Chris Hall and goaltender Tyler Richards embrace after winning the 2010 NLL Championship (Photo by Henry Valentine).
2009 was my first season with the Stealth. It was my introduction to the National Lacrosse League.
Eight games into the season, the Stealth was in New York on the second night of a doubleheader weekend, having lost in Boston the night before. Following a lackluster second quarter in which the team allowed six goals to the Titans, a dejected Stealth squad headed into the locker room trailing 9-5 at halftime.
Chris Hall was in his first season as the Offensive Coordinator at the time and the Stealth, which boasted a wealth of talent worthy of a run at the Champion’s Cup, sat at 3-5 and in danger of missing the playoffs.
Hall burst into the locker room and immediately took control of the room. At six-foot-four and roughly 230 pounds, he commands attention in nearly every room in which he enters, but this was something I had yet to witness. For the rest of the halftime break, he went off on a fiery tirade that involved some colorful language and flying clipboards. He challenged the players’ toughness. He implored them to play with the same passion with which he gave his speech. Red-faced and hoarse from yelling, he encouraged them to persevere.
The Stealth played inspired lacrosse in the second half. They fought back valiantly and while they suffered a one-goal loss that night, it was a different team that left the Prudential Center that evening. Hall took over the head coaching duties two games later, lead the team to a 4-2 finish in the regular season and all the way to the West Division Final.
That moment in New York taught me a lot. Not just about what it takes to play in the NLL, but about the man that took control of that locker room. Hall coaches lacrosse much like he played the game when he was an All-World defenseman for Team Canada and a Mann Cup Champion with the Victoria Shamrocks and it’s the same way he approaches life: with toughness, passion and perseverance.
Those three traits are something Hall has instilled in the Stealth organization ever since he became Head Coach of the team back in 2009. Those intangibles for which there are no measurable statistics led the Stealth to back-to-back NLL Championship Games and the organization’s first title in 2010. And those three characteristics are what helped Hall in his recent bout with cancer.
In November of 2011, Hall received word that a nagging irritation in his throat was the result of a cancerous tumor on his right tonsil. While many of us were concerned about the tough road that lay ahead for the man we had grown to love and respect so much, he responded with something that made us admire him even more.
“I’m looking forward to starting the treatment,” he said in a press release issued by the Stealth. “Like anything in life, I want to take the bull by the horns and face it head on. I am happy that we have a plan and this is curable. I want to beat this and get back on the floor with the team and work towards winning another championship.”
If you know Chris Hall, that quote comes as very little surprise. He is not a man who gets rattled. On the bench for the Stealth, his in-game adjustments are always cool and calculated no matter what the situation. It’s that coaching mentality that shaped his plan of attack when it came to cancer.
“As a coach and athlete, when faced with a critical situation you are trained to be calm and rationalize and make a good decision,” he says. “My work experiences, coaching experiences and life experiences taught me not to panic in the face of adversity.”
Despite the difficult news of being diagnosed with cancer, Hall’s doctors had some good news as well. It was a treatable form of cancer, and because the tumor was detected early enough, there was a 70-to-90 percent chance Hall would be cancer-free following treatment. That was all he needed to hear.
“I never once thought about the 10-to-30 percent, I thought about the 70-to-90 percent,” he says. “But that’s me. I’m a 70-to-90 guy, not one of those 10-to-30.”
Perhaps that attitude comes from someone that has already had to deal with some personal adversity in his life. At the age of 22, Hall was temporarily blinded when struck with a lacrosse ball. There was a period where he was unsure that he’d ever see again. At age 36, Hall suffered a stroke, losing all feeling in the left side of his body. In both of those instances, he recovered and carried on with his life. Cancer was just his next adversary.
After numerous tests and meetings with doctors were complete, Hall was given full details on the treatment that he was about to begin. It was going to be an aggressive eight-week schedule, with 37 radiation treatments and two weeks of chemotherapy. Doctors warned that he would get very sick and lose a lot of weight.
“They told me, ‘we’re going to beat you up badly,’” he recalls. “They weren’t kidding.”
The treatment started in late November, and even two weeks in Hall was able to attend the Stealth’s opening weekend of training camp in Langley, B.C. But the worst was yet to come.
One week in particular stands out in Hall’s mind. It was the week prior to Christmas, and the clinic where he received his treatment was closed for four days around the holidays. The day before the clinic closed, he was given a double dose of radiation plus a dose of chemotherapy. To deal with the side effects of the treatment, he was given pain medication, which also made him “violently ill”.
He was required to consume 2,000 calories per day, but the treatment made it impossible to eat solid foods and extremely difficult to drink the Ensure he relied on for nutrition, which due to the effect the radiation had on his mouth, he describes as “drinking chalk through cotton batting”.
“It was a mental and physical battle,” he adds. “I told myself, ‘if I don’t get this down I’ll be one of the 30%. I have to get this down.’”
His wife, Pam, became his coach as he struggled with the difficulties of eating. She told him, “It may not be easy to drink this but if you don’t, you won’t get back to your family, lacrosse or anything else about your wonderful life.”
Along with the support of his loving wife and family, the overwhelming words of encouragement from the Stealth and the lacrosse community throughout North America provided inspiration. Not to mention he had the Stealth preparing for the 2012 season to distract his mind.
“The game is my passion and I love the Stealth,” he says. “Wanting to know what was happening on a daily basis, watching film of practice and talking regularly with (assistant coach) Artie (Webster) and (General Manager) Doug (Locker) was a welcome distraction when I could muster the strength. Staying connected with the team was a huge help for me.”
Once the team started playing games, Hall watched on the Internet from his Victoria home. His treatment ended January 18, but the side effects of the treatment carried on. He lost nearly 50 pounds in the process. Doctors told him it would be at least a month until he could return to coaching.
“At first he just watched, he couldn’t really move or say anything,” says Pam of what her husband was like while watching his team online. “The first time he really got wound up was last weekend. It was a good sign that he feels better that he allowed himself to get wound up.”
So now, just over a month since the end of his treatment, Hall will be returning to the Stealth bench on schedule with his goals prior to the treatment. He’s anxious to focus on lacrosse and help turn around a Stealth season that hasn’t exactly gone according to plan thus far. The Stealth is 1-5 going into Friday’s contest.
“I’m not expecting to be an instant fix, but I think I can motivate our team,” says Hall. “It’s going to be inspiring for me to be there. I hope it provides some inspiration for the guys as well.
“The fight throughout this organization is huge, it’s deep, and it’s fierce. Everyone is giving and will continue to give their all to get us back to where we should be.”
There’s no doubt they will. With the same toughness, passion and perseverance you have instilled in all of us, Coach Hall. Welcome back.