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COLOGNE, Germany — “Warming the bench is the worst,” said Robert Müller of Kölner Haie in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. And yet for Müller, it could potentially be far worse.
Müller, Germany’s top goaltender, has a malignant and incurable form of brain cancer, yet he continues to play at the highest level of the game in his country. His story has riveted German hockey fans since last year, when he fought back from a 2006 operation that removed parts of a brain tumor and returned to the nets while still undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Last spring, he even stopped 96 of 100 shots for Kölner Haie (Cologne Sharks) in a six-overtime playoff game — the second-longest game in hockey history — and went on to backstop the Sharks to the league final. In May, he played well for Germany at the world championship tournament in Canada. His prognosis seemed good.
But over the summer, the tumor started growing again, and in August, he had a second operation. Earlier this month, there was grim news for Müller, just 28 and the father of two: the form of brain tumor he has is aggressive and incurable.
Despite the dark prognosis, Müller continues to inspire. He started practicing with the Sharks last month, and on Nov. 16 in Cologne — only 44 days after his second operation — he skated onto the ice to a thunderous ovation from the 13,000 fans on hand and finished the last eight minutes of a 5-1 victory over the Nuremberg Ice Tigers.
“I was completely dumbfounded when the coach gave me the sign,” Müller said afterward. “It was so much fun.”
For Müller, fighting his way back to the top is as much a part of his therapy as anything else.
“Hockey gives me everything in this situation,” he told reporters this week. “I wouldn’t do all of this if it weren’t for the sport. Besides my family, hockey is the most important thing in my life.”
Sacks of letters and hundreds of e-mail messages wishing him a swift recovery have flowed into the Sharks’ office, but Müller would rather have some peace and quiet. He is not someone who talks much, especially about his illness. He hides his huge operational scar under a baseball cap and lets his doctor, Wolfgang Wick, do the talking.
“He will have to live in a cycle of therapies from now on,” said Wick, whom Müller has released from medical confidentiality.
Wick said that Müller would have to be treated for the rest of his life. He said that initial reports that Müller has a maximum of five years to live were based on outdated information and that treatment had “improved a lot” recently, adding that Müller had already exceeded the median survival period for those with the condition.
Nevertheless, the tumor, known as a Glioblastoma multiforme, can grow again and lead to yet another operation, including another round of the radiation and chemotherapies Müller has already been through.
“It is most astonishing how he copes with all the side effects of the chemotherapy,” Wick said. “Fortunately, I don’t treat too many competitive athletes with brain tumors, but it is incredible to watch how endurance sports helps him get over a lot of the impact a disease like this involves.”
Müller said he was just glad to be back.
“It feels good to travel with the team again,” he said.
Müller has served as the backup goalie to Frank Doyle in five games through Tuesday. Medically, at least, his playing should present no problems.
“There is no risk at all, even if the tumor grows again, that the hockey will do him any harm,” Wick said. “The positive thing is, it is not causing him pain.”
Müller is not yet back to his old fitness. “I’m still missing maybe 20 percent,” he said.
To help him regain that 20 percent, Coach Clayton Beddoes has cautiously sought to insert Müller into games. Besides the Nuremberg game, he played the last four minutes of a 6-0 loss on Sunday at Krefeld, where fans gave him a standing ovation.
“The game was gone, and Krefeld was a very special place for Robert,” Beddoes said. “He won a championship there as a goalie in 2003.”
Müller did not have to make any saves in his two appearances thus far. Despite that and everything else, he is still designated the Sharks’ No. 1 goalie.
“I believe he is the best goalie in the league when he is in top form,” Beddoes said. “I have absolutely no doubt that if he comes back, he’ll continue to be one of the best in the league.”
Doyle, the interim No. 1, will get only another temporary contract next month, but he does not complain.
“I’m only looking at one game at a time,” Doyle said. He added, “I know that when Robert is ready to play, another opportunity will come up for me. It’s amazing to see how many people are touched by his story. When you see even opposition teams standing up shouting his name, it gives you shivers down your spine.”
For now, Müller said, “I am delighted with every second on the ice.” He added that he did not want any special treatment from the news media or the fans.
“If I play well, you can praise me, and if I play badly, you should criticize me,” he said last week.
The circumstances, he said, are what they are.
“I have the disease,” Müller said, “and I have to live with it.”