October 30, 2007
Father First, Coach Second
With a young son ailing in Milwaukee hospital, Michigan Tech's Russell juggles family, hockey.
By Jess Myers
In a world in which a Disney-fied sports movie hits the multi-plex seemingly every week, we’ve all seen tales of family anguish, coaching genius, and stirring inspiration “based on a true story.” But every so often, an actual true story comes along that lacks the soundtrack and the popcorn, yet provides a narrative more inspiring than anything a screenwriter could dream up.
Monday, Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell sent out an e-mail detailing the trials of his past 10 days, an ordeal previously known by only a select few close to the Huskies hockey program. The previous week had started like any other hectic in-season stretch for the coach, with the nation’s top-ranked team, North Dakota, set to visit Houghton over the coming weekend. That routine was shattered on Tuesday of last week, however, when the oldest of Russell’s three sons developed an illness and got progressively worse.
Ben Russell, 9, quickly went from being hospitalized in Houghton with a relatively routine viral infection to being flown to a Milwaukee hospital with a life-threatening bacterial infection that was attacking his kidneys. Jamie immediately left the team in the hands of assistants, Pat Mikesch, Chris Tok, and Randy McKay, and went to Milwaukee with wife, Linda, to be with their boy.
Ben’s condition had stabilized enough by last Friday that Russell was able to return to Houghton in time for the Huskies’ game with the top-ranked Sioux. But upon arriving in the locker room, Russell found that the emotions of the week made it nearly impossible to talk. When the team returned to the room after pregame warm-ups, they found their coach had left this message on the chalkboard:
I thought I knew what tough was. This past week, my nine-year-old introduced me to a whole new world of toughness and courage. I REALLY want to win tonight for Ben, who is going to try his best to listen to the game.
Aware of what was happening with Ben in a hospital 300 miles away, the message hit the players hard and let them know a special effort would be required on the ice.
“There was a feeling that ran through the room that we had to find a way to win that game not just for us or for the two points, but for coach and his family,” said goaltender Michael-Lee Teslak. “He’s a pretty intense guy, so when we saw tears in his eyes, there was a really intense feeling in the room that we had to put coach on our back.”
Russell asked his team to deliver 50 hits in the game, and 20 in the first period. In their 3-1 upset of the Sioux, the Huskies recorded 51 hits for the game, 25 of them in the first period.
“I’ve never heard our rink as loud as it was that night,” said Teslak, who had 26 saves in the win.
After it was over, as Huskies captain Jimmy Kerr handed his coach the game puck, to be delivered to Ben’s room in that Milwaukee hospital. Russell was again rendered speechless, able only to say, “Thank you,” before emotions got the best of him. Assistant coaches addressed the media after the game that night as Russell succumbed to the combination of intense emotion and his inability to sleep or eat much for several days.
Later that night, Jamie called Ben and told him of the gift that was on its way to Milwaukee. According to Russell, the puck brought the first smile that they’d seen in several days to Ben’s face.
“It was pretty emotional for everyone,” said Russell Tuesday. “Ben’s been having blood drawn every four hours and he’s in considerable pain, but that moment when he got the game puck produced the biggest smile we’ve seen in a long time.”
Last weekend ended with the Huskies leading the WCHA, and Ben still hospitalized, fighting to get better with his father back at his side in Milwaukee. While a handful of specialists attended to Ben, Jamie planned to join the team in Madison for this weekend’s series with Wisconsin, if not sooner.
His doctors have said that Ben will be on blood-thinning medication for at least six months, which means no hockey for him this winter. According to Jamie, that was the toughest disappointment his son has had to deal with since the illness set in. On the flip side of the tough times has been the outpouring of support the Russell family has received from friends in Houghton-Hancock and throughout the college hockey world.
“The notes and cards and flowers we’ve gotten from folks at the school and the pep band and Mitch’s Misfits (the Tech student section) have really meant a great deal to our family,” Jamie said. “The number of cards and e-mails and calls have really been overwhelming.”
Jess Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WIN IT FOR BEN.