When Flyers winger Oskar Lindblom underwent chemotherapy in 2020 to treat Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, he never doubted he would come out the other side and be able to have a long, healthy NHL career.
Naturally, however, he had a lot of questions. How is this going to work? How long will the treatments take?
Six and a half months after his cancer diagnosis on Dec. 13, 2019, Lindblom received his answer. He completed chemotherapy treatments on July 2, 2020, and learned his scans were clear after his second checkup in December 2020. He returned to the Flyers lineup on Sep. 3, 2020, for Game 6 of their second-round series against the New York Islanders, a 5-4 double-overtime win, logging 17:30 of ice time.
But with one set of questions answered, another key one reared its head quickly — When will I feel the same way I did on the ice before I got sick?
Roughly two and a half years since his diagnosis, Lindblom, 25, is still searching for that answer. However, after the 2021-22 season, he has a lot by which to feel encouraged. Not only did he play 79 of 82 games in his first full season since his diagnosis, but he also felt “way better” by the end of the year than he did at the conclusion of the 2020-21 abbreviated season when he played 50 games.
“Chemo, it’s different for everyone, how your body’s gonna react and how long it’s gonna take for chemo to get out of your body,” Lindblom said. “I had no expectations coming back, to be honest. Right now, it just feels good to know that I’m gonna feel better every year.
“Next year, I’m gonna be back and can really push every game and be the player I want to be.”
‘It was tough mentally’
Looking back at his two-game playoff stint against the Islanders in 2020, Lindblom admits he probably shouldn’t have returned as quickly as he did. Instead, he said he should have used that time and the following season to work on building his strength.
Yes, Lindblom knows that’s easy to say in hindsight. At the time, he didn’t know how his body would respond to the training regimen he undertook to prepare himself for the intensity of the NHL playoff game.
Before he started playing in the Toronto bubble, Lindblom would skate with the “black aces,” the extra players added to the roster for the NHL playoffs, then he would do a second skate with the full team, before going back to the hotel to work out with assistant strength and conditioning coach Dan Warnke. He did it all over again the next day.
“It was tough mentally,” Lindblom said. “I was laying mostly in my bed the rest of the days when I did that. But just to be around the guys again gave me a boost. So I just want to be there for them and try and do my best on the ice and couldn’t do more than that.”
In the shortened offseason leading up to the 2020-21 season, Lindblom started working out with a new trainer, Oliver Lindholm in their hometown of Gävle, Sweden. Lindholm is the brother of Calgary Flames star Elias Lindholm, and the cousin of center Calle Järnkrok, also of the Flames.
While Lindblom said his training helped him prepare for the season, he still found it difficult to fully recover between games. He felt like his legs weren’t quite there, and he was tired mentally, too, which he found to be the most difficult aspect of his return to hockey.
But when the offseason leading up to the 2021-22 season rolled around, Lindblom noticed that his body was starting to recover faster between training sessions.
“I felt like I can push more every day and next day you feel like you start from zero again,” Lindblom said. “The day before is not going to affect the day after, so you can really push every day and make you be better and faster, stronger, whatever it is. That felt great, too. Knowing, ‘OK, tomorrow’s gonna be a tough day, but I still know I’m going to be good to go.’”
‘He’s always pushing to get better’
Lindblom felt good physically in October, making his season-opening debut on the third line at left wing alongside center Scott Laughton and right winger James van Riemsdyk. He registered his first point of the season in the Flyers’ second game on Oct. 18, 2021, with an assist against the Seattle Kraken.
After that night, he didn’t tally another point for 19 games.
“It’s just tough when you feel good and you’re not putting up any points and trying to get the feel of when before I got sick, how I played and how I felt,” Lindblom said.
In the midst of his early slump, Lindblom was a healthy scratch on Nov. 16 against the Flames and spent five games on the fourth line. However, when former interim coach Mike Yeo took over for Alain Vigneault on Dec. 6 against the Colorado Avalanche, he promoted Lindblom to the top line to play with center Sean Couturier and right winger Travis Konecny.
That promotion in the lineup gave Lindblom an instant boost, as he scored his first goal of the season that night and went on to register eight goals and 10 assists in a span of 30 games.
“When you feel like you have the coach [Yeo], when he has your back, it’s gonna make you feel more relaxed out there and play with more confidence,” Lindblom said. “I think that’s what I did and things started clicking again.”
At his peak this season, Lindblom felt and played just like he did back in the 2019-20 season before his diagnosis, when he scored 11 goals and averaged .60 points per game. At the time, Konecny recalled, Lindblom had lots of confidence and was “scoring left, right, and center.”
Although Lindblom didn’t produce as much this season, registering 12 goals and 14 assists for 26 points (25 points in 58 games under Yeo), Konecny said that Lindblom still has a great shot and ability to play. He carved out a role for himself on the hard-checking fourth line with his attention to detail in all phases of the game.
Most importantly, he noticed that Lindblom took a big jump this season from a conditioning standpoint.
“He’s one of those guys who’s actually ahead of everybody with the way he competes in the gym and does all the right things every single day,” Konecny said. “Throughout the entire season, he’s always pushing to get better.”
‘I want to feel like myself again’
Still, after a disappointing season for a Flyers team that finished last in the Metropolitan division and missed out on the playoffs for a second straight year, Lindblom knows he can be a bigger contributor as he continues to strive toward reaching his full potential.
While he said he appreciates simply being back in the NHL, he aspires to take the next step in his game and feel consistently at his peak all season long.
“To be back and play in the best league in the world, and I’m kind of mad we’re not playing well, but at the same time, [I] have to be grateful that I’m playing again,” Lindblom said. “That’s just the hockey player world. You want to be the best, so hopefully I can be better next year.”
After several nights of poor sleep during a tough season while thinking about the game “way too much,” Lindblom will head home to Sweden to disconnect for a few weeks.
Then, it’s back to the gym with his training group in search of the elusive answer to the question he pondered upon his post-diagnosis debut. When will I feel the same way I did on the ice before I got sick?
“My goal is just to work my [butt] off and when I come back to training camp next year, I want to feel like myself again,” Lindblom said. “Like, really be back 100 percent and be able to be a leader on this team and not to worry about how I’m gonna feel. Just play the game and have fun and do my best.”