By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
BEARDED BLUE LINER: Joe Sova considers everything bonus time after his bout with cancer. He remains a puck mover, shot blocker and a jack of all trades along the blue line.
Courtesy Tulsa Oilers
Tulsa Oilers defenseman Joe Sova is a man with hair. Lots of hair. Hair here. Hair there. Hair almost everywhere.
His hirsute appearance has earned Sova a few choice monikers. Caveman, Mountain Man, Jesus and Sasquatch are just a few of them. One name that does not fit is unnoticeable. He’s the king in a forest of furry Oilers.
“Maybe I do have the best beard in the . It would be interesting to find out,’’ says Sova, a 27-year-old native of Berwyn, Illinois. “We could have a beard-off. Votes could be cast.’’
Sova would probably win and not by just a hair on his chinny chin chin. While teammates and fans may jest in describing the 6-foot-3, 200-pound blue liner, in fact, his appearance is no laughing matter. His desire for hair goes back to when he didn’t have any as an eight-year-old undergoing chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Growing hair, and lots of it, is Sova’s best revenge.
“I didn’t have it as a kid and someday I may lose it again,’’ sighs Sova, now in his sixth season of professional hockey. “I grow it because I can. I do it for me. If it pisses people off, I’m doing the right thing.’’
Well, there are a few in the hockey world Sova can’t afford to offend. Oilers coach Jason Christie is one of them. The boss was not overly impressed by his D-man’s mane when he arrived in a trade with Kalamazoo on Oct. 13.
“Coach jokingly said ‘you might want to clean that up a little bit,’ He said that on day one,’’ Sova notes. “I cut four or five inches off my hair and two and a half to three inches off my beard. I cleaned it up, but it’s going to stay long. Last season, I didn’t cut it at all.’’
Just like Sampson of Bible antiquity, Sova draws strength from his locks. However, there is no Delilah around to cut him down to size. He does not care a hoot what anyone else thinks. He’s been through enough in his young life to earn his own badge of courage.
“My profession allows me to have a beard when maybe in corporate jobs it’s not acceptable,’’ says Sova, who has been called up to the American Hockey League four times in the last five seasons. “I started growing my hair and beard a year and a half ago, and believe it or not, it’s a lot tamer than before.
“It’s fun to establish some kind of identity in our profession. Your team is a brand, and this is my individual brand. I sell myself, and not too many people can grow beards.’’
Sometimes Sova’s “brand’’ can cause concern from people who don’t know him or hockey. Last Halloween, he dressed up as Jesus but in a “non-mocking way.’’ He says there were those who were not pleased and questioned his good intentions.
Duck Dynasty comments are also frequently thrown Sova’s way. He got the Sasquatch label in college at Alaska-Fairbanks, and the nickname Caveman has followed him to Tulsa. He doesn’t take the comments to heart. After all, his allergy to a razor and scissors is part of his long-range healing process.
When the Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis came 20 years ago, Sova sported nary a whisker. Dreaming of hockey greatness at the time, he didn’t have room for reality to smack him around.
“I felt a lump on my neck. It was an abnormal lump on one side,’’ Sova recalls. “I brought it to the attention of my parents, and we went to our doctor. He sent us to a specialist in Chicago, and a biopsy said it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I had a pretty quick turnaround time period from about Thanksgiving to April. I went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
“I played hockey through it all. I played sick, and I like to think that because I continued to play with cancer is why I’m still playing today. I knew my passion for the game was strong, and the game kept my mind away from my sickness. Some days were worse than others, but it was always good to get on the ice and practice.
“I was scared, and my family was afraid, but hockey kept me on the path I wanted to be on. I came out better because of the experience at a young age. Now everything I go through seems to relate to the person I became after cancer. It defines my upbringing.’’
Sova’s bout with cancer led to one of his most cherished childhood memories, thanks to the Make A Wish Foundation. After losing his hair, his strength and his breathing capacity, the charitable group helped rescued Sova’s love of hockey by granting his special wish.
“I still don’t know why they called me, but they said they wanted to grant me a wish and I had to think about it,’’ he said. “They try to get common wishers together for a trip to Disney World or somewhere, but I wanted something different. At the time, it was a groundbreaking wish. I wanted to skate with the Chicago Blackhawks.’’
Sova came to watch practice and then got dressed and stepped on the ice to skate with his favorite team. Newspapers and television cameras were there to record every memorable moment.
“The organization treated me with respect, and all around it was an amazing experience,’’ Sova says. “I met the players with my family and we got autographs and jerseys. We also got to go to a game.’’
If there was ever a doubt that hockey was solidly in Sova’s future, it vanished at that point. Through more than 200 games with six different teams, the mane man is still living his dream. He doesn’t know what life after hockey will bring, but he wants to remain close to the sport that has transformed his existence from possible tragedy to the pinnacle of fulfillment.
“Looking back, everything now is bonus time,’’ says Sova, who remains a puck mover, a shot blocker and a jack of all trades along the blue line. “My test came at eight years old, and I came out better for it. Going through that made me the person I am today. I appreciate what I have in life.’’
That includes his defining full head of hair and a bushy beard. For Sova and his friends, he’s hair today and hair tomorrow.