TAMPA — When Paul Kennedy checked his phone early Thanksgiving morning, he got a needed uplifting note from a surprising source.
Kennedy, 63, the Lightning’s longtime television host with Fox Sports, was in his Orlando home recovering from late October prostate cancer surgery. He wanted to find church service information but opened his email first. There, at 8:11 a.m., was a note from Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.
"He wrote, ‘I’ve been thinking about you,’ " Kennedy said. " ‘If I can do anything for you, let me know. You’ll be all right.’ "
It wasn’t just Vinik who was keeping in touch with Kennedy. Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan, who had prostate cancer surgery this time last year, suggested to Kennedy a helpful book and checked in weekly via text message and phone calls.
"I wanted to let him know he wasn’t alone," Dugan said. "I told him to stay with it."
The entire Lightning team posted for a photo in the locker room on its Hockey Fights Cancer Night, holding signs that said, "We fight for P.K."
Kennedy said it was that type of support, from his Lightning and Tampa Bay family, that helped get him through the scare of his life. Kennedy, who has covered the Lightning since its 1992 expansion draft, will return to regular duties Saturday for its game against the Sharks at Amalie Arena.
It’ll be almost exactly four months to the day since his Aug. 1 cancer diagnosis.
"This has been a very enriching experience for me," Kennedy said. "Not only educational, because I had never been ill a day in my life, ever. Then you get the three most sobering words you or I can hear, ‘You have cancer.’ "
"So when you’re vulnerable like that, to see who your friends are, is amazing. Absolutely amazing."
When Kennedy said he had never been ill, it wasn’t surprising.
He’s more active than people half his age, having run 10 marathons. So he didn’t expect any surprises in late June when he went for his annual physical.
That’s when his doctor noticed that his levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) — a protein produced by normal and malignant cells of the prostate gland — had jumped in his blood. The blood level of PSA is often elevated in men with prostate cancer.
Kennedy said he recommends men of all ages to regularly check their PSA levels.
"It can save your life," he said. "It did mine."
When Kennedy’s urologist, a running buddy, did a biopsy and gave him his cancer diagnosis, he said there was good news and bad news. The good news was that world-renown surgeon Vipul Patel was in Orlando and he’d handle the cancer with a popular, less invasive robotic prostatectomy. The surgery was Oct. 23.
All screens have been positive since.
"My pathologist said if I would have waited, I would have had a real problem in six to 12 months," Kennedy said. "I could have been in grave danger."
Kennedy didn’t tell a lot of people about his diagnosis as the Lightning opened training camp.
He did his regular pre- and postgame host duties, conducting interviews after morning skates. And Kennedy continued to pepper producers and fellow Fox Sports Sun broadcasters with questions and did-you-know texts. Kennedy, who studied English literature and political science at Virginia Tech, is a voracious reader and student of history.
"He’s called NFL football games, called NBA, called horse jumping. That’s how versatile the guy is," longtime Lightning TV-play-by-play announcer Rick Peckham said. "He can host anything. He’s as smooth as it comes in handling all situations. I remember when (former Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice was at a game and here was Paul interviewing her in a suite, right at home."
Peckham, who has known Kennedy for 20 years, said his friend’s cancer diagnosis hit home. Cancer has struck the hockey broadcasting world hard this past year. Peckham’s former partner Dave Strader died Oct. 1 of bile duct cancer. NBC’s and the Blackhawks’ Eddie Olczyk is back with the Chicago broadcast crew while being treated for colon cancer.
Kennedy, one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet, remained upbeat throughout. "He never missed a beat," Peckham said.
Kennedy missed more than a month of games, his fiancee, Joan Caroll, and Luke, their 70-pound Goldendoodle, a huge support system. He returned to studio work during last week’s road trip. Rich Hollenberg and J.P. Peterson filled in admirably for Kennedy. But Lightning broadcasts weren’t the same without "P.K."
"He’s a great community ambassador for the franchise," Vinik said. "A true member of the Lightning family."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
Lightning vs. Sharks, 7 Saturday, Amalie Arena
TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 970-AM