Ex-Red Wing Mark Kirton battles Lou Gehrig’s disease one day at a time

Detroit News

NHL coaches like Jeff Blashill of the Detroit Red Wings could always use a hockey player like Mark Kirton.

For six straight games from Oct. 22-Nov. 1, 1981, Kirton’s high-energy, checking line with Paul Woods and Brad “Motor City” Smith either scored or assisted on the Red Wings’ first goal of the game during a 3-2-1 stretch.

“He (Kirton) was a coach’s dream,” said Smith, now the head of pro scouting for the Stanley Cup-contending Colorado Avalanche. “He was underrated as a two-way center who could score a key goal, check the other team’s best player or win an important faceoff in your own end.”

Kirton’s NHL career lasted 11 years, including 75 points in 134 games in Detroit before Mike Ilitch bought the team for $8 million in 1982. After retiring in 1989, Kirton started a successful real estate business in Oakville, Ontario, just west of Toronto. Woods has been the Red Wings’ radio color analyst for 38 years with Bruce Martyn and Ken Kal.

It was those 11 years as a pro athlete which prompted Kirton to use his platform to raise awareness and fundraising for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which he was diagnosed with nearly three years ago in April 2018.

Commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who was forced to retire after developing the disease in 1939, Kirton is about to trade in a walker for a motorized wheelchair and his friends are building a ramp off the back of his house in Oakville to help navigate his days as a businessman at ReMax Realty, a husband (wife Lisa) and a father of three children (Taylor 29, Adam 27, Sarah 15).

“I know there’s no cure,” Kirton said. “But I’m not dying of ALS. I’m living with it. When you get told something like this, you can bury your head, get depressed and cry it out. Or you say, ‘Hey look. It’s what I’ve been dealt with and I’ve got to make the best of it and I’ve got to deal with it.’ So I chose the second way.”

Kirton’s symptoms began in 2015 when his right bicep wouldn’t stop twitching while sitting on a beach at Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

After three years of blood-work tests, orthopedic and inflammation appointments, numerous EMGs (electromyographies for muscle and nerve damage), visits to nutritionists and rheumatologists and a false-positive result for Lyme disease, he received the “devastating news” with Lisa while sitting nervously in a 6-by-12 waiting room at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, the largest trauma center in Canada.

“When someone gets diagnosed with ALS, it’s not just them that’s affected,” Kirton said. “It’s also the family. It’s really, really tough because they become caregivers on a daily basis. It’s harder from them mentally and physically. So when people say, ‘Mark has ALS,’ it’s not just Mark. It’s Mark’s family has it too.

“Someone also told me right away to put aside $200,000 for equipment, to renovate your house properly, the bathrooms, the ramps and all that. I thought no way but it’s at least $200,000. The trick is to stay ahead of the curve. If you can’t transfer from a bed to a chair with the right piece of equipment, you’ve got a problem.”

Kirton said his ALS affects his arms, hands and legs (“My thigh strength is probably around 20 percent of normal”) and he’s been taking monthly edaravone treatments and daily riluzole pills to slow the progress of the neurological disorder which weakens muscles and eventually causes death.

“I may be in the third period of life but there’ll be numerous overtimes,” Kirton said. “Some ALS people live 20 years. You just don’t know. I just try to make the best of every day, try not to lose my sense of humor and I get huge support from my family, friends and hockey friends. I’ve got nothing to feel sorry for.”

Kirton said he plans on organizing a fundraising virtual concert with celebrities and is encouraged by ALS awareness by sports like Major League Baseball, which will hold an annual Lou Gehrig Day beginning on June 2.

“These are unprecedented times for ALS awareness,” Kirton said. “We just had the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ and there are at least 180 trials going on in North America. It’s only a matter of time before they get even better drugs and find a cure for this.”

mfalkner@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @falkner

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