Former Peterborough Pete Mark Kirton now facing off against ALS

Published in the Peterborough Examiner October 27, 2019, written by Mike Davies

When Mark Kirton attended a Peterborough Petes reunion last year he wasn’t ready to share with old teammates a devastating diagnosis he received in April 2018.

Now the former NHLer hopes by telling his story he can help raise awareness and funds for research to find a cure for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a neurological disorder that causes weakening of muscles and eventual death.

Kirton, 61, was among 16 players from the Petes 1978 championship team honoured prior to Saturday’s 10-3 blowout of the Mississauga Steelheads.

It took three years and a battery of tests before Kirton found out what was causing muscle twitches and later weakness on his right side.

An engaging and upbeat personality, which helped him thrive for ReMax Realty in Oakville, has helped him get past the original shock of his diagnosis. “It was a real blow,” said Kirton, who played 11 years of pro hockey including 266 NHL games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks. “I kind of went into denial mode.”

He asked those who knew to keep it quiet and tried to hide that his right hand wasn’t working.

“It took me a while to be able to deal with it and talk about it, but, as far as I’m concerned, there is no negativity in my DNA. So I wake up every day and go about it as I normally would. Some people would say it’s denial but I don’t think it is. I’m a positive guy. I’ve always been a positive guy. So now I’m regrouping and trying to go after raising some funds for ALS research, not for equipment, because there is no cure.”

He started a new drug in January made in Japan that is supposed to slow down its progress by 35 per cent.

“Does it work? I can’t tell but if I didn’t do it I would never know,” he said.

When he was first diagnosed he was approached by media friends like Ron MacLean, Greg Millen, Nick Kypreos about going public but he said he wasn’t ready. He is now.

“I’m about to reach out to a variety of people who have this and are interested in raising funds. I’m going to get a lot more involved in it while I can,” said Kirton.

He refuses to let friends feel sorry for him.

“I kind of put them in their place pretty quick,” he said. “I can totally appreciate the fact you’re upset with what I’m going through but the reality is I’m no different than I was before. You can chirp me and I’ll chirp you. I’m no different. Yes, I have a challenge to go through but it’s not the end of the world. There are some ALS guys who are going 10 to 15 years.”

He’s not slowed down at work but a recent fall down a long flight of stairs was an eye-opener. He was sore but avoided any broken bones.

His biggest concern is for his wife Lisa and 14-year-old daughter Sarah. He also has two sons, Taylor, 27, and Adam, 25.

“It’s tough on my wife because now she is a caregiver for me at times. I’ve had to change my wardrobe and I wear Lululemon pants because everything becomes an issue when your fingers aren’t working properly. My biggest fear, because I can still provide for my family no problem, is I worry a bit for when the day comes that I might not be able to and I put more onus on them.”

He was a bit early for the era of big money in hockey.

“Actually, had I known real estate was going to be as lucrative as it has, I probably would have quit playing hockey earlier,” he said, with a laugh.

Kirton certainly appreciate moments like reuniting with his ’78 teammates. Some he’s kept in regular contact with but a few he hadn’t seen in 30 years.

“It’s like a time warp,” he said. “This has been fabulous. I looked forward to this for two months.”