Every season teams face adversity and must work together to overcome the obstacles to have success. In the case of the Hendersonville High School Ice Hockey team, those obstacles have not only come on the ice but in the form of cancer and the tragic death of a team parent.
Cancer is a disease that the Hendersonville hockey community is reacquainted with too often, this year the Commandos have been forced to support three families.
Trace Kimler is a sophomore forward for the Commandos and back in December 2008, he was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma. Kimler said a few days before his diagnosis he was sitting in class, rubbing his shoulder when he felt a lump. “Literally there was nothing and then the next day it was like the size of a tangerine just sitting on his shoulder,” said Amy Kimler, mother, “it had grown enough that it had broken his scapula.”
Kimler said he wondered what it was but when he found out that he had cancer he was really scared but the first thought that crossed his mind was hockey. “When they told me it was cancer, I was really scared that I wouldn’t be able to play,” he said, “I wasn’t thinking too much ahead of that.”
“He asked me if he was going to die and I said no then he said well can I play hockey,” Amy said.
The doctors had to remove Kimler’s shoulder blade and all the muscles around it, about 80 percent of the muscle in his right shoulder has been removed which causes some trouble for him. “Anything that involves reaching away with one arm is really hard,” he said, “I can reach out and pull back but I have to be really precise with it, I can’t hold it up for very long.” Kimler, now in remission, finished the 2011-12 regular season with six points (one goal, five assists) in 21 games played.
Kimler’s cancer is just part of the team’s run in with cancer. This season, when looking at the Commandos jersey, one can see a pink ribbon on the left shoulder. Susan Blanton and Loretta Butera who ironically, both are mothers to goaltenders, each have their own experience with breast cancer.
Butera was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in September 2009 and is now in remission. This season her family was surrounded by the “hockey family” as she underwent reconstructive surgery. “I soon learned what it meant to be part of the ‘hockey family,’” she said, “They offered not only their friendship and prayers but they are wonderful cooks, bringing meals for my family after surgery.”
Butera’s son, Michael, is a freshman on the team this year and realized that he wasn’t alone in the fight against breast cancer when he saw the ribbon on the jersey. “When I saw the ribbon the on our jerseys I knew I was surrounded by a team that would support me and my family,” he said.
Blanton was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer this past summer and has started a second round of treatments after a recent scan showed returned growth. As soon as the team found out, families immediately began a three day a week meal routine. “It was amazing,” she said, “I could focus on doing what I could at home rather than being overwhelmed by meals and shopping.”
Blanton, a Biology teacher at Hendersonville High School, could still be seen at school and the hockey games even though she was going through treatments.
Just like for Butera, Blanton felt like she had the support of more than just her immediate family. “It made all the difference going through treatments knowing that they were there and praying for our family,” she said, “I felt so a part of their lives.”
Neither mom knew about the pink ribbons on the jersey until the first game of the season, when all the mothers on the team were asked to wear pink to the game. “It means a lot to us, we try to wear it with pride,” said team captain, Karson Corley.
The team has been able to support all three families with their struggles with cancer but this past spring the team lost a huge part of its family. The loss can be seen on the right shoulder and the voice is missing from the bleachers as the team lost a hockey dad to a tragic boating accident in April.
“I thought it was great that everyone cared enough to put the initials on there and represent my dad, my family and the way we play,” said Tucker Keen, sophomore.
Chris Keen was more than just a team parent to the Commandos. Corley said Chris was like a dad to everyone on the team, “He never said anything negative about us, he was always trying to lift us up,” Corley said, “he was always there, I don’t think he missed one game.” Keen’s widow, Vicki, said Chris would do anything to help the team whether it was cooking at the tournaments, working the penalty box or fundraising, “He was all in with anything the kids were involved in.”
The true essence of the word, “team,” was evident during the time while the rescue teams were searching for him. “They were long days when Chris was missing,” Vicki said, “they were definitely a great support.” Some of the boys on the team including Corley would spend time with their teammate, Tucker, during the day to distract him. “We had kids skipping school to be here,” Vicki said, “Tucker needed friends here when Chris was missing.”
The Hendersonville Church of Christ held a prayer vigil during that time. The family didn’t attend but the team was there in their jerseys, praying and supporting one another. Each of the boys on the team was made honorary pallbearers at the funeral. “It meant a lot to us, I surely didn’t expect it,” said Corely, “it showed how much he meant to us and how much we meant to him.”
“It lifted our hearts to see them at the funeral with their jerseys on,” Vicki said, “and their faces; I think their hearts were as broken as ours.” Tucker said the team is part of their family and he knew it wasn’t any easier for them to be there but he was thankful to see everyone in their jersey, “I knew they were hurting just as much as we were,” he said.
Through all of the off-ice struggles this season, the team has managed to keep it together with a positive attitude as much as possible. The Commandos, through an invitation from USA Hockey, will be the first high school to represent the state of Tennessee at the 2012 USA Hockey High School National Championship Tournament which will be played in March at the Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City, Utah.
High School hockey in Tennessee is a club sport, the players have to pay to play and the team relies on fundraisers to help get them through the season, the school doesn’t help fund the team. For nationals, each player has to pay their own way.
The Nashville Predators have given the Commandos an opportunity to sell discounted tickets for the game against the Colorado Avalanche on March 8. For each ticket sold through the following link, the Predators will give the team $10, www.nashvillepredators.com/hendersonvillehockey
. Donations are also accepted and can be sent to, HHS Ice Hockey PO Box 848 Hendersonville, TN 37075.