The news was stunning.
A couple weeks before J.T. Compher
was to leave the suburbs of Chicago on his two-year hockey adventure last summer, his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Bob Compher had been his son's youth baseball coach. They had a close relationship. The father-and-son bond blossomed even more as J.T. grew from a hockey star at Glenbrook North (Northbrook, Ill.)
and the Northbrook Bluehawks hockey club into an invitee for the prestigious USA Hockey National Team Development Program. Based in Ann Arbor, Mich., it is a place where future Olympians are molded and future National Hockey League draft picks are watched closely by scouts at every game.
Yet here it was, late August, and 16-year-old J.T. was packing his bags for a strange world four hours away while his dad prepared for surgery. Virtually every day began with a good family cry at the Comphers home in Northbrook, Ill.
"It was extremely emotional," said Valerie Compher, J.T.'s mother.
"It was rough hearing it and it was terrible timing for me," J.T. Compher said. "I knew my dad‘s surgery was the first week I‘d be here and normally if I‘m home, I‘d be able to help my mom out and my sisters and make sure she wasn‘t overwhelmed, which I‘m sure she was."
J.T. is the oldest of three siblings; he has two younger sisters, Morgan, 15, and Jesse, 12. At the time, his mom was searching for a job. But if J.T. was thinking about passing up the USA Hockey opportunity, Valerie Compher would have none of it.
"I looked at him and said, ‘I love you so much, but you‘ve got to go,'" she recalled.
Months later now, the Compher story is incredible. J.T., a junior at Pioneer (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
, is the leading scorer on the U-17 National Team with 13 goals and 18 assists in 28 games. He nearly led the United States to a gold medal at the World U-17 Hockey Challenge held over New Year‘s week in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. His dad is nearly fully recovered from his surgery and examinations have shown that all the cancer was successfully removed. Bob is back at work with his construction company and Valerie is at work in her new job.
"That was amazing," J.T. said of his dad‘s latest cancer-free exam.
Emotional moment? How about Oct. 28 when Bob Compher and Glenbrook North High School hockey coach Evan Polakidas - one of J.T.'s youth hockey coaches at the Northbrook Bluehawks - dropped the ceremonial first puck before J.T.'s homecoming game at Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville, Ill. The U-17 National Team was in town that night to play the Chicago Steel, a U.S. Hockey League junior team.
The Comphers turned that game into a benefit for Us TOO International (www.ustoo.org
), an organization that raises awareness of prostate cancer. T-shirts with the message "Pass the word" were sold out. The Steel donated a portion of ticket proceeds to the cause. In all, Valerie Compher said, $1,000 was raised. The night took on a double meaning, considering that Polakidas is facing a similar diagnosis.
"I wanted to do something," J.T. Compher said. "There was so much support from all my friends and everyone in the town."
In the meantime, Bob Compher has plenty to be proud of as he makes occasional trips to the Ann Arbor Cube to watch his son play in a Team USA uniform. He watches the rest of the games online. J.T. has been selected as an assistant captain by his teammates for a series of international tournaments that included a trip to Russia. J.T. is now a student at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, as are all of his teammates, and he is a verbal commitment to the University of Michigan.
"He's a great student," said Tyler Motte, a forward from St. Clair, Mich., who is one of Compher's closest friends on the team and also is a Michigan commit. "Actually he kind of makes me jealous sometimes. If I need help, I know where to go."
Compher will remain in the National Team Development Program for two years, this season with the U-17 squad and next season with the U-18 squad. Then, he'll move 2 miles down the road to Yost Arena and the University of Michigan, whose coach, former NHL star Red Berenson, regularly scouts players in the development program.
Head coach Don Granato, who as a player won a state high school championship at Burnsville, Minn., in 1985 and then was on the University of Wisconsin team which won an NCAA championship in 1990, is solidly impressed by Compher‘s efforts.
"He has an exceptionally high level of drive of competitiveness that separates him from an awful lot of his peers," Granato said. "Having been in the business and the game for a long time, even at the next level, you don't have guys with drive like that. It's rare."
The days in Ann Arbor are long. The players skate for two hours every day following a full day of classes at Pioneer High School. They lift weights. They watch game tapes. They have study tables. They have sessions with life skill teachers and conditioning coaches and academic mentors and sport therapists.
The weekends involve either games played in Ann Arbor or elsewhere in USHL cities. All of the players live with host families. Compher lives with Adam and Kim Karibian and their family, an arrangement that Compher‘s family back home appreciates.
The intensity at practice can't be matched anywhere. This is a team in which 16 of the 21 players have already made verbal commitments to NCAA Division I programs.
"You're putting all the best kids in their age group against each other head to head for two hours a day. It's a dream for me as a coach," Granato said.Paul Bowker, an online and newspaper sports journalist for 30 years and the author of two Major League Baseball books, is based in the Chicago area. He may be reached at email@example.com.