was important for our players to have this game for Bill,” Witt said.
“I think a lot of us were shocked and surprised,” said senior defenseman and captain M.J. Pelletier. “It’s tough when you hear that, because the coaching staff is like family to us, too. Other people on our team also have family members, moms or dads who have cancer or have had cancer. All around, being able to play that game for Coach Bowes and for other family members or friends, it was really special. To keep the conversation going and to raise some money for that was something that we really wanted to do as a team for him especially.”
Before they did anything, the players asked Bowes if he minded if they used him as a focal point for the event.
“Our players, when there’s something going on, they always like to try to do something,” Bowes said. “They asked me if it was OK. I said absolutely. We can all kind of join together to make people more aware.”
That’s a message Bowes wants to stress. He knows he’s in good hands, confident he’s going to beat the cancer and he’s vowed that to his family and the team. He’s also glad it was detected early.
“It’s important that people get educated about it and they get the PSA blood test,” he said. “I wouldn’t have known. I would have just thought, well, I have a couple of things here and there, just getting a little older. What’s old age and what’s a problem? What’s the difference? I don’t know. My doctor, being right on top of things, watching that blood test, was the one who was able to detect it and refer me on to a specialist.”
He’s dealing with the cancer.
“It’s unlucky,” Bowes said. “But lucky in the fact it was detected early enough that it could be a non-factor after the surgery, except, you have to live differently when you have your prostate out. There are some adjustments to make.”
He has the support of many.
“There’s no question it sucks and I’d rather not have to deal with it,” Bowes added. “I’d rather not have them have to deal with it, too. Because it’s not just you that suffers with this. Everyone around you does. My three daughters, my wife. Twenty-five young women here. The coaches. It’s hard for them. Any time you have cancer it could be a really bad situation. Normally it is. But prostate cancer is the most curable one there is. Especially if you’re in the stage I have it.”
They’re all in it together.
“I told the players that I guaranteed my daughters I’d live until I’m at least 98 years old, with a two-year margin of error either way,” Bowes said with a laugh. “So I have to follow through with that. I told the players the same thing. I won’t be coaching that long, but I’m going to live that long. . . . Some of them might have a parent who has a certain kind of cancer right now, or an uncle or an aunt, or someone they know. It’s real life. It hits us in the face sometimes.”
The real-life part has Bowes, 61, scheduled for prostate surgery on March 1 at Massachusetts General Hospital.
That’s also the opening day of the Hockey East playoffs.
The Wildcats are in a fight to qualify for the playoffs. If they make it, one of their coaches will be missing from the bench.
But he will certainly be with them in spirit.
“I already told them, I haven’t scored one goal, I haven’t made one assist or one save,” Bowes said. “You guys do all of that. I’m just going to sit in a hospital bed and watch it on a computer or TV, whatever it’s on, and cheer. I just won’t be able to clap on the bench. That’s all.”