Here's a story about the human spirit, goalie dads and the hockey community in general that'll make you smile, cry and wonder all at once.
The boys involved -- actually, they're young men now -- are Chris Kamal and Patrick Wenzell. I was an on-ice goaltending instructor for both when they were 12-14 years old. That's how I got to know Pete Wenzell, Patrick's dad. Chris Kamal's father, Dan, signed on with me as a broadcaster for the Atlanta Thrashers when the franchise joined the NHL in 1999.
Chris and Patrick eventually left Atlanta to pursue their dreams of playing hockey at the highest level. Two few nets and competitive opportunities locally wouldn't keep them down, and their dads worked tirelessly to unearth teams for their sons to tend goal for. I've witnessed what these two boys have done to give themselves a chance to be considered more than a novelty as "a goalie from Georgia" and what their families have put up with and put out in support.
Chris and Patrick took private lessons with a local rink manager/goalie instructor who put them through their paces every spare hour they were not attending showcase events all over the country -- even though fathers Dan and Pete were aware that many showcases are just well-orchestrated money-grabs by the organizers and not particularly helpful to the players who are there to demonstrate their skills. But Chris and Patrick kept trying to convince someone, anyone that they are legit and just wanted a chance to prove it.
After playing at Gilmour Academy in Ohio and for the Green Mountain (Vermont) Glades of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, Chris had to take a year off for surgery and rehabilitation after one of his legs was crushed in a freak accident while he was working a summer job -- where else? -- at a rink in 2008. A motorized handcart pinned his leg against a storage bin during a maintenance session in which Chris was part of the hired cleanup crew. He was 19 at the time, and without a team. Idled by the injury and on the couch at midseason, unable to do anything but think about what might have been, he declared to his dad, "I want to contact every team in the (North American Hockey League) and let them know about me."
Dan set about doing so, and in the fall of 2009, Chris got his chance with the NAHL's Alexandria Blizzard in Minnesota. He made the most of it, going 21-11-3 with a .917 save pct. and 2.50 GAA that season, getting selected as an All-Star and team MVP, and putting his name out there after a year off the prospects trail, which is always a rocky road, especially when you hail from Atlanta as a 1989 birth-year player.
Chris competed at the Sherwood/NAHL Top Prospects Tournament in January 2010 and later landed at NCAA Division I Alaska-Anchorage in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. He made the team, too, and shut out the University of Minnesota 1-0 in their building on January 29, earning WCHA Rookie of the Week honors. He followed it up this past weekend with a sweep of Minnesota State on the road, yielding one goal in the weekend set.
Dan and I called the Thrashers' game against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night, and soon after he told me of his son's 4-1 final, delivered with a proud smile and fist bump after a quick congratulatory call to Chris. The night before, Dan and his wife Dot had watched -- in separate rooms because it was too nervewracking to do it together -- Chris post his second shutout of the season, a 35-save, 4-0 blanking of Minnesota State. The live streaming of the game was so sketchy that Dan said trying to follow the puck "made his eyeballs hurt." Yet, he and Dot persevered like their son had.
Dan got a copy of Chris's shutout performance against Minnesota through the local Fox Sports crew that covers the Thrashers. He and Pete Wenzell got together to watch and celebrate as friends and goalie dads. The fact that Pete was feeling up to it made the get-together special. Pete had recently lost the use of his legs after a risky surgery that left him weak and wheelchair-bound. It was the latest outcome in his three-year battle with cancer. Pete, though, never puts his situation on others. Through it all, he kept trying to find a team for Patrick.
After a season with the local U-18 Thunder Hockey American team in the inaugural season of the NAHL developmental league, Patrick Wenzell's long journey began when a spot on the U-18 Thunder National team wasn't forthcoming. There was no quit or complaining, just the process of finding ice, taking private lessons and enduring a litany of summer showcase events. Patrick's work ethic and drive landed him thousands of miles away in Montana, stopping pucks in the Northern Pacific (NorPac) junior league for the Helena Bighorns. His record is 22-1 with three shutouts, and he's ranked second in the league with a 1.73 goals-against average.
Dan and I joined Pete Wenzell, his wife Adele and other family friends a week ago, when Pete felt well enough to go to Philips Arena, take in a Thrashers game, stay afterward, have a few beers and talk hockey. Just like old times. The three of us had sat in the same locale several times over the past few years and Pete had shared the challenges he faced. This time he told us he has to have an MRI to rule out brain cancer. Meanwhile, Patrick has come home, with his dad's MRI scheduled for Thursday, but I recently saw him on the ice trying to stay sharp, as his local goalie coach, Al Blevins, pounded pucks his way. Rinkside was Pete, the supportive goalie dad he's always been. His smile is still present as is his quiet will, which his son clearly has.
I marvel at that and always will.