When they met in a Cleveland restaurant in 1998, Andi Mendise gave Lane Lambert his first opportunity to walk away.
“She said, ‘Hey, I’ve got cancer,’” Capitals coach Barry Trotz recalled. “’I just want to let you know so that if you want to leave now I’ll understand.’
“And Lane didn’t.”
Instead, the Capitals’ current assistant coach stood by Andi for the next 17 years, enduring the peaks and valleys that accompanied her battle with recurrent malignant phyllodes, a disease that tragically but mercifully took her from him and his two daughters on Sept. 16 at the age of 45.
Wednesday at Verizon Center, as part of Hockey Fights Cancer Night, the Capitals will honor Andi Lambert’s long and courageous battle by wearing commemorative patches on their jerseys.
“I can guarantee you I could not have gone through what she did – ever,” Trotz said. “She was way too tough. Honestly, I don’t know anybody in our (locker) room that could have. She was that tough. That’s the spirit that she left and we’re going to put patches on our jerseys for that reason.”
Diagnosed at the age of 26 after a lemon-sized tumor was removed from her breast, Andi Mendise began a wonderful but painful journey with her future husband in the fall of 1998. At the time he was a rugged forward with the Cleveland Lumberjacks, attracted by her beauty and spunk.
“Andi was an absolute fireball and totally honest,” said Trotz, who hired Lambert as his assistant coach in Nashville in 2011. “There wasn’t anything that she was afraid of. That’s what struck me when I first met Andi. She wouldn’t hold back when she thought it was right to say something. She wasn’t scared of anything and I think that’s what drew Lane to her.”
Lane and Andi were married on July 19, 2001, following Lane’s retirement as a player, and three years later they celebrated the birth of their daughter, Samantha. At the time Lane also had an 8-year-old daughter, Taylor, from a previous marriage.
Lane had begun his coaching career in 2002 as an assistant coach of the WHL Moose Jaw Warriors, followed by two seasons as head coach of the Prince George Cougars. During that time, because her rare and aggressive form of cancer required surgeries every 15 months, Andi returned to Cleveland for her medical care. As a result, Lane found himself in hospital rooms almost as frequently as in locker rooms.
“As long as I can remember, Andi had a major surgery almost every year,” recalled Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who met Andi when Lane was hired as an assistant coach of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals in 2006. “And just when she’d recover, get healthy and get strength and start to feel good and look good, it would come back. It’s unfortunate, but it was almost guaranteed.
“They would take out little tumors and Lane wouldn’t even tell us. On some occasions I could sniff it out and go to him and ask what’s up, but a lot of times he would keep it from us.
“The thing about Andi is that she never wanted Lane to miss a practice or a game. When Lane was head coach in Milwaukee she had a couple surgeries in Cleveland and she wanted him to leave and go back to Milwaukee. She never wanted any of this to get in the way of his career.”
But as the surgeries mounted, so did the complications.
“She lost ribs,” Korn said. “They re-routed blood flow to keep her major organs going. She couldn’t do radiation as often because she always seemed to need a skin graft and you can’t use radiated skin for that.”
With each surgery to remove yet another malignant tumor, the admiration for Andi and Lane grew stronger.
“We were all obviously very close,” said Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, who hired Lambert as Trotz’s assistant in 2011. “And each time Andi’s health took a different turn, we were astounded by the amount of times she rebounded and got better and appeared to beat cancer.
“Her courage ranks up there as high or higher than any I’ve ever experienced. I’m in the hockey business and we talk about playing with pain but what she went through and how she handled it, I can’t imagine anybody ever handling cancer the way she did. If I could only act that way in such a critical situation, that would be amazing.”
It was during Lambert’s final season in Nashville two years ago that Andi underwent her most daunting surgery to remove cancer in one of her lungs. Many wondered if her body was strong enough to withstand the surgery and Trotz told his assistant coach it was best if he took time off to be with his wife.
“I didn’t ask him, I told him,” Trotz recalled.
Andi was still recovering when the Predators coaching staff was fired at the end of the 2013-14 season and when Trotz was hired to coach the Capitals early that summer he brought Lambert and his family with him to Washington.
“Lo and behold, she got better and stronger and in typical Andi fashion, she got feistier,” Korn recalled. “She had more energy and I thought she looked great, acted great as the season was winding down and getting to the playoffs. But the better she got, the more worried I got because I knew the history.”
Sadly, Korn’s fears were realized. Shortly after the start of the 2015 playoffs the Lamberts learned Andi’s cancer had returned.
“I don’t think a lot of us knew about it to be honest,” said Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, whose mother-in-law beat cancer five years ago. “She had a recurrence right at the end of the Islanders series. The coaches obviously knew, but we had no idea. He seemed like the same Lane to us. He was always a pretty fiery guy.
“I don’t think any of us knew what he was dealing with. Knowing Lane, he probably thought it would be a distraction for the team at that time of year and didn’t want to bring it in the room. It’s kind of tough looking back on it because he has a really good support system here and we might have been able to help him out. We all know he’s a pretty strong guy but when that hits you everybody softens up pretty quickly.”
Shortly after the Capitals were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, Andi was admitted into the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in Baltimore to begin what would be a painful and emotional summer for herself and her family.
“Basically, Lane and his mother were at the hospital night and day for more than 70 days,” Poile said. “I can only imagine the physical and mental strength it took. It was a huge commitment they made to each other. They were in it for the long haul. It was a true love story, for sure.”
One of the products of that love was Samantha, a daughter who had lived her entire life watching her mother fall in and out of remission until finally, the two let each other go.
“I think at the end Andi knew Sam was ready for her not to be there,” Trotz said. “I really believe that. Andi always worried about everybody else and she wasn’t going to let go until Sam was ready. I think Sam was. She didn’t want to see her mom suffer anymore.”
On Sept. 26, 10 days after her passing, the Capitals paused their training camp activities to attend Andi Lambert’s funeral services just outside of Cleveland, where they were joined by Poile and several members of the Predators, including goaltender Pekka Rinne, forward Mike Fisher and defensemen Shea Weber and Roman Josi.
“I played for him for a long time and Lane is a guy who will honestly do anything for you,” said Capitals center Michael Latta, who has spent five of his six professional seasons under Lambert. “Going there was the least we could do. If it was reversed and one of us needed him, he would be the first guy there. He’s as honest and as loyal as they come.”
On the Capitals' return flight from Cleveland, two tires blew on the runway, forcing the team to wait six hours for their next departure.
“We went to a local watering hole and it ended up being one of the most fun things we had ever done as a team,” Trotz said. “I told the team I know for a fact Andi was the one who blew the tires because she was a little bit of a prankster and she would say, ‘OK, now we have a bad situation. How do we make it good?’
“That was a lesson she threw out there that we didn’t know. We took it and made it into something fun. She was a very vibrant person and the toughest human I’ve ever met. Honestly.”
And now, Trotz is hoping that same strength will sustain Lane, Taylor and Samantha as they begin their lives without one of the strongest people they have ever known. Lane’s mother has helped care for Samantha throughout the past several months and Lane’s brother is relocating from Finland to Washington to help lend his support.
Trotz said his wife, Kim, and assistant coach Blaine Forsythe’s, wife, Ivy, have grown close to Samantha and will continue to support her during the coming months.
“They’ve got a real good network,” Trotz said. “Sam’s a very impressive young lady who grew up knowing her mom was sick the whole time. She’s seen it and has dealt with it with the help of great friends and a great support network.”
Still, as one journey ends for the Lambert family, another one begins.
“Andi would want all of us to live every day with the same passion she lived with,” Trotz said. “That should be her legacy.”
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