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MUST LOVE DOGS

BY CAIT MACPHAIL

I

n 2015, a newspaper out of the UK conducted a research poll seeking to find out what it is that people miss most when they are on vacation or away from home for extended periods.

The smattering of top responses is nothing unexpected, with 55% of responders saying their own bed makes the list. Not surprising is the 22% saying they miss their close family, while maybe somewhat less expected is 43% saying their favourite TV show is something they pine for while away from home.

Coming in on top, though, with more responders saying this made their list than those who included their bed, family or friends probably won't shock most.

Pets.

67% of the thousands polled said they miss the companionship of their animals while away from home.

Those furry creatures that suddenly become your roommates one day. They don't pay rent or help with chores. They aren't particularly full of good advice or eager to help you unpack after a cross-country move, but most pet owners will agree, what they lack in practicality, they make up for in unconditional love and that ever-important blind acceptance of even your worst flaws.

Yes, even cat lovers will tell you this.

So, in the nomadic nature that defines the lives of most professional athletes, there might not be much that can turn a house in a new city into a home more than a pet. And for Edmonton Oilers forward Tobi Rieder and his girlfriend Laura Koehler, it's dogs specifically.

After signing a one-year deal as a free agent with the Oilers in July of 2018, the next step for Rieder was heading to Edmonton from Germany ahead of training camp, where the Deutschland native spends his off-seasons training. Not far behind him was his long-time girlfriend, whom he first met during his junior days with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, who was joining him for their next adventure in Edmonton.

The travel and relocation can be chaotic for the vast majority of NHLers that aren't privileged to the six or seven year deals that allow a long-term commitment to one place. Sudden trades, professional try-out opportunities or free-agent signings with a new team can mean you don't know where you'll be in a month, or even a week. A house or apartment in a brand new city may not automatically feel like home when you fill it with stuff. Being an NHL vet of over 300 games in two different cities, and one more at the AHL level, over the previous six seasons, Rieder and his partner Koehler more or less knew the drill.

New city, new team and new surroundings. What better way to make that new house feel like a home? With the one thing that the most people miss when they are away from their own, of course.  

For Rieder and Koehler, that's dogs. More specifically, foster dogs.

"Tobi was in Edmonton maybe a week before me. I flew in on a Wednesday, did the online application when I was on the plane, we had a home visit on the Thursday and had a dog by Saturday," said Koehler.

She was all over that pre-scout.

"We didn't even know where the closest grocery store was, but, we had a dog."

In keeping with a tradition the pair had started back when Rieder played parts of five seasons with the Arizona Coyotes from 2014-2018, Koehler was already researching which local animal rescue they could get involved with in Edmonton before she even knew how to get to their house.

With the nomadic nature of a professional hockey player, their heavy travel schedule and then more movement in the summer when they often head to off-season homes, the couple knew having a dog of their own just didn't make sense for them. So they figured out a way to have the best of both worlds. 

That's where Zoe's Animal Rescue, a local organization in Edmonton, came into play for the couple trying to ingratiate themselves in a new community in one of the best ways they knew how.

"It's a compromise we had to make because having a dog in the household was never a question. It was just something we had to get done and it's sort of a two-birds-with-one-stone situation," said Koehler.

"We both had dogs growing up and there was just something so natural about having one in the house that it wasn't something we were just willing to give up even with our unique schedules," said Rieder.

Those "two birds" referred to not only getting to have a dog in the home, but often a dog in desperate need of some rehabilitation, training, medication, and of course, love and attention.

Zoe's Animal Rescue is a completely volunteer-run and shelter-less organization, meaning they don't have one physical facility to hold all adoptable pets, rather, they rely on the time and effort of dozens of volunteers to often pick up, rehabilitate and facilitate the adoption process of all pets. This includes individuals needed to open their home to animals until they are ready to go to their "furever" homes.

Take the undying love of a puppy, complete with their giant floppy paws and puppy breath, add in the added emotional satisfaction of helping sometimes-abused or neglected animals find a new home? The fit seemed perfect for couples who don't really even have a forever home of their own at the moment. That's how Rieder and Koehler chose to look at it when they started these foster projects back in Arizona.

"It's such a great way to have a dog without a long-term commitment. It's an easier way to go about it and you're able to help them and be an animal rescue advocate," said Koehler.

"This is a great option and we love doing it," added Rieder.

Two successful foster projects in Arizona and then four more since they've been in Edmonton means they've been able to soak up the love of six different dogs (and counting) while also getting to be a part of the process in making sure they go to the best home possible.

"Zoe's is so supportive throughout the whole process. They supply the proper medication, food and they have a 24-hour contact line if we need any help or have any questions," said Koehler.

When NHL players' partners join them in new cities, there's often already a built-in support network of other wives and girlfriends that can make the transition easier. Friendships are formed over common bonds, similar experiences and shared interests. So when Rieder and Koehler moved in next door to Oilers defenceman Andrej Sekera and his wife, some of those similar interests were quite apparent, as they were soon ripping around in the yard next door.

"The Sekeras saw dogs in the backyard one day, and with them being from Europe as well, they were like 'how do you guys do this?'," said Rieder.

The Sekeras had a Zoe's foster dog the next week.

Puppy love is clearly contagious, because not long after that, after a visit at Rieder's place, Oilers forward Zack Kassian and his wife Cassandra were back on the foster train again as well, having also done it back when Kassian was playing in Vancouver.

"We had thought about it since we'd been in Edmonton, so it helped to have Tobi and Laura kind of set us up with it," said Kassian.

"We all went and checked things out, liked the situation with Zoe's and got to start fostering again."

On top of referencing the crazy road schedule that makes any kind of consistency at home more difficult, Kassian also talks about how nice fostering can be for the partner who stays behind while the team is on the road, often in a city they're not from and perhaps even brand new to.

"It gave Cassandra, my wife, a side project and some companionship while the team is on the road."

He's quick to bring up, though, perhaps the one downfall any dog lover might find in fostering.

"It's tough for her, she falls in love. She cries every time we have to give one up," the 6-foot-2, 211-pound NHL power forward smiles, juxtaposed, still in his post-workout Oilers gear, talking enthusiastically about tiny, adorable puppies.

"Zoe's has such a good foster program. I wish we would have found them earlier. I just enjoy dogs. Growing up, you don't really realize that dogs have different personalities. You learn that through fostering.

It becomes clear that Kassian is another of many whose innate love of dogs doubles as a built-in stress-reliever.

"I've always liked dogs. When you get away from the rink, it's fun to get your mind off hockey and just play with them. You come home and their might be a poop in the living room because they're still learning, but they're so jacked to see you."

The six-month-old retriever-cross foster puppy might not know that you scored the OT winner with six seconds left, but it sure isn't going to wag its tail any less if you hit the post on a two-on-one.

"They're so forgivable," said Rieder.

"We were so happy to get them all hooked on it," said Koehler of getting other Oilers and their partners involved with Zoe's Animal Rescue.

Their current foster puppy yelps in the background.

The stories behind many rescue dogs and their journey are often not for the faint of heart. And as one of the co-directors of Zoe's Animal Rescue, Kath Olsther, tells the story of Rieder and Koehler's current foster puppy, you learn his story is no exception.

After a particularly brutal run-in with a porcupine, the gorgeous light brown and mild-mannered pit-bull mix found himself with a face full of quills and soon a nasty infection. Eventually he was so sick and in shock, he could not even be coaxed back to safety with food-something any dog owner would tell you must mean things are dire.

It was after a week of wandering alone in a rural area and eventually teeming with infection, Zoe's was able to intervene and bring the ailing dog to their partnered vet, Lakeside Veterinary Clinic in Sherwood Park, where they begun the brutal but necessary process of pulling out the quills. And this pup, Connor, was full of them. 

*** WARNING THE IMAGE BELOW MIGHT BE DISTURBING TO SOME READERS ***

With the painkillers providing some relief and the painstaking process of removing quills mostly over, Olsther, who had brought him there and stayed to help, was not ten minutes from the clinic when Connor coded.

"He was technically dead for 20 minutes after I left while they feverishly tried to get him back and keep him back," said Olsther

She details and praises the work of the vets and vet techs to revive such a sick pup.

"Connor came back, which sort of shocked all of us, and he didn't just come back, he came back and he thrived."

Once he was ready to be fostered, Rieder and Koehler were ready for their next puppy project.

"Connor was young and he was just so willing to be helped. He wasn't fearful, he wasn't trying to snap or bite when he could. It was sort of, 'ok, I'll do my best' and once we got some of the painkiller in, we got a couple tail wags, even though he was still full of quills. We could still see that spark of joy in his eyes," said Olsther

"He is the poster boy of the kind of things we deal with."

Both Olsther, Rieder and Koehler describe this miracle dog in the same way.

Zoe's gives all their dogs last names to differentiate them from the many that come through their organization.

This particular pup was named Connor before he was even brought in, but was given the official title of Connor Hopeful upon coming under the rescue's care. A fitting surname, to be sure.

Koelher had some fun with it.

"His name is Connor because we're so obsessed with Connor McDavid."

Connor Hopeful barks in the background of Rieder and Koehler's phone interview. He had just gotten into the trash minutes before, but as any dog foster family will tell you, that's all part of the process.

"How could you stay mad at this face?" said Koehler.

Rieder and Koehler, too, understand having to say goodbye to a foster pup isn't always easy, but necessary. They run through some of the dogs they've seen go to loving homes.

"It doesn't get any easier, by any means, but if Odie didn't get adopted, we wouldn't have had Rosie. If Rosie didn't get adopted, we wouldn't have had Darcy and if Darcy doesn't find a home we wouldn't have had Max," said Koehler. "Each one takes a little part of you, but the next one kind of fills that back up."

"We were just talking about it," said Rieder. "If we had a more stable life, we were probably keep every single one of the dogs. It is tough, but we see the big picture and we're so happy to see them go to their forever home."

With a heart like that of a happy, healthy Connor Hopeful, it likely won't be long before Rieder and Koehler are opening their home to the next pup in need.

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