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Giants star Calvin Elfring... breaking the ice on diabetes


Belfast Giants star Calvin Elfring with his wife Christina

Belfast Giants star Calvin Elfring with his wife Christina

Belfast Giants player Calvin Elfring with wife Christina, daughter Adriene and son Kurtis

Belfast Giants player Calvin Elfring with wife Christina, daughter Adriene and son Kurtis

Belfast Giants player Calvin Elfring with wife Christina, daughter Adriene and son Kurtis

Belfast Giants player Calvin Elfring with wife Christina, daughter Adriene and son Kurtis

Calvin Elfring in action for the Belfast Giants

Calvin Elfring in action for the Belfast Giants

Michael Cooper

Belfast Giants star Calvin Elfring with his wife Christina

He may be only a visitor to these shores — albeit a famous one — but in his all-too-brief time here Calvin Elfring has been helping to make a difference, and not just on the ice hockey rink.

The 38-year-old Canadian is passionate about helping raise awareness of Type 1 diabetes, with which he has been living with since February last year.

Now enjoying a great second season with the Belfast Giants, he spent his first year here working on behalf of the charity Diabetes UK to help create more awareness and understanding of this serious condition.

The father of two initially intended to spend just a year in Northern Ireland but fell in love with the place so he and his family will now be here until next June.

One of the first things he did when he  arrived in Northern Ireland last May was contact the Northern Ireland branch of Diabetes UK to offer his support and services.

Since then he has addressed numerous groups, including Stormont MLAs, and has recently given a talk to parents whose children have the condition.

He has also played a big part in helping get his team-mates on board to ensure Belfast marks World Diabetes Day on Friday, November 14, in a special way by kicking off a series of events across the province this Saturday.

The Belfast Giants will be taking to the ice on Saturday for their game against Cardiff Devils sporting specially designed Diabetes UK jerseys. The jerseys will then be raffled to help raise funds for the charity.

“I am so happy that I have the full backing of my team to wear our Diabetes UK Northern Ireland jerseys,” he says.

“We are looking forward to winning big on the night as well as raising awareness about a condition that is impacting more and more people in Northern Ireland.

“A lot of people with diabetes will be in the audience on Saturday wearing blue which is the special colour for World Diabetes Day. Fans will have a chance to win one of 20 jerseys. That match alone should get the message out to thousands of people."

Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes a person's blood sugar (glucose) level to become too high. The hormone insulin - produced by the pancreas - is responsible for controlling the amount of glucose in the blood.

There are two main types of diabetes - Type 1 where the pancreas doesn't produce any insulin, and Type 2 where the pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin or the body's cells don't react to insulin.

Calvin was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes which he very quickly learned to live with.

"I had to make a few changes to my everyday routine and learn about controlling my condition with insulin injections as well as staying fit and healthy," he says.

"As a professional sportsman, obviously my primary concern was 'When can I get back on the ice?' I learned quickly that I would need to respect my diabetes in order to manage it successfully and I am glad to say that it hasn't hindered my career.

"It's probably a little bit more difficult on days when I am exercising as exercise makes your blood sugars go up.

"I always have Lucozade or bananas on hand and on non-game days I just monitor my carbohydrate intake. It's part of my life and I just get on with it now."

Before coming to Belfast, the top sportsman spent seven seasons in the highly respected DEL, the top league in Germany, where he captained the Straubing Tigers.

Originally from Lethbridge in Alberta, he was a student athlete at Colorado College where he played NCAA hockey for four years before starting his professional career in 1998 with the Pee Dee Pride of the East Coast Hockey League.

He is married to Christina (38) who he met in college and they have two children, Adriene (8) and Kurtis (6), who both attend St Patrick's Primary in Holywood, where the family is living.

Calvin was stunned to discover he had diabetes in February 2013 but very quickly learned to live with the condition. It was mid-season and he had been training every day when his symptoms appeared over a two-week period.

He dropped a dramatic 20lbs in weight in those two weeks, had an insatiable thirst and was constantly going to the toilet. He knew all was not well but it wasn't until he developed blurred vision that he became alarmed and went immediately to his GP.

A test revealed that his blood sugar level which should sit at a healthy five, was off the scale at 30.

His GP suspected immediately he had diabetes and he had to be admitted to hospital in Munich until his blood sugar levels could be stabilised.

"I had been drinking five or six glasses of water at night and also during the day and still couldn't quench my thirst," he says.

"I was also running to the toilet about five times during the night and throughout the day as well.

"I caught sight of myself in the mirror one day when I was getting dressed and I couldn't believe how thin I was, my clothes were hanging off me.

"I had lost a lot of weight and had put it down to training and the stress of the job.

"I spent five days in hospital being educated about eating and diet and also getting my blood sugar levels down.

"It was a shock to be told I had diabetes but also a relief because I was worried about what was going on with my body.

"I had played hockey with others who had Type 1 diabetes and they had it pretty much under control so I wasn't too concerned, I knew I could carry on a fairly normal life. It was a bit of a whirlwind because we were still in season and I wanted to get back and had missed 10 days of hockey."

It was suspected that the diabetes had been brought on by a virus which Calvin had a few weeks earlier. It was a common virus which had shown itself as nothing more serious than a sore throat.

However, he learned that a virus can shut down the pancreas although it is not known why.

Since being diagnosed Calvin was surprised to discover when talking to other people with diabetes that many of them felt embarrassed by the condition.

Unlike its Type 1 counterpart, Type 2 diabetes is believed to be largely caused by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and little exercise. A common misconception, however, is that both types have a similar cause.

Shattering this myth is one of the reasons why Calvin has been so intent on helping create awareness and he wants to help take away any shame people feel at having it.

"Type 1 diabetes has nothing to do with lifestyle but people think it does," he says. "It's genetic or can be caused by a virus. I want to help raise awareness so that people have a better understanding of this.

"I have a healthy lifestyle and have exercised everyday and followed a healthy diet for the past 30 years.

"A lot of people I have talked to have told me they are embarrassed about it and worry about people judging them.

"I know people who when dining in public won't take their injection and stab themselves in the belly because they feel too self-conscious and some of them don't inject themselves because they don't want to be judged.

"Hopefully if they see I'm wide open about it that will help them feel a little bit more comfortable. We have 4,000 fans and if they go away on Saturday night with a little more knowledge of diabetes then that will really help.

"I just want to reach out to the community and I am happy to do public speaking engagements if it helps to better inform people about it.

"I think, too, there is a lot to celebrate in terms of what has been achieved to make living with the condition easier.

"It is important that people know, whether it is Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, that it doesn't have to stop you from being a success in all that you do."

Calvin has been enjoying a great couple of seasons with the Belfast Giants, who are currently joint top of the Elite League.

He is widely recognised for his success after helping the team get to the Elite League title last season with 10 games still to play and was named in the Elite League and Ice Hockey Journalists of the UK All-Star teams as well as collecting the Defenceman of the Year Award from the Elite League and from the Belfast Giants season ticket holders at the End of Season Awards Night.

Initially he only planned to spend one season in Belfast and then retire from the sport, but was happy to sign another one-year deal with the Giants because of the great love he and his family have developed for Northern Ireland.

"We love it so much here that we decided to stay for another year," he says.

"We were 12 years in Germany and it was lovely but coming here with no language barrier was a breath of fresh air.

"The people are very friendly and my wife and children just love it. Two things I love the most are the pub culture and the golf.

"I'm not a big drinker but I love being able to go into the local pub and have a pint of Guinness and mingle with people.

"I've played golf all over the world, too, and I've just fallen in love with the courses here. I was caught off-guard by the scenery, too, especially the North Coast. I really want to play in Portrush and in Royal County Down before I leave next year.

"I love the fact that there is parkland and links. I usually play in Clandeboye and Shandon Park where there is great golf.

"The kids have made friends and my wife has just started a new job in marketing and we are all very happy here."

Nonetheless, Calvin and his family will be leaving Northern Ireland next June to settle in his wife's home town in Phoenix, Arizona, where he says his father also has a holiday home.

Before that, though, you can expect to see and hear a lot more of his experience of diabetes as he continues to spread awareness and shatter myths surrounding the condition.

Spotting the tell-tale signs

  • Around 3.8m people in the UK have diabetes. Many of these are living with Type 2 diabetes but don’t know they have it because they haven’t been diagnosed
  • As many as 7m people are at high risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and, if current trends continue, an estimated 5m people will have diabetes by 2025
  • If not managed well, both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes can lead to devastating complications. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in people of working age in the UK and is a major cause of lower limb amputation, kidney failure and stroke
  • About 10% of people with diabetes have Type 1. No one knows exactly what causes it, but it’s not to do with being overweight and it isn’t currently preventable. It usually affects children or young adults, starting suddenly and getting worse quickly. It is treated by daily insulin doses, taken either by injections or via an insulin pump, and a healthy diet and regular physical activity
  • People with Type 2 diabetes don’t produce enough insulin or the insulin they produce doesn’t work properly (known as insulin resistance). Around 85% to 90% of people with diabetes have Type 2. Many get it because of their family history, age and ethnic background puts them at increased risk. They are also more likely to get Type 2 diabetes if they are overweight. It starts gradually, usually later in life, and it can be years before they realise they have it. Type 2 diabetes is treated with a healthy diet and increased physical activity. In addition, tablets and/or insulin can be required
  • Diabetes UK is the leading UK charity that cares for, connects with and campaigns on behalf of all people affected by and at risk of diabetes. For more information on all aspects of diabetes and access to Diabetes UK activities and services, visit www.diabetes.org.uk 

Belfast Telegraph