Cancer survivor Cy Clark has a very special bond with the Pittsburgh Penguins
Cy Clark is a man whose life was saved by hockey. You may not recognize the name right away, but you surely will recognize his appearance. You might know him best as “Malkamania”, “Hulk Hogan Guy” or that guy who goes to Penguin games with a bunch of crazy jerseys and signs. For all of the fame Clark has garnished from his character, he wants to better known as the guy who beat cancer, twice.
Clark has been officially declared cancer free since May of this year, but at one point his outlook was bleak. Penguin’s star Sidney Crosby was one of those who had their doubts about Clark’s health.
“Sid came up to me and told me ‘We didn’t think you were going to make it,’” recalls Clark about a moment when he ran into Crosby after a practice one day. Clark resembled very little of his former self at one point, weighing about 150 pounds he estimates, well off the natural 200 or so pound build he was used to having. Cancer had brought Clark to near death, but hockey was there to pick him up.
Over the last several years, Clark, 51, has made himself into a local celebrity. He is slowly becoming a piece of iconic Pittsburgh fame through his unique appearance, antics and vociferous opinions towards certain hockey players (and one certain announcer). He has become a fixation amongst the crowd at CONSOL Energy Center (and formerly the Civic/Mellon Arena) constantly showing up on TV and the arena video screen. Clark is hockey’s ultimate super fan because he has made himself a part of the game and has even influenced a few memorable moments in the sport. For anyone to understand how important the sport is to him, you have to head back to his childhood where he first fell in love it.
Clark attended his first hockey game at the age of five with his dad at the Civic Arena in 1967. It was the first Penguins game in the history of the franchise, a 2-1 loss to the power house Montreal Canadians. Instantly a hockey fan was born and Clark has not missed a home opener since. Hockey back then was a different sport from the speed of the game, to the appearance of the crowd.
“From 67’ to about 73’ it was white button down shirt, black clip-on tie, black pants, black shoes. It was like an event,” laughed Clark about his youthful years. “The arena hosted Broadway shows and things, those people they dressed like they were going to the Benedum.”
It was not until the mid 70’s that a twelve year old Clark received his first jersey, “the one with the circle,” recalls Clark and later received his first player jersey, Bob “Battleship” Kelly.
Growing up, Clark would attend games, collect jerseys and came to understand and appreciate the sport. But it was the generosity and ability to interact with the players that he cherished best. He remembers that when he was little how the fan-player interaction was almost effortless.
“That’s when you used stand by the runway and there were maybe two or three kids, you just didn’t do that,” he said. “Players would come up to you, could get any autograph you wanted and nobody would push and shove because nobody did it. Everybody stopped.”
Because of this, Clark was able to obtain one of his favorite pieces of memorabilia from famous Montreal Canadians goalie Ken Dryden.
“Kenny Dryden one time, I don’t know what the heck, I was the only one there, he hands me his stick and next you thing you know he’s signing the stick,” recalls Clark. “I didn’t know what to say, did the fluffing of the hair with his hand to my head and I’m standing there like wow, Kenny Dryden. It’s pretty cool.”
Clark was a regular Penguins games but remained a relative unknown. Before he adorned his signature look: the fu Manchu, sunglasses, feather boa, and bandanna, he resembled very little of that, having shorter hair and weighing 300 pounds at one point. His transformation came in late 2007. If you wonder why Clark is constantly walking around in a permanent Halloween costume, you actually have Halloween to thank for the look.
“I had a mustache and I m looking in the mirror and go ‘Man this looks like Hogan, what if I dye my mustache and do this for Halloween?’ I had the NWO shirt, walk into a contest at work and my boss says ‘You won, no sense in going any further,’” Clark chuckled.
He entered a few more costume contest that week, winning them all and “it just stuck,” recalls Clark.
Usually wearing an Evgeni Malkin jersey, Clark took his new persona to games and easily won over fans with his captivating energy and passion for the team. But what Clark is arguably most known for, his customized jerseys, actually started with an altered t-shit.
When the Pens were playing the Redwings in the 2009 Stanly Cup Finals, the main story line was Marian Hossa. Hossa had left the Pens to join the Wings because he felt they would provide a better chance at a championship. That of course was something Detroit won the previous year against Hossa and the Pens. Clark saw an easy target and went to Game Seven in Detroit that year dressed in his Malkin jersey and bowa looking to have some fun.
He bought a Hossa shirt and duct-taped the word “Judas” on it which he then took to the scene of a pregame television show.
“I couldn’t get close enough to Alby Oxenreiter of Channel 11, so I threw it to him and he took and held it up and it was on TV.”
From that shirt, Clark has built an army of customized jerseys for every tea m, each one aimed at someone in a playful manner. Some of his more memorable ones include, his personal favorite “Mrs. McGuire, a jersey aimed at former Philadelphia Flyers forward Mike Richards and analyst Pierre McGuire who always praises Richards for his leadership. What has become maybe his most famous one is “Fragile”, a reference to often injured New York Islander goalie Rick DiPietro.
Clark recalls a time where he made a trip to New York and returned with a pretty funny story.
“My favorite time with that jersey was in Long Island and I won a drawing to sit in the penalty box for the warm ups. They told me no Penguin jersey and I go ‘fine I can comply with you’ and I wore damn “Fragile” jersey,” Clark tells me laughing.
By 2010, “Malkamania” was running wild and Clark seemed to be everywhere. His antics of harassing opposing team’s players had brought Clark’s fandom and fame to an all-time high, but his health was not.
“The year we played Tampa Bay in the playoffs, 2010, 2011 (season), it seemed like a little bit after the Winter Classic I was getting sick a lot. At the time I would get sick and go to the doctor and they would give you an antibiotic and you would feel better for a couple weeks. No voice, lot of coughing. It was flue like. I was just very run down,” tells Clark about his first symptoms, his voice noticeably chocking up.
These symptoms of feeling run down and constantly tired continued, and Clark still was not sure what was wrong with him. It was the Spring and then it happened, the sign he knew that meant the worst was about to come.
“I coughed up blood and immediately knew I had cancer… It wasn’t confirmed until a couple of weeks later. I had to go and take a biopsy. It was the longest 6 days of my life,” remembers Clark.
Clark had been diagnosed with throat cancer. Most people immediately start the “why me?” phase after that diagnosis but he handled it well.
“Absolutely,” about him bracing himself “it wasn’t a surprise and I think I handled it well.”
Clark, a smoker for over 20 years, quit cold turkey immediately after the diagnosis. The next few months were absolute hell for him. In July of that year he started his radiation and chemo treatments at UPMC St. Margaret Hospital. Under the watch of Dr. Ryan Smith for Radiation Oncology, Dr. Jason Lamb his surgeon and Dr. Hongmei Liang for Chemotherapy , his life would forever change.
“Throat cancer is the most barbaric treatment. The radiation on your throat, just imagine not being able to drink a glass of water without feeling like you have a third degree burn from the radiation. Just imagine trying to eat something and no matter what it is, burning,” says Clark gesturing towards his throat.
The rigorous radiation and chemo treatments left Clark frail and weakened. Drinking and eating had become a challenge and as a result of everything, he lost over 50 pounds. He was down to 150 pounds and was struggling with the simple things that he had taken for granted. The treatments however had paid off and he was soon declared cancer free, but Clark’s health was in serious jeopardy.
Word of Clark’s condition spread around the Penguin community and the out pouring of support he received from well wishers was overwhelming. But there was no one he relied on more than his wife Joeanne.
“She did a lot. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t want to imagine.” says Clark.
The biggest surprise for Clark was yet to come, and one he credits that probably saved his life at one of his most vulnerable moments.
On Tuesday October 4, 2011 Clark was invited by Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma to attend the Penguins practice. The Penguins had heard of Clark’s battle with cancer and wanted to reach out and help their biggest fan. Clark was taken back by that day and called it “a dream”. He was able to meet the team, get some autographs, a few sticks and just talk to them followed by a tour of the locker room.
“It was shocking and great to meet a lot of them, just talking to them,” recalls Clark. “That was basically the first time for those guys. They knew who I was, but it’s pretty cool. They know the story.”
“Overwhelming,” was the only word he could muster to describe the whole experience. The visit was featured on the Jumbotron at one of the games, the Penguins official site, and several blogs and papers covered his visit as well.
Through the entire experience Clark was looking forward to opening night and it is one he appreciates more than any of the others he has attended. He was armed with a sign on opening night that to him, through all of the chemo and radiation treatment, was his cure for cancer.
“The Best Medicine: Penguins Hockey” the sign read. Clark was emotional opening night and took countless photos with fans and spoke to what seemed like everyone in the arena. It was impossible to thank everyone, but he damn near tried.
The next several months were a whirlwind for Clark. He has honored on the ice at the Consol Energy Center as part of the team’s “Hockey Fights Cancer” night, a ROOT sports feature was done and he and appeared on the WDVE Moring Show.
When the year had ended Clark had built his strength back up, but was still not fully healthy. He had suffered numbness in his hands, some kidney problems and was still having difficulty with food and drinks. But that was a minor struggle compared to what he had been through.
Then during one of his routine checkups in February, right before a hockey trip, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The news hit Clark hard, but just like before, hockey was there to pick him back up.
He went for surgery after he got back from his trip and returned to chemo and radiation treatments. Once healthy, Clark was able to attend a few games, just in time for the playoffs. It was during a playoff game against Philadelphia Flyers on April 1 where Clark drew national attention.
Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell and Clark jawed at each other before Hartnell gave him Hogan’s famous “I can’t hear you” gesture as the Flyers went on to beat the Penguins. That incident inspired Philadelphia to give out a t-shirt at their next game commemorating the moment. It was the ultimate form of flattery for Clark who took no offense over it.
In May, Clark was officially declared cancer free with his last round of radiation coming on May 16. He remains humbled and is appreciate of everything he has gone through.
“I look back on it now and think damn it I’m alive. Battled and gave it a good fight. I was lucky, maybe it wasn’t in the cards for me,” said Clark.
Clark credits the staff at St. Margaret for saving his life and is trying to give back in any way he can. He is currently volunteering at St. Margaret’s where he visits those who may not have someone to talk to or to those who are going through cancer themselves.
“I’m hoping to pay back,” Clark tells me.
Clark has a special closeness with the Penguins organization that saved his life. It is a bond that transcends him over any regular hockey fan. Cancer brought Clark the hardest time in his life, but it also brought him even closer to the game he loves. Without hockey, he wouldn’t be here. Like the “Malkster” says; “Say your prayers, take you vitamins and remember, the best medicine is always Penguins hockey.”