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Hockey: Penn’s Joel Cocquyt returns to the ice during his battle against cancer

Penn’s Joel Cocquyt returns to the ice during his battle against cancer

As hungry as the Penn Kingsmen Hockey Team is to hoist a State Championship Trophy, an even bigger victory will be won the instant that the steel blades of Joel Cocquyt’s black skates hit the ice at South Bend’s historic Ice Box hockey rink.

Cocquyt, a speedy center who has racked up more than 70 goals in his high school career, takes his undaunted fight against cancer to a higher level when he returns to the ice.

A 5-foot-6, 140-pound dynamo, Cocquyt is expected to play as the Kingsmen open 2024 Indiana High School Hockey State Tournament action at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23, against Zionsville.

A Pennant Photo Gallery is posted below.

The Ice Box won’t be able to contain the flood of emotions as Cocquyt returns to the ice. Cocquyt’s return will pump the adrenaline equivalent of rocket fuel into the veins of the Kingsmen as they launch into pursuit of state glory.

“It means everything,” Cocquyt said of lacing up the skates for a game. “I’ve been trying to get back on the ice the last couple of months. I’ve been skating, but I couldn’t get cleared for the Senior Night Game. I’m good to go for the State Tournament. It means everything to be able to finish the season with the Seniors on this team, guys that I’ve been playing with for 12-plus years.

“I’ll be the happiest I’ve ever been when I get in the game,” Cocquyt said. “When I found out that the doctor cleared me, I was so happy. When I step out on the ice, there won’t be nerves. I won’t be jittery.”

Cocquyt’s arduous ordeal started last summer when he felt pain in his right leg.

An early diagnosis was a stress fracture, but his initial doctor thought it could be more than that, and sent Cocquyt to an oncologist.

“The oncologist said, no, it wasn’t a tumor, but when he described it to me, I remember thinking, that’s exactly how it feels,” Cocquyt said. “He said it wasn’t a tumor, so I trusted the guy. I was on crutches for about a month and a half. I came back to playing hockey and got kicked, the first day off of crutches. I still played for two weeks … seven games. The doctors thought I had a meniscal tear. Then I got a biopsy done. I was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma in December.”

Cocquyt had the Kingsmen rolling when he was on the ice earlier in the season. Penn was 5-1-1 with Cocquyt in the line-up. The Kingsmen are 12-11-5 without Cocquyt, and are 17-12-6 overall entering Friday’s game.

“During that time when Joel was playing early in the season, we were buzzing,” Kingsmen teammate Brooks Clark said. “It was a lot different. We went on a run. It’s been a rough patch with Joel out, but he’s bringing the energy back.”

Quinn Cocquyt, Joel’s teammate and cousin, said that the team was stunned to hear the diagnosis.

“It was a complete shock to Joel, to me, to the rest of the team,” Quinn Cocquyt said when they heard that Joel Cocquyt had cancer. “No one expected him to be out for as long as he was. We all thought it was going to be a six-week thing. We’re all looking forward to having him back on the ice. We’re all looking forward, not back.”

Joel Cocquyt has used his fierce competitor’s mindset as a key ally in his fight against cancer.

“Yeah, it sucks, but you have to look at the bright side,” Joel said. “We caught it early. It’s Stage 1. It hasn’t spread anywhere. It’s not in my lungs”

“I’ve been through three biopsies, two on my leg and one in my groin area, and so far, four rounds of chemo. I have a port in my chest. My Uncle John, who is a four-time cancer survivor, keeps telling me how great I’m doing, and how much better I’m handling it than he did. With him around, it helps a lot. He’s been amazing and has helped me out a lot.”

Cocquyt doesn’t know if playing hockey will be in his future after the State Tournament. He faces radiation and/or surgery that may end his playing career, but he will always be part of hockey, possibly as a coach. Right now, though, Cocquyt will put on the No. 21 Kingsmen jersey and bring the attack.

Joel Cocquyt’s story is one built on a foundation of courage, family and hockey.

“The support has been unbelievable,” Joel said. “This team … they all buzzed their hair for me. There isn’t a guy on this team that we wouldn’t do that for. We’re so close. We’ve played together for years and years and years. My family has been great. They’ve helped me so much, and this team has been amazing.

“When you’re playing hockey, you’re always trying to win, and grind it out. That’s how I am with this. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll beat it.”

An All-State candidate entering the 2023-2024 season, Joel Cocquyt has never wavered in his battle to return to the ice.

“I’m doing this for our Seniors,” Joel said. “It means everything to me to be able to come back and try to be in the best shape possible to try and win a State Championship in these last few games for those guys.

“I think I get my competitive nature from my brother Kyle, our assistant coach. I look up to him a lot. Our parents aren’t really like that. Kyle is a really good competitor. He hates losing as much as I do.”

Cocquyt’s high energy and lightning-strike attack mode is also fueled by studying the talents of former Blackhawks star Patrick Kane.

“I love the Blackhawks,” Joel said. “My favorite player of all time is Patrick Kane. My older brother plays like him a little bit, too. He’s a smaller guy. I love Patrick Kane.”

Quinn Cocquyt said that Joel’s hockey toughness has helped put him back on the ice for Penn’s state tournament run.

“I think he’s faced this really well,” Quinn said. “It’s so tough that he had to step away from the game he loves and the game he’s put so much time into, but the fact that he’s going to step back on the ice with his teammates and friends is really important for him. He’s accepted his role and now he’s fortunate enough to be back on the ice again.

“Joel is probably one of the strongest individuals on the team, not just mentally, but physically as well. He’s very determined with everything he does. He doesn’t take anything lightly. He’s always working hard for what he believes in and what he needs to improve on. It wasn’t easy for him to get back on the ice. He’s been still working out and doing what he can to get ready for the state run.

“I think Joel’s attitude is special. Even though he’s my younger cousin, I look up to him for the way he’s approached his challenges and overcome the obstacles. He’s become a mentor for a lot of the younger guys.”

Quinn Cocquyt said that Kingsmen players have grown up more as they see Joel Cocquyt’s courage in his battle.

“I think a lot of people on the team don’t take things for granted anymore,” Quinn said. “This has been a hard thing for us to face, but I think our team has really come together.

“Joel has been inspiring, even if he’s not on the ice, and he’s on the bench, it gives me a smile to see him still around the team even though he’s facing hard times. You see that he still cares about this team and he’ll do whatever he can to help this team, whether he’s on or off the ice.”

Clark and Quinn Cocquyt are eager to see Joel Cocquyt’s relentless scoring play be part of the Kingsmen attack.

“It’s going to be huge having Joel back on the ice,” Clark said. “Just having Joel out there gets the boys going. We’ve been struggling to score goals, and Joel is a big piece of the offense. Hopefully, we can get that going in state. We’ve been kind of down, and Joel brings energy. He picks us up. We all admire him. He’s a fighter. He keeps fighting. We keep trying to do the same.”

Quinn Cocquyt said that Joel’s energy and scoring talent will give the Kingsmen a surge of intensity.

“Joel’s speed is special,” Quinn said. “No matter his size, he uses his speed to his ability. He’s got a really good shot, and he knows how to work defenders in and out and where to shoot. And it always goes in.”

Joel Cocquyt won’t reveal what his goal celebration will be if he lights the lamp at the Ice Box in state tournament action this weekend.

“You just have to be there to see it,” Joel said.

And if a goal celebration by Joel Cocqyut happens in the State Tournament, that will be a championship moment for the Kingsmen Hockey Family.

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