Dreger: Farewell to Earl - a great fan and a great friend

Darren Dreger

9/19/2011 12:22:02 PM

Early Sunday morning, my pal Earl Cook succumbed to cancer. The disease finally overwhelmed his body, but never - not for one second - tarnished his spirit.

For those who follow on Twitter or have watched our periodic updates on the NHL on TSN (or the many stories nationwide), you know Earl was special.

Earl was a fighter - his life was filled with challenges that included Asperger's syndrome, Tourette syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

I met Earl during the 2006-07 NHL season at a Leafs game. His passion for hockey was infectious and we became fast friends.

By this time, his fight with cancer was well underway. A fight that included the amputation of his left leg as doctors worked relentlessly to save Earl's life.

I learned of Earl's surgery through a mutual friend and former colleague Dan Palsson, who asked if I could visit Earl in hospital in Toronto during his recovery.

I remembered Earl was a devout Detroit Red Wings fan. So on my way, I sent text messages to Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock and then-Red Wings executive and former captain Steve Yzerman.

I expected a reply - a quick note I could read to Earl that would brighten his day. Instead, both Mike and Steve reached out and changed the rest of Earl Cook's life.

Mike Babcock was the first to call and spent 15 minutes on the phone with Earl, mostly listening to Earl share his incredible knowledge of Red Wings hockey.  Tears streamed down Earl's face as he chatted with a man he idolized.  He was so happy.

Minutes after talking with Mike, my phone rang again, Steve Yzerman also wanted to meet and speak to Earl, Detroit's biggest fan.

I will never forget this visit nor the impact it had on Earl, but this day was merely the beginning of a wonderful relationship between Earl, Mike Babcock and the entire Detroit Red Wings organization.

Over the past three years, Earl and his foster mom Debbie Hopkins have been guests at many Red Wings games around the league and Earl quickly became a welcome addition inside the Wings dressing room. The players loved him and he loved them and his inability to be anything but brutally honest. If his pals Pavel or Henrik had off-nights Earl would let them know, but he was always positive the next game would be better.

In his own, unique way Earl inspired...and that was one of his many gifts.

"He served as a fanastic role model for myself and our teams," Babcock said.  "He may have passed today, but with the way he lived his life, he never allowed this disease to beat him."

A few weeks ago, Earl and Debbie arrived in Toronto ready to face what would be his 10th surgery, the removal of a cancerous kidney, doctors hoped would prolong his life. However, in pre-op testing it became clear surgery was no longer an option and Earl was released with another round of chemotherapy his only hope.

Rather than sink with the news his time was fading, Earl and Debbie stayed positive and came into my home for what would be my final visit with Earl and a day my family and I will never forget.

"Hi Darren, it's Earl," he would bellow into the phone at the beginning of each of our sometimes daily chats, and then he would tell me what we should be talking about on the TSN panel before explaining how great his day had been.

It was a privilege to know Earl Cook and I will be forever grateful to Debbie Hopkins for allowing me into her family where I learned what true dignity and commitment is all about.

Later this month, Earl will be honoured - posthumously as it were - with the "Ace Bailey Award of Courage," by the NHL Alumni Association. As it became increasingly evident how close Earl was to the end, everybody in his extended family was hoping Earl would live long enough to be at the ceremony.

The award is presented annually to an individual who turns tragedy into triumph.

Earl did exactly that and managed to inspire so many along his 23-year journey.

Rest in peace, pal.