If you didn’t know, November is Diabetes Awareness Month. Diabetes is an autoimmune disease that is caused by an organ failing, and in this case, it is the pancreas. The pancreas creates insulin which keeps your blood sugar steady. Without a working pancreas, you need to inject insulin into your body every time you eat and then some.
Diabetes is a life-threatening condition as there are complications if your blood sugar stays high over a long period. Also, when your blood sugar is low, it can cause coma, seizures, and brain damage. Severe hypoglycemia can be fatal, accounting for up to 10 percent of deaths among young people with type 1 diabetes.
There are about 300,000 Canadians who suffer from type 1 diabetes and people of all ages are diagnosed every day. Some of those are, in fact, high-level athletes.
I hold this subject close to my heart as my stepdaughter Adalynn has been a type 1 diabetic for almost two years. Keeping blood sugar steady is not an easy task, which is what inspired me to see how hockey players manage this disease by themselves and with their teams.
There are current and former National Hockey League players who are type 1 diabetics. For example, Max Domi of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Luke Kunin of the Nashville Predators, and Kaapo Kakko of the New York Rangers.
And there are also at least two BC Hockey League players who live with type 1 diabetes.
One of those players is Chilliwack Chiefs forward Brett Rylance. Rylance, a Chilliwack local, has been with the Chiefs for three seasons. Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Rylance got the chance to play one more season for the Chiefs in 2021-22 before going off to Northern Michigan next season.
Rylance was diagnosed with the disease this past June, two and a half months before training camp. As a busy junior hockey player, he manages his insulin with multiple daily injections.
“I manage my insulin through self-pokes as I find that works best for my active lifestyle,” explained Rylance. A “self-poke” involves injecting insulin into the fat layer under the skin. Essentially, a short needle is used to inject insulin into the fatty layer between the skin and the muscle.
As for maintaining his blood sugar during a game, Rylance says preparation beforehand is key. “The most important thing for me is the pregame meal. The food I eat before a game needs to be able to keep me from going low or high. I also monitor my levels during the game to ensure I’m operating at a good level.”
One of the main things about type 1 diabetes is being aware of when your blood sugar goes low, and for a hockey player, it could happen while they’re on the ice.
“I have gotten low during a game, I carry a couple of juice boxes and fruit snacks that I will have to eat or drink, then I will take a couple of minutes to allow my blood sugar to even out and I’m good to go.”
In Rylance’s case, the Chiefs’ training staff play an active role in ensuring he’s safe during a game. “The training staff does an awesome job helping me monitor my blood sugar and keeping me safe,” said Rylance. “They watch my levels throughout the game.”
Rylance so far this season is averaging just over half a point per game for Chilliwack. He is one of four alternate captains with the Chiefs and might be a frontrunner to get the “C” for the team this season.
Justin Katz is another player in the BCHL who deals with type 1 diabetes. Katz is in his rookie season with the Warriors. From Mont-Royal, QC, he was recruited by the Warriors from Deerfield Academy in the US High School Prep league.
Katz’s life with diabetes is much different than Rylance’s as the 17-year-old was diagnosed with the disease a decade ago. He uses a different method than an injection to get his insulin.
“I used injections to give myself insulin until three years after I was diagnosed. I then switched to pumps because I thought it would make my life easier, (and) have been on it ever since,” said Katz.
An insulin pump delivers the hormone similarly to how the body would release it naturally, throughout the day, with an extra dose at meals to handle the extra blood sugar from the food. The pump is a small, computerized device that delivers insulin via a thin tube under the skin.
By living with diabetes for much of his hockey career, he definitely has had his blood sugar go low during a game. “I feel low blood sugar every so often during a game, but it usually doesn’t affect my play. It has gotten to that point a few times and I have either had to leave the game or take a medical timeout.”
Although the Warriors training staff is well aware of Katz’s diabetes, they don’t actively track his blood sugar during a game, but they are ready to spring into action if necessary.
“If there’s ever anything a little bit off I make sure that (they’re) aware. My blood sugars are always displayed on my pump screen, which I keep on me at all times,” explained Katz. “I make sure that when I’m on the ice, I am checking it even more often. Usually, I’ll check when I have a break during practice and after every few whistles in games.”
Katz admits diabetes is hard to deal with, especially for someone as active as a hockey player. “Sometimes it is frustrating to deal with, as it can affect your mood and your play, but it’s just another obstacle I have to overcome and I think it has made me a better person and goalie.”
He has had a good start to his first season in the BCHL playing as the backup to Johnny Derrick. Katz has provided solid netminding for the Warriors when called upon, which has no doubt raised the eyebrows of scouts.
No cure for type 1 diabetes yet
Both Rylance and Katz will have this life-threatening condition for the rest of their lives, or until a cure is found for type 1 diabetes. The two play each other on Nov. 27 in West Kelowna, during Diabetes Awareness Month at that, which seems very fitting.
If you would like to make a difference and help find a cure, please donate to Diabetes Canada at www.diabetes.ca.