Stuart Kemp is determined to be on hand for the Portland Winterhawks' training camp this month.
If he makes it, count it as a significant victory for the president of the Winterhawks Booster Club.
Kemp is working to recover from two strokes. He cannot yet swallow. He receives nutrients via a tube into his stomach. Physical therapy and speech therapy are among the rehabilitation activities that have kept Kemp occupied this summer.
But the 51-year-old can still speak well enough to make clear he will not hide from the world as he works to regain independence.
"I want people to put a face and a name to a stroke," he says. "I don't want it to be case number 87324. I want it to be Stuart. This is a person.
"I want people to see what a stroke looks like. I want people to see the worst-case scenario."
Those who know Kemp from his work with the booster club or from his career in professional wrestling won't be surprised by his can-do attitude.
The booster club president for the past decade, Kemp and wife Cathy have helped the group grow from less than 200 members in 2008 to consistently 500 or more in recent seasons.
A native of Port Moody, British Columbia, Kemp has lived in Vancouver, Washington, since marrying Cathy in 2003. Stuart and Cathy have been active members of the Winterhawks Booster Club since 2004, and are among those who regularly man the club's table at home games.
"We were shocked to hear about Stuart's health troubles this offseason, but very happy to hear he's recovering. He pours his heart and soul into the booster club, and it has flourished under his watch," says Kelley Robinett, Winterhawks senior vice president of operations and marketing. "The entire Winterhawks organization wishes him a speedy recovery, and we look forward to working with him for many years to come."
The Kemps' connection to hockey and the Winterhawks began with a friend giving them tickets to a game — with the caveat that they join the booster club.
It was a time when interest in the team, and especially the booster club, was in a lull. Soon, Stuart and Cathy found themselves on the booster club's board of directors.
Even before his recent health struggles, Kemp's body felt the impact from years of professional wrestling.
"People talk about it being fake and phony. My body tells me otherwise," he says. "I get up in the morning and hear bones crack, hear bones creak. I have problems getting up. I have problems walking."
Born with a mild case of cerebral palsy, Kemp was never quite fast enough to thrive in team sports. But he found a home in Canada's pro wrestling community.
"I did it to entertain," he says. "I tried very hard not to hurt myself, but it happened anyway because I tried very hard to make things as real as possible when I'm in that ring."
Kemp wrestled under the moniker "Illegitimate Son of Bob Brown," in tribute to Bulldog Bob Brown, who was a popular Canadian wrestler for more than three decades beginning in the late 1950s.
Kemp wrestled mostly as a foil for others. He estimates he won a half-dozen times and lost at least 800 bouts.
"We do it because we get to go out there and perform in front of a crowd and we get to show people who we are," Kemp says. "It's an offshoot of myself. Though I'm normally a reserved person, I'm very brash in the ring."
Kemp doesn't know if wrestling injuries contributed to his strokes. He says high blood pressure and high cholesterol are issues for his family.
Kemp's involvement with wrestling included writing for national publications and promoting matches. He's been a ring announcer, matchmaker and referee.
"Basically, any job you name in wrestling, I did," he says.
At an annual wrestling reunion on April 30 in Las Vegas, Kemp suffered his first stroke — though he initially chalked up the fiery-hot forehead and spinning room to food poisoning. The symptoms hit just as he was heading to serve as ring announcer for matches as part of the Cauliflower Alley Club's yearly gathering that draws hundreds of former and current wrestlers to Las Vegas.
On May 8, Kemp was at work in the warehouse at United Salad when the symptoms returned. Soon he was at the hospital with off-the-charts blood pressure.
"I was damn near dead," he reports matter-of-factly.
Kemp was diagnosed with Wallenberg Syndrome, a stroke that impacts the brain stem. He is learning to walk again, and recently was able to climb stairs.
Outpatient physical therapy and speech therapy are his routine these days.
His prognosis is still somewhat uncertain. He's been told that it can take six months to two years to recover from a stroke.
Cathy is thankful Stuart's mental capacity was not impacted. Stuart says some fellow patients during his time at the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon faced much more significant impacts.
Fatigue is one of the challenges.
"There are times when I'm very weak and times when I am very tired. A lot of it's just lack of sleep. I've been awake for 24 hours at a time sometimes because I'm afraid of swallowing my saliva and dying," he says.
He has been told that won't happen, but it's still on his mind.
"I'm a worry-wart," he says.
Kemp's life became a bit easier on Aug. 6, when he had a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy procedure. A PEG tube was inserted so he can receive nutrition directly into his stomach — which is more efficient and less stressful than relying on a tube through the nose as he did for the first three months of his recovery.
That's a big step. The Kemps hope that not having a nose tube eventually will help Stuart regain the ability to swallow. With a PEG tube hidden under clothes, Stuart's condition won't be as outwardly noticeable.
Since returning home in mid-June, Kemp has remained as active as possible. He went to Salem last month for the taping of the West Coast Wrestling Connection weekly television show. Focusing on booster club projects for the upcoming season has helped him remain engaged and forced him to work toward improved mobility. He has been preparing for three Winterhawks Booster Club fan road trips he has scheduled for this season.
The booster club operates independently from the Winterhawks. In addition to organizing fan trips to away games, the booster club is active with a variety of community projects. They include "Shop with a Hawk," which gives underprivileged kids a holiday shopping spree accompanied by Winterhawks players. The club also raises money to support youth hockey locally and supports other nonprofit projects. One of the club's popular projects are the yearbooks produced for each player.
At first, Cathy reminded Stuart not to over-exert himself. Once after Stuart returned home, Cathy called 911 because he was exhibiting stroke-like symptoms.
But, frustrating as the past few months have been, the Kemps also are thankful for the support, including GoFundMe.com, donations they have received from the wrestling and hockey communities.
"We've had a lot of great support," Cathy says, mentioning a $1,000 donation from a wrestling acquaintance and $1,000 from the Cauliflower Alley Club.
"It's kind of overwhelming," she says. "You always hear hockey is family. Wrestling is family, too."
Cathy is thankful that her employer — Hood Packaging — has allowed her to work flexible shifts.
Stuart is anxious to return to work, even if it's in a limited capacity since he won't be able to do much of the lifting that comes with his warehouse job.
He does not yet know when he might be able to drive.
Either way, Stuart is determined to be at as many Hawks games as possible. He also wants to enjoy frozen fun of a different flavor.
"He wants to eat some ice cream instead of just watching me eat ice cream," she says.
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