Graham Black went through the toughest season of his hockey career last year as a 19-year-old centre for the Swift Current Broncos. He struggled to maintain his health, but not because of hockey related injuries. His ongoing battle with Graves’ disease got the best of him, which led to him struggling to keep up a healthy weight with the lowest point coming at the end of October when he lost roughly 30 pounds in just two weeks.
“It was a very tough thing to go through,” says Black. “I think it was my hardest season for hockey. It held me back in a year where I wanted to have a big season. I had trouble maintaining my weight and even lost 30 pounds in just two weeks early in the year. And with that I had problems sleeping and keeping my energy up.”
Taking into account the hand Black was dealt last year, he had an excellent second season in Swift Current. The New Jersey Devils prospect not only managed to suit up for 68 of the Broncos' 72 games, but he also mustered 24 goals and 50 points along the way.
“I tried to do what I could,” says Black. “I still worked hard and tried to have the best season possible. I want to play as much I can, so I worked hard to stay in the lineup.”
Last year wasn’t the first season Black’s health issues slowed him down on the ice. Based on his elite skill set, there’s ultimately an argument to suggest he would have been playing major junior puck before his 18-year-old season if he didn’t have the Graves’ disease obstacle to deal with.
“I don’t like to use it as an excuse, but it has definitely hurt my development a bit at times,” says Black, who couldn’t crack the Edmonton Oil Kings in his first two years of WHL eligibility before being dealt to the Broncos. “Gaining weight and strength was hard for me because of it and that’s important (in hockey).”
This year, Black’s health has been so far so good. He has maintained a healthy weight, listed 6-foot, 184-pounds, and is showing what he can do when he’s firing on all cylinders as he sits tied for eighth in the league’s scoring race with 15 goals and 36 points in 28 contests. His strong play is one of the reasons why the Broncos sit on top of the East Division standings with a 16-10-0-3 record.
“Staying healthy is why I have been having playing well this year,” he says. “I haven’t had any issues for a while besides a little flare up here and there in the summer. Since I have been able to keep my weight up for a couple of months now, I have energy and can do my best. I don’t have stuff holding me back right now.”
Since he’s yet to sign his entry-level deal with the Devils, it was crucial for Black to regain his health and have a strong overage season this year to extend his hockey career to the pros.
“That’s definitely something I want to earn,” says Black on signing with New Jersey. “I’ve been working hard and I want to go to the next level next year."
The Regina, SK., native takes comfort in knowing other hockey players have made it to the big leagues while fighting through off-ice health issues. The Minnesota Wild’s Josh Harding, for example, has thrived as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL this year despite battling through Multiple Sclerosis.
“Harding has been a great story this year,” he says. “Him and other players with issues like diabetes have fought through their problems. They are an inspiration to me that you can still make it with health problems."
As for Black’s long-term career, he is confident he won’t have too many rainy days with his Graves’ disease battle because he had surgery on his thyroid last February.
“I think I’ll be able to maintain a healthy weight from here on,” he says. “It’s really a problem with the thyroid and I had surgery last February to remove it.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen