Mike Marcou, coach of Junior Islanders, holds his son Michael...

Mike Marcou, coach of Junior Islanders, holds his son Michael Jr., and is joined by from left to right, Tom Palamara, Director of PAL Junior Islanders, Mike's wife Lauren, and Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino at a fundraiser in support of Mike on Wednesday at Northwell Health Hockey Rink in East Meadow. Credit: Dawn McCormick

When you’ve been a defenseman on a hockey team the majority of your life, toughness is just something that comes naturally. And when Mike Marcou was staring down a cancer diagnosis, that same toughness that helped him play some of the most competitive hockey around formed his fight in his toughest days.

Marcou, a 32-year-old from Kings Park and a 2007 graduate of Smithtown West, has been fighting a non-seminoma mix germ cell tumor since August 2021. He woke up with chest pains one night and an X-ray found a "softball-sized tumor" in his chest cavity, Marcou said. He had two biopsies — both coming back benign — but Marcou said doctors found cancer in the tumor in the final biopsy after it was removed.

"The last thing I was expecting was to hear I had a tumor inside my chest," Marcou said. "And even after being told you have cancer, it still takes a while to process it."

The hockey community immediately rallied around Marcou, who has been the coach of the PAL Junior Islanders in the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) since September 2019.

On Wednesday, the PAL Junior Islanders and Long Island Gulls, of the Amateur Hockey Association, played three games entitled "Battle for Bragging Rights" at the Northwell Ice Center. The proceeds from tickets, raffles and silent auctions benefited Marcou and his battle against cancer. They raised $124,000 for the American Cancer Society, Hockey Fights Cancer and the Marcou family, according to Rob Antonucci, a member of the Junior Islanders’ board of directors.

"I think it’s really just the hockey community coming together to help one of their own," said Andrew Rothstein, a member of the Junior Islanders’ board of directors.

"My wife and I, we’ve been dealt a pretty bad hand the last seven months," Marcou said. "But just seeing the support, especially from the hockey community on Long Island, family and friends and the PAL right from the start having my back made me feel secure with everything. And that definitely helps."

Marcou and his wife, Lauren, had a baby boy, Michael Jr., on Sept. 17. A week later, Marcou went in for open-heart surgery and has undergone four rounds of aggressive chemotherapy.

He has recently undergone and is awaiting results from MRIs and cat scans, but Marcou returned to his post as the team’s in-game coach last week. He was constantly involved while receiving treatments — whether it was joining team Zooms or breaking down video — but because of the tolls of chemotherapy and being immunocompromised in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he couldn’t always be on the ice with his team.

"I’m just lucky to have a chance to fight it," Marcou said. "I think I’m very fortunate. There’s some people that don’t get the chance to fight it so I think I’m lucky to sit here and have a chance and the support and love from everyone."

Marcou played in the Junior Islanders program. He went on to play at UMass Amherst before playing professionally in the AHL and ECHL. He took that same mindset he had as a player into treatment.

"Having that process of driving to chemotherapy — whether it was with my parents or my wife — we were heading into a game," Marcou said. "And there’s the first period, second period, third period and having that game mentality, it certainly helps."

The players used Marcou as motivation every time they took the ice.

"He was our inspiration the whole season," defenseman Mason Vonk said. "We wanted to battle for him because he’s been going through hard times and we were kind of his escape for everything he was going through. He’s just a great guy. You can tell he has a huge heart."

Tom Palamara, the executive director of PAL Junior Islanders, has witnessed the ways Marcou can connect to his players in ways other coaches can’t.

"He really relates to them and a lot of people don’t have that ability," Palamara said. "They can’t always transition from player to coach. He’s got that ability to think like a player and also think like a coach."

Marcou’s fight has trickled down beyond even the players.

"He’s resilient, he’s just a powerful individual," Antonucci said. "He has a lot of respect throughout the hockey community through all levels."

Marcou thanks his wife for the strength she’s shown for being able to care for him and their newborn. Marcou continues to take great appreciation in his support system as he continues to build his strength back. He’s thankful to be back with his family and his players.

"I think this year taught us a lesson that you can’t control what’s ahead of you," Marcou said. "But our motto has just been to be a good person, work hard every day and don’t take any day for granted."

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