Health issues forced Cody Hodgson to retire from hockey at 26. Eight years later, he's playing again

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — The health issues that drove former NHL forward Cody Hodgson away from hockey eight years ago were frightening enough for him to fear the worst.

He was shaking often. His body felt unusually hot. He had an abnormal heartbeat. He was having a tough time breathing. Tests showed his liver and kidney were damaged.

“At the time, they were testing me for brain, liver, lung cancer – all that stuff,” said Hodgson, who played six seasons with the Vancouver Canucks (2010-12), Buffalo Sabres (2012-15) and Nashville Predators (2015-16).

Hodgson instead was diagnosed with malignant hyperthermia, which is related to a mutation on the RYR1 gene that assists with muscle contraction. The condition can result in high body temperature, a rapid heart rate and/or muscle spasms.

In Hodgson’s case, it also led to episodes of rhabdomyolysis, in which there is severe muscle breakdown resulting in organ damage and potentially leading to death. Hodgson was prescribed Dantrolene, a medication that suppressed the symptoms but also left him too drowsy to play competitively.

He stopped playing hockey. He was 26.

“They said avoid prolonged physical activity, avoid contact sports, avoid going from hot to cold and cold to hot – basically the job description for being in the National Hockey League,” Hodgson said.

Somehow, some way, Hodgson is feeling better and playing hockey again eight years later with the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals as he attempts an improbable return to the NHL. He already has produced an even more unlikely comeback just by getting back on the ice at all.

Michael Goldberg is president of the board of directors for the RYR-1 Foundation, which supports research to find treatment or a cure for RYR-1-related diseases. Goldberg said he wasn’t aware of any other examples of athletes competing at the professional level after receiving a diagnosis similar to the one Hodgson got eight years ago.

“We’re interested in potentially doing a case report on him because it is so unusual that he would have had such a severe manifestation of this disease and then to come back and be basically asymptomatic,” Goldberg said. “What are the lessons learned from this lesson that you could apply to other people who have a similar condition?”

After leaving the NHL, Hodgson said he kept his hockey gear stored for about five years. He stayed in touch with the game by working with the Predators in overseeing youth development, which basically consisted of teaching hockey to kids across the Southeast.

Then he started feeling noticeably better last summer.

His symptoms were going away, even when he lowered the dosage of his medication to a negligible amount. He sought medical opinions on whether a comeback might be feasible.

“I went back to the same doctors that told me I couldn’t play, that it would kill me, and I got the green light from them to continue playing,” Hodgson said.

Hodgson, now 34, lost about 40 pounds to get back to his playing weight of 190 and started making calls shortly after Christmas gauging potential interest from teams. He landed with the Admirals, the Predators’ AHL affiliate, on a professional tryout contract offered to unsigned players as a chance to prove their worth.

“I just had a sneaky feeling that this was the right thing to do,” said Scott Nichol, general manager of the Admirals and director of player development for the Predators. “He didn’t go out the way he wanted to go out. He’s got the love back. He’s healthy. When I talked to him on the phone, (you could sense) the energy through his voice and how excited he was to just get an opportunity to practice.”

Hodgson only had to practice with them for a couple of weeks before the Admirals started playing him. He scored five goals in his first eight games. Hodgson said he feels great, something he credits in part to his daily breathing exercises.

“I actually feel better now than when I last played,” Hodgson said. “My body works properly and my mechanics are great. I just need to get up to game speed mentally, but physically I feel better than when I played in the NHL.”

His case has provided inspiration for people dealing with similar issues. Goldberg says Hodgson has happily shared his story and cell number with other people going through this type of condition.

When Hodgson scored his first goal for the Admirals in a road victory over the Chicago Wolves, he took time out after the game to meet a young girl dealing with a different type of RYR1-related disease and sign a puck for her.

Hodgson hopes his comeback encourages anyone having to deal with the symptoms he was facing several years ago.

“That’s a nice motivating factor,” Hodgson said. “Obviously the goal is to play in the National Hockey League, but it’s nice to be an example for others as well.”