Ivan Miroshnichenko Hershey Bears HFC on ice holding stick

HERSHEY, Pa. -- Ivan Miroshnichenko considered the question for a moment and searched for the right words to describe what the Hockey Fights Cancer initiative means to him.

In this case, the Washington Capitals prospect's pause wasn't about the language barrier with Dmitry Osipov, his teammate with Hershey of the American Hockey League, assisting by translating from Russian to English. Miroshnichenko's battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma last year has given him a personal connection to Hockey Fights Cancer Night games, like the one the Capitals will host against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Capital One Arena on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET; MNMT, BSOH), and a perspective that the fight can mean different things to different people.

"I've been through it, and I've seen both sides of it, so I don't really know how to answer that question," the 19-year-old forward said. "But it's awesome that the night exists and the whole month people celebrate the fight of cancer."

During a ceremony before Hershey's Hockey Fights Cancer Night game against Lehigh Valley on Sunday, players from each team stood on their respective blue lines holding lavender "I Fight For" signs with a person's name or a reason written onto it. Miroshnichenko's sign said he fights for, "Everyone."

Miroshnichenko, who was selected by Washington with the No. 20 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, understands that sharing his story might help others, but also seems reluctant to push his experience onto someone else.

"It's really tough to come up with the words [to say] to everyone who has gone through this or is going through this," he said. "In reality, it doesn't matter what I say because it's tough. When I was going through it, it was everything in me.

"So, just be strong, just believe that you're going to fight it off and everything is going to be fine."

Ivan Miroshnichenko Hershey Bears HFC thumbs up on bench

Miroshnichenko's belief that he'd beat cancer and play hockey again drove him throughout his battle. The native of Ussuriysk, Russia, was playing for Omsk Krylia in Russia's second division before he received his diagnosis on Feb. 4, 2022, which was also his 18th birthday.

"It was just a shock for everyone, for me, for my family, for my friends," Miroshnichenko said. "In my family, it never happened. None of my relatives had ever been diagnosed with any kind of cancer."

Hodgkin's lymphoma is a cancer that begins in the lymphocytes, white blood cells that help fight infections and other diseases. According to the American Cancer Society's website, it is most common in early adulthood, and again after age 55.

Miroshnichenko's symptoms began with what he thought was normal cough.

"I was coughing on and off for about three months," Miroshnichenko said. "Then, I started experiencing some itchy skin, which was kind of weird, and then I started sweating quite a bit. A couple months later, when the team was doing the usual checkup on all the players, the blood results came back not bad, but there were some flags. And they ran the tests again and when they came back, it didn't look the way they wanted them to look.

"Afterwards, they sent me to Germany (for further testing) and that's when the whole picture came into view."

Miroshnichenko remained in Germany after receiving his diagnosis and immediately began the first of four cycles of chemotherapy. The second round was the hardest.

He spent three days in the hospital afterward, lost all his hair and more than 30 pounds, which he later regained; he's listed now at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds.

The good news was tests taken after the second cycle showed he was cancer-free.

"As soon I found out, it was real excitement and relief," Miroshnichenko said. "The doctors were shocked because it only took two full treatments, and everything was gone."

Miroshnichenko had to remain in Germany until he completed all four cycles of chemotherapy, though. With recovery time required between each cycle, Miroshnichenko was separated from his family and friends in Russia for more than four months.

"It was insanely hard because you're just talking through the phone," he said. "Obviously, family, everybody is worried: my mom, my sister, my grandparents, my friends, and everyone. Even though I knew I was getting better, on the other side of the phone you can't see much, and you don't know what they're talking about."

About a month into his treatments, Miroshnichenko received a call from Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma while playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 1992-93 season. Lemieux returned later that season to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer with 160 points (69 goals, 91 assists) in 60 games.

Miroshnichenko said Lemieux's message was, "Life doesn't end. You're going to recover. Don't worry about it. Get it out of your head and go through recovery."

Not thinking about cancer was impossible at that point, though. Not thinking about hockey wasn't easy either.

"I couldn't take it out of my mind," Miroshnichenko said. "Everyone was calling me, everyone was supporting me, so there was no way. Plus, I knew the draft was coming up."

Miroshnichenko completed his treatments and returned to Russia only a few weeks before heading to Montreal for the NHL draft and being selected by Washington on July 7, 2022. By then, he'd been cleared to resume training. Before long, he was asking doctors when he could play.

"Hockey was always a part of my life," he said. "I just couldn't wait to come back to what I love to do, and I was just excited to get back to the game and just enjoy my life again."

Ivan Miroshnichenko Hershey Bears HFC action

Miroshnichenko returned to play with Omsk Yastreby in Russia's junior league on Nov. 6, 2022, and had 14 points (10 goals, four assists) in 12 games. Then, he rejoined Omsk Krylia and had three assists four games before being promoted to Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, where he had four points (three goals, one assist) in 23 games.

Omsk permitted Miroshnichenko to terminate his KHL contract after last season to pursue his dream of playing in the NHL and he attended his first training camp with Washington in September. He played in two preseason games skating on a line with Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who is second in NHL history with 826 goals, and had two assists before being assigned to Hershey to help with his adjustment to playing in North America.

Miroshnichenko has seven points (three goals, four assists) in 14 games with Hershey this season.

"He's a fighter," Ovechkin said. "He's a guy in the future of this organization. He has tremendous skill, a great shot, and you can see he's a hard-working guy."

When asked if, like Ovechkin, he views himself as a fighter, Miroshnichenko smiled and replied, "Of course."

He is tested once a year to make sure the cancer hasn't returned. That will continue until five years post treatment, after which a recurrence is considered unlikely.

"So far, I'm feeling great," he said. "No side effects or anything."

Miroshnichenko said he'll occasionally feel something that reminds him of his symptoms, but, otherwise, he rarely thinks about beating cancer. His focus now is on reaching the NHL.

After he scored Hershey's lone goal in a 4-1 loss to Lehigh Valley on Sunday, he waved to his wife Karina in the stands, which is their ritual whenever he scores. The significance of scoring on Hockey Fights Cancer Night didn't occur to him initially.

"I wasn't really thinking about scoring a goal or anything like that," Miroshnichenko said. "I was happy when I realized it and it's awesome I did it, but it's just another day in the business."