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The Grandville Hockey Community Remembers Ryan Fischer

06/13/2014, 4:45pm MDT
By Roman J. Uschak - Special to USAHockey.com

It was going to be the biggest game of Ryan Fischer’s life.

The senior forward and team co-captain had helped Grandville High School to its first-ever Michigan Division 1 state semifinal hockey appearance. The Bulldogs were slated to play in Plymouth against powerhouse Novi Detroit Catholic Central on March 7.

Fischer, who also starred in football and baseball, and was to attend the United States Military Academy to study aerospace engineering, wouldn’t get to play in that game, or any other, however.

He never woke up that morning.

Fischer, 17, who had assisted on a Grandville overtime goal in an earlier state playoff victory, died in his sleep of an enlarged heart, according to a Kent County medical examiner. It was an unforeseen medical condition — and his unexpected passing stunned the small west Michigan community.

“I ran down there as the whole situation was unfolding,” said Grandville coach Joel Breazeale, a neighbor of the Fischer family. “We were still in shock.”

Word soon spread of what had transpired. Breazeale said that a major goal was to try to keep the situation contained and off of social media, to help protect Fischer’s sister, who was away at college in Wisconsin, from inadvertently finding out.

Breazeale gathered his team soon after at his home to make the terrible announcement about their teammate, and the players also got to share their thoughts and shed their tears.

“We just spoke from the heart, and let the boys express their emotions,” Breazeale said. “The day was one of complete shock, including our coaching staff.”

No one would have questioned the Bulldogs if they had chosen not to go ahead with the state playoff game two hours away. Yet play they did, at the behest of Ryan Fischer’s parents, Roni and Scott, who spoke to each and every player before they departed for the Detroit area on a sullen bus ride.

“They found the composure to think about the boys,” Breazeale said of the Fischers. “It was a huge, huge day for our community.”

The Bulldogs (16-11-3) came up short against Catholic Central by a 3-0 count at Compuware Arena, despite 34 saves from Grandville goaltender Myles Madden, the second star of the game. At the request of the Fischers, co-captain Max Houtman wore their son’s No. 11 jersey to honor his long-time friend, “Fish.” So did many of the dozens in the stands who were dressed in maroon and white and had made the trek from the Grand Rapids area.

“It was a huge honor for me to wear his number, and I hope I made Ryan proud,” said an emotional Houtman to mlive.com afterwards.

“We did what we felt was the right thing to do,” Breazeale said. “It was truly inspiring despite the tragedy ... It was the type of outpouring we’ve come to expect from the hockey community.”

He added that it was Ryan’s mother who had urged getting the hockey community involved — and not just from Grand Rapids or Michigan, but from all over, at all levels of the game.

“It was awe-inspiring,” Breazeale said.

Catholic Central fans wore Grandville’s colors in a show of solidarity. Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson, a Michigan native and former University of Michigan blueliner, even sent supportive tweets to the Bulldogs.

When the final buzzer sounded, Grandville’s players didn’t stand alone. They were joined in a huddle by Catholic Central players, who were also playing and praying for one of their own in senior Matt Sorisho, who had been paralyzed in another game just weeks earlier. The Shamrocks, who saluted the crowd post-game along with the Bulldogs, won the state title the next night over Brighton.

Fischer’s funeral at St. Pius X Catholic Church on March 12 was standing room only in the faith-based Grandville community. The Ryan Fischer Legacy Scholarship, through Fifth Third Bank, has been established in his name and will honor a player in Grandville’s conference who embodies Fischer’s qualities of character, determination, integrity, academic achievement and community service.

A skating fundraiser was slated for May to benefit the scholarship in Fischer’s name, as his hometown continued its healing process. An April fundraiser in his memory was also held at a local movie theater with the “Captain America” sequel, which proved to be a fitting choice.

“Everyone looked up to him. I mean, he was the Captain America of our school,” said former teammate Logan Bellgraph, who donned Fischer’s No. 11 for a runner-up finish in a 3-on-3 tournament at Ferris State University. “He was the greatest friend ever, and he was everyone's best friend.”

Now he lives on in their memories.

“The impact he had as a great Christian young man, player and scholar will be everlasting,” Breazeale said. “We’re better because of what Ryan did for us.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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According to NHL metrics, the average hockey shift lasts somewhere between 45 and 55 seconds. There’s inherent beauty and fluidity to line changes, as skaters come on and off the ice, looking to recharge after going full throttle for their teams.

Meanwhile, your NHL officiating peers are giving their all, too – regularly logging 4-5 miles a game. Those totals are even greater at your level, where you and your colleagues officiate multiple games a day, several times per week, on a seemingly never-ending calendar.

And, although we want to perform our best every game, everyone has both good days and bad – players and officials alike. To learn more about keeping burnout at bay, we went to the experts: longtime amateur hockey scheduler Larry Carrington and former NHL official Mark Faucette.

“There is so much more to officiating than meets the eye,” said Faucette, a 17-year NHL veteran. “It may look easy from the stands, but to maintain total control of a game along with the stress, slumps, supervisors, travel, and fitness regimen takes a very special kind of person.”

Get in shape (and stay there)
We all think we’re in “pretty good” shape, but the reality is, officials must be top athletes and in great condition – even at the youngest levels.

“Conditioning is very important—the deeper into the season, the more important it is,” Carrington said. “Burnout happens physically, mentally, and emotionally. An official who is in good condition will experience less physical burnout, and that will in turn help with the emotional and mental burnout.”

Faucette stresses following a workout routine that maxes yourself at least every other day. Neither player or official should plan to use games as a vehicle toward better physical fitness.

“Where we used to go to camp to get into shape, officials today are on summer conditioning regimens and are tested as soon as they come to camp,” he said. “Taking care of your body is a total focus for the good official.

“The players are so much stronger and faster now, so it’s imperative the officials keep the same pace.”

Find balance
No, not balance on your skates (that’s a given). Rather, make sure to keep the big picture in mind, to work a manageable schedule that includes everything that’s important to you – family, friends, and time away from the rink.

Although it makes Carrington’s job as an assignor more difficult, he said it pays off in the long run.

“I encourage officials to take at least one weekend off to get away from hockey,” he said. “I certainly don't want to lose their services for a week, but the invigoration that it usually provides makes them a much more valuable asset over the course of the season.”

That’s huge in an industry where both mental and physical fatigue are commonplace.

“Every official runs into slumps, just as players do,” Faucette said. “You spend numerous hours alone as an official, and when things are not going good, where everything is negative, it can cause you duress.

“Positive thoughts and self-evaluations speed up recovery,” he continued. “So, instead of telling yourself, ‘I wonder what bad thing will happen tonight?’ say ‘I’m ready for anything – bring it on!’”

Have fun
It’s No. 3 here, but should be No. 1 on your to-do list.

“I realize the officials are all trying hard, and mistakes are part of any sport by any participant,” said Faucette, who currently serves as supervisor of officials for USA Hockey, the NAHL director of player safety and the SPHL director of officiating. “That being said, the joy I get out of seeing a young official start out at ground level and making the big time one day is immeasurable.”

For most of you reading this, the “big time” might not be the end goal (and that’s OK). But wherever you are, there’s experience you’ve gained, as well as that to come – which both point back to why you first got involved in this great sport.

As an assignor, Carrington tries to get out of the office as much as he can and intentionally varies the schedules of his officials to help keep things fresh. He also encourages his more senior officials to lend a hand to those who aren’t as long in the tooth.

“Going to the rink and helping officials help themselves get better can be very invigorating,” he said. “Even a very good, very experienced official will often find it fun and relaxing to mentor some new official at a lower-level game where the stress levels aren’t nearly as high.”

But no matter where you officiate, Carrington emphasizes keeping one thing in mind: the love of the sport and those playing it today.

“If you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be out there.”

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