A native of Antigo, Wis., and a member of the Green Bay Junior Gamblers, Eli Kassler is currently fighting T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Nothing to Worry About
You are facing this beast
Staring him directly in the face
He wants you to fold; to back down
He wants you to quit this race
I laugh because I know one thing for sure
He’s no match for you
He isn’t going to stand a chance
He’s never faced someone like you - so pure, so true
Who is this beast you ask?
It’s pain; it’s distrust; it’s sickness
The feelings - the experiences that plague us everyday
It’s life at its worst
Those moments that take your breath away
While the beast grinds at us all
I have witnessed you handle him with class
You politely keep him at bay
He will never win - not when it comes to you
Never doubt that for a second
Your strength and character is desired by so many but only shared by a special few
– Andrew Lynn
This story is not about goals or assists, but about the personal qualities that often lead to those types of results. It’s not about the score at the end of the game, but about the journey that one takes from the drop of the puck to the final horn. It’s not about the power of a shot or the speed of the skates, but about the work ethic and determination that propels you to that level of excellence in hockey and in life. This story is not about winning and losing, but about the power of the human spirit and togetherness of a community. While this story may be told through the visor of a hockey helmet, when you break it down, it’s really not about hockey at all – it’s about so much more.
Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda once said,” The difference between the impossible and possible lies in a person’s determination.” Of course at the time, the Hall of Fame skipper didn’t know he was describing Eli Kassler.
Have you sat down to watch a hockey game and almost immediately a player catches your eye? You might now even know their name, but they stand out amongst the rest. The way they skate. The subtle twists and turns they make which almost always get them to the puck before anyone else. The way the puck dances off their stick – almost as if it’s attached by an invisible string that never breaks. Simply put, they operate at a different gear. They possess a natural mixture of talent and drive that coaches salivate over, teammates and opponents covet, and parents just simply shrug their shoulders and smile. They are things you just can’t explain no matter how hard you try.
Clint and Corrie Kassler saw that beautiful blend of skill and desire right from the beginning when it came to their son, Eli, and his immediate love affair with the game of hockey. It didn’t take long for everyone else to recognize it, too. Corrie remembers Eli skating at the age of 2 and roaming the hockey rink at 3. Following the lead of Clint and older sister, Emily, Eli was a natural. Everything about the game fit him perfectly. Fast-paced. Constant movement. Mentally challenging. Fast-paced. Competitive. Fast-paced. Yes, the pace of the game is something Clint and Corrie cannot overstate.
“Hockey is a very fast-paced game and he is a fast-paced kid,” Clint said. “His brain is 100 miles per hour all the time and hockey fits him well; you have to think fast to process things. Pretty much from the beginning he was always a little ahead of the rest of the kids. Part of it was natural ability and part of it was the fact that he is a very determined kid. He works very hard and hates to lose.”
“Eli has been non-stop go from the day he was born,” Corrie said. “He was not a typical child. He never played with toys or Legos. He was balls to the walls every minute. He has always had endless energy. From the beginning, it was clear that he had a natural talent and love for the sport.”
But if you ask his parents, along with all of the coaches who have coached Eli since, while his natural ability has helped the Antigo, Wis., native skate to places he and his parents never considered before, Eli’s identity on the ice soon became legendary thanks to his work ethic and desire to compete. With all of the skills he possessed, it was Eli Kassler’s heart that quickly made him one of the best youth hockey players in the state and among the best players in the country.
“Eli Kassler is a high-end 2006 first-year forward in Wisconsin who I would characterize as the No. 1 forward in all of Wisconsin and perhaps the No. 1 player in the state of Wisconsin from a talent perspective,” said Marcus Novy, head coach for the Milwaukee Junior Admirals PeeWee Minors (AAA).
Novy knows what he’s talking about. He coached Kassler on several youth all-star teams, including the Hockey Factory Spartans (Wisconsin’s only all-star team), DHI Super Series Team and CCM Selects (elite youth hockey team comprised of U.S. and Canadian 2006 first-year players). In each case, Novy’s teams competed in numerous AAA tournaments sporting the best youth players in the world. Novy remembers learning about Kassler’s ability several years ago as an up-and-coming speedster with an ability to process the game at a level several years beyond his age group. Soon after, Eli was invited to join some of the best elite-level teams in the area and a relationship was born.
“In Wisconsin, the depth of youth hockey isn’t quite at the caliber as it is in Minnesota or Canada,” Novy said. “Inside of this state he is the type of player who would fit that Minnesota or Canada hockey mentality. He was a student of the game at a very early age. He spent a lot of time watching and critiquing hockey and was very sophisticated from a hockey sense perspective. From a talent perspective, I would characterize him as having a very strong work ethic both on and off the ice. On the ice, this is a kid who has a very high compete level and forechecks with tenacity. I would characterize him as a natural goal scorer as well as a high-end playmaker. He just plays both ends of the ice very well as he’s always played up with kids who are two or three years older than he is. He is a kid who has always been well beyond his age when you consider he’s only 11 years old.”
That sentence has been echoed throughout the rinks of Wisconsin hundreds of times. It’s been echoed throughout the Kassler residence, the Antigo community and the hockey family who has heard the name and knows the story. It’s been echoed through the halls of the hospitals Eli has visited since last August. The meaning within that sentence went well beyond the hockey rink and the world Eli was dominating just a few short months ago.
Then everything changed.
Dave Hoogsteen remembers it like yesterday. Truth be told, he can’t seem to get it out of his mind. A coach for the Minnesota Blades – an elite AAA hockey club that was developed in 1989 and was aimed at giving talented youth hockey players the opportunity to travel outside of the state during the offseason to play against some of the best competition the world has to offer – Hoogsteen remembers coaching Kassler last summer. Although Kassler was arguably his best player, Hoogsteen knew something was off.
“I remember during a tournament last summer, Jags (Hoogstein’s nickname for Kassler; pronounced Yaw-gs) was complaining about a hip injury,” Hoogsteen said. “He came to me and talked to me about it and I remember telling him that he was on the ice too much and needed to take a break. He’s our leader on the ice and his work ethic is second to no one. I just thought he was pushing too hard.”
Playing for the Blades, it wasn’t the first time a player had shown signs of wear and tear. Known as one of the best developmental programs offered for budding hockey stars throughout the region, the Blades have helped propel hundreds of youth hockey players to college hockey and beyond. Famous for their long list of hockey alumni royalty including Zach Parise, Jordan Leopold, Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler, over 350 former players who played in the Blades’ program have gone on to play Division I hockey and over 50 of them have suited up in the NHL. In other words, the competition is fierce and each player who competes in the program is pushed to the highest level. Still, Hoogsteen knew that Kassler didn’t need to be pushed. Something was wrong.
“I went to Clint and told him I thought Eli was on the ice too much and his hip was bothering him,” said Hoogsteen, who calls Kassler “Jags” after Jaromir Jagr due to Kassler’s long black hair and how it “flows” in the breeze when he skates. “Even our last tournament which was comprised of probably the best teams in the state, he scored seven goals in four games and was our leading scorer. To do all of that with what was happening just sums up the type of character and passion he has. He’s just an amazing kid.”
As a nurse practitioner, Corrie Kassler spotted the bruises right away. They weren’t your typical bruises – not bruises one would normally get from a hockey game anyway. It was the last weekend of August 2017 and as the weekend went on, more bruises appeared. Something was wrong. Just as alarming was Eli’s energy level. This was to be Eli’s first season with the Green Bay Junior Gamblers, and after returning that weekend from a Gamblers’ practice, Eli told his mom he was tired. Something was really wrong – “tired” and “Eli Kassler” rarely were ever spoken in the same sentence.
The following morning, Corrie brought Eli to the doctor and the results were devastating. Up to that point, Corrie and Clint were like any other parents. They focused on things like organizing rides to the next tournament and the score of the next hockey game. They missed a game or two because they had to work; after all, there would be another one the following week. They both admit that they took life for granted. Hockey was important, but at the end of the day, it was just a game. Of course, up to that moment, they didn’t have an 11-year-old child with T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Corrie knew what the diagnosis meant and it wasn’t good. T-cell Leukemia was extremely difficult to treat and it meant that Eli would have to endure spinal and I-V chemotherapy with continued treatment for at least the next three years. Possibly a bone marrow transplant. What followed was a whirlwind of hospital visits, battles with the insurance companies and road trips from one specialist to the next. Clint and Corrie were used to long car rides going from one hockey rink to the next, but driving seven hours round-trip to a hospital in Milwaukee for treatment was something different.
Have you ever watched a hockey player on a breakaway with time ticking down? They move with the puck from side to side, forcing the goaltender to make his move before he wants to. The net is wide open. The player fires the puck while his teammates begin to jump the boards, ready to celebrate the game-winning goal. Then at the last second, the goaltender dives back across the crease and snares the puck with his glove. All of that excitement, the anticipation, the “moment” is lost in an instant. It takes your breath away. Clint and Corrie Kassler were lost.
“Eli’s first month of treatment was very difficult for all of us,” Corrie said. “He was on a high dose of steroids along with all of the chemo. Steroids change your personality. He was very moody and never smiled or joked, which was not like him at all. He had a lot of pain. During this phase of treatment, we had to travel to Milwaukee twice weekly. He received oral chemo daily, I-V and spinal weekly. He struggled with losing his hair. His face swelled up. At one point, he didn’t look like himself at all. As a mom, this was so heartbreaking. My baby was never happy. He wasn’t enjoying being a kid; he was in pain. There was nothing I could do to fix it.”
Everything changed. Both Clint and Corrie rolled back their work schedules and went to part-time to accommodate the brutal schedule of treatments, lab work and doctor visits. One day, they would climb into the car and take a 40-minute drive, in the opposite direction of all of the other hospitals, just for lab work. The next week would consist of chemotherapy in Milwaukee and four more days of treatment in Green Bay. Countless hours on the road and more days in a hospital than the family cares to count.
They used to have hockey gear packed in bags by the front door, ready at a moment’s notice for when they would rush out the door. Now the bags that are packed are personal effects like clothes, medications, a toothbrush and a comb. They never know when that trip to the hospital is going to happen, and they never know how long the stay is going to be.
“The first thing you have to understand is there is no given week, so everything is day by day,” Corrie said. “Let’s say, if he starts to run a fever, he has to be seen at the hospital within an hour. The closest hospital we can take him to because of the treatment he needs is Green Bay (one hour and 15 minutes away). If he’s feeling good that day, sometimes we can do some activities or maybe he can have a friend over, but there is still no school. He can’t go to school right now; he’s at such a high risk of infection.”
Imagine the rollercoaster ride with climbs and drops as high as a skyscraper and side-to-side jerks more violent than a car accident. Now imagine that you are 11 years old. There isn’t a manual or playbook that prepares someone for that moment when the ice gives way and you fall into the freezing water below. There isn’t a do-over when the puck hits the pipe and caroms to the corner. The only option you have left is to keep moving, to keep fighting. Everyone was ready to fight for the Kasslers – to fight for Eli.
Some have said that the hockey community is somewhat like a cult. Parents spend countless hours at freezing rinks dressed in Carharts with only hot coffee to keep them warm as they watch one game after another. They share equipment like puzzle pieces, outfitting their child (and all of his/her teammates) with breezers, skates and gloves whenever needed. The hotels, the road trips, the pizza! Lots and lots of pizza. With that brings about a connection that very few can understand unless you have experienced it. The hockey community truly is a family, and when someone within their family needs help, they respond.
The Kassler family knew they were always “one of them,” but didn’t know what the term “hockey family” meant until Eli got sick. From one rink to the next, Eli’s story began to spread like the smell of sweat inside a hockey locker room. While Clint, Corrie and Emily focused on the day-to-day challenges that presented themselves when it came to Eli’s treatment routine, the hockey community strapped on their skates and picked up a stick. From fundraisers to blood drives or lesser noticed things like making a family meal or a simple phone call of encouragement at the perfect time, the entire hockey family surrounded the Kasslers immediately, making Eli’s journey their journey.
Early on, after Eli was first diagnosed and still in the hospital, Hockey Hall of Famer Brett Hull FaceTimed him and offered words of encouragement. A few months ago, Corrie received a message from a stranger in Illinois who heard about Eli’s diagnosis through the hockey channels. Offering to help, he printed off over 1,000 flyers and hung them up at hockey rinks throughout the region, telling Eli’s story and directing people to Kassler’s Facebook page so they could contact him directly and offer words of encouragement to make him feel better. While Leukemia had sidelined the budding hockey star (at least for the moment), the hockey family wasn’t about to forget about him.
“After Eli’s diagnosis, I realized just how unbelievably loving, generous and loyal the hockey family is,” Corrie said. “As the word of what had happened to Eli started to spread, it was literally hours before they were reaching out. We have received support from people we have never met because hockey families stick together. That is something one probably wouldn’t understand unless they went through something like this. Because of the people within this family, we were able to get Eli where he needed to be to get the best care possible for his illness. I think it shows that there is a lot of love and dignity people have. We are all united; we are all together. My fight is your fight. It’s not about winning and losing, but rather it’s about the fact that they want to be there for support. It brings everyone together.”
Most importantly, it brings a smile to Eli. After a recent trip to St. Louis, Eli was honored by the St. Louis Junior Blues. When he returned home, he wanted to skate. If only for a moment, he felt like a hockey player again. He felt like a kid again.
“Every time he does something like that or someone reaches out to him, he gets a big smile and it makes him feel better, no doubt,” Clint said. “I think without all of that, he wouldn’t be as mentally solid as he is right now. He struggles still, no question, but every time something like that happens, it really helps.”
“You are removing what I would characterize as being the best player in the state from competition this year and priorities shift to him fighting for his life,” Novy said. “What I’ve seen is that the hockey community has responded very nicely in support of the family, but even with all of the support, you can’t make it perfect for the family. There are a lot of what ifs and wait-and-sees. Whether it’s the treatment is going to work or he’s going to need a bone marrow transplant, and you couple that with the challenges someone faces when it comes to going into long-term chemo therapy and the side effects that could happen, it’s devastating. But with that, as a hockey community, you do what you can do to support Eli and the family. They need to know that they are not alone and we are all in this together.”
Across the board, everyone who has been asked about Eli starts off by talking about the grief and frustration they feel when they think about the diagnosis. They then finish their thoughts by citing Eli’s strength, determination and spirit. In the end, whether you refer to Eli’s talent on the ice or his perseverance away from it, that’s the real story that is being told. At the young age of 11, he’s always been a leader who has led by example. His style was never dominated by voice or flare. All you need to do was watch. Hoogsteen figured that out immediately.
“It started with his work ethic and his drive; being that quiet leader on the ice,” Hoogsteen said when asked about his first impressions of Kassler when he started playing for the Blades. “ That drive drove us to a lot of championships on the ice. Everything he did, he did it with passion and determination. I know that same kind of strength is going to help him beat this.”
“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.” – Angela Schwindt
Don’t get Corrie Kassler wrong. Eli has his moments of frustration, anger and fear like everyone else. He has struggled at times with bouts of depression and loneliness. He desperately wants to play hockey again. He wants to simply be a kid again. But as Clint and Corrie take it one day at a time, they have also started to realize the lessons that are attached to each moment. Surrounded by uncertainty, the one who has been the strongest during this journey has been Eli. Much like many of his hockey games, when everything around him has been marred with chaos, Eli has been one step ahead of the rest. He’s been a man among boys.
“He’s shown an adult-like mentality for something that is beyond challenging to people who are adults,” Novy said. “This is a kid who just turned 11 years old in May and he was hit with this. From an attitude perspective, he’s handled it very well. He’s shown tons of perseverance. He doesn’t complain about something that he can’t change. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him complain about the leukemia itself. I’ve never heard him say why me or why can’t it be someone else. That’s pretty impressive in my mind.”
“I think you can make a lot of comparisons to hockey,” Corrie said. “He’s learned that everything doesn’t always go your way and he learned that from hockey. You’re not always winning the game. Sometimes you need to take the good with the bad in order to get the end result, and you need to work hard to get there. He knows that. He knows more than most that things just don’t come because you want it to happen. If you want it, you need to go get it.”
“He doesn’t want to fail,” Clint said. “He doesn’t like to lose. He won’t give up on anything. He just thinks differently than other people. When he was playing hockey and we were going against a team we were going to lose to, his theory was if he tried his hardest, than he really didn’t lose. His determination is pretty impressive.”
For anyone who knows Eli, it’s hard for them to think about life like they once did. After all, losing a hockey game these days doesn’t seem to matter like it once did. Through his spirit and strength, Eli has begun to teach those around him what patience really means. What perseverance is all about and how the little milestones in life aren’t so little. There are moments of accomplishment like when he went hunting with his father in South Dakota, or was well enough that day to simply have a friend over to visit with. Mostly, though, Eli has reminded those around him what’s truly most important. Even before his diagnosis, when Eli roamed the ice it was never about winning and losing. It was never about goals or points or who was keeping score in the stands. It was always about effort. The game of hockey, as in life, can be cruel, but the lessons learned during the game can also be powerful. Each person who has shared the journey with Eli has taken away something different – a life-long shift in perspective that has changed their life and what they want that life to be.
“I think for myself, at the level of hockey I coach at, there is an expectation,” Hoogsteen said. “Jags, he and his family, they were in the thick of it. Every weekend it was hockey and more hockey. You just can’t get enough of it sometimes. It really set us straight when it came to what’s truly important. With Jags’ diagnosis, it has really put things into perspective for all of us. I’m not the coach now who is going to keep the kids from swimming at a hotel pool or keep them from just having fun and being kids. When you see these kids on the ice at this level, they are intense, but when they take their helmets off, they are kids again, and we need to remember that. It’s fair to say that this has put things into perspective and we are all better for it. Kids that I coach are all of a sudden starting to enjoy the game more and you can see the results on the ice because of it. I think that was the biggest eye-opener.”
“It has changed me, definitely,” Clint said. “I was pretty much a workaholic. I worked way too much. Now, tomorrow is another day. I can fix that machine or cut more wood some other day. It is way more important for me now to make sure I am spending time with my kids. You certainly don’t think about tomorrow being your last day until something like this happens and you realize it can be. If someone were to ask me what lesson I wanted to share with everyone that came out this experience, that would be it.”
At the young age of 11, Eli Kassler has stepped away from the game of hockey – if only for a short time – and has become a quiet leader in life. When he returns (and he will), his legacy will have already been stamped on the walls of locker rooms throughout Wisconsin and beyond – not for his hockey skill, but instead because of what he represents. What his family represents – what his story represents. The human spirit will always win. The student has become the teacher.
“It’s amazing how one special kid can affect so many people and how little things that he has done has changed things so rapidly,” Hoogsteen said.
The lessons of Eli.
Andrew Vitalis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eli Kassler has been one of the top players for the 2005 and 2006 Minnesota Blades.