No Ordinary Prospect
2014 Mr. Hockey winner Avery Peterson combines passion for the game with
managing real life challenges to succeed.
The team had long left the locker room and one player remained in his equipment and uniform on a frigid February evening in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Avery Peterson emerged from that locker room after all players, fans, and workers had left his home rink, the IRA Civic Center. He stared out at the ice that has been his hockey home for more than a decade reflecting on his time as a Thunderhawk.
Peterson was named the 30th Mr. Hockey on Sunday, March 9th at the St. Paul River Center capping off an outstanding high school career at Grand Rapids. He was joined on the podium by goaltender Hunter Shepard who won the Frank Brimsek award for Minnesota’s best senior high school goaltender. The duo are the first from the same team to sweep the award that played for the same team.
“The topic before our last home game was kind of looking at the seniors and saying this will be the last time you ever play here,” Avery acknowledged. “We didn’t know what kind of a seed we were going to get for playoffs. We ended up being a fourth seed and ended up playing at home which is definitely nice.”
His moment alone at the IRA Civic Center came after the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks had just defeated the Forest Lake Rangers in an emotional 2-1 overtime Section 7AA quarterfinal game. That represented the last time any senior on the Thunderhawk team would play in their historic home for the their school and town. For Peterson, it was a time for reflection and appreciation of everything Grand Rapids hockey.
In an era where there is pressure to leave home and move on to different hockey options before graduating high school Peterson, who is a senior at Grand Rapids High School, opted to return for his final year after being drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the 6th round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and after signing to play for Dean Blais and the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO). He played four years at the varsity level in Grand Rapids and delivered over 200 points in his career.
Peterson started the 2013-2014 season with the Sioux City Musketeers in the USHL and carefully chose to return to his roots in Grand Rapids where he could join his friends to pursue the dream of getting to the Minnesota State High School Hockey Championship one final time.
There were other reasons bigger than hockey that made Peterson’s decision easier and the support he received from the Minnesota Wild, Sioux City, and UNO made a difficult decision a little easier. His roots of loyalty and passion run deep and they were shaped by a nurturing and caring family that put faith first from a young age.
Sharing the passion
Focused, determined, competitive, and balanced define the young man who captained the Thunderhawks and carries a 3.5 grade point average at Grand Rapids High School. Not a slouch in the classroom, Peterson admitted that he has to work hard for his grades and pointed to his mother Linda, who is an elementary school teacher, as a steady help in that department. Linda grew up in neighboring Coleraine and married Tom Peterson from rivaling Grand Rapids.
Tom Peterson like most young men in Grand Rapids grew up playing hockey with his friends in the neighborhood and played through the bantam age. As Tom explained it, life as a Grand Rapids hockey player was competitive in the 1970’s, and the runs to the state tournament were in full force.
“I have always been a big fan of the game,” Tom said. “I didn’t get to play at the level that Avery does, but back in the seventies when Grand Rapids was a power house, we had really really good hockey on the Iron Range.”
Tom’s father coached youth hockey for over thirty years in Grand Rapids and it was from his father’s example where Tom, stayed involved in the game after high school including serving as a coach and a referee in over 400 games. Tom still plays in old-timer leagues as much as he can and the game has never left his soul.
The game has been shared with his two son’s and became a part of their fabric. Tom and Linda’s oldest son Evan, who is 20-years old. Avery, is their second born child of three who grew up on a path with Evan that most hockey playing kids in Grand Rapids do and that is playing with neighborhood kids and for the Grand Rapids Youth Hockey Association. Their younger sister, Annika 16, played hockey until volleyball took center stage.
“My dad was a big hockey fan obviously growing up in Minnesota pretty much everybody is,” Avery said. “The day I could walk, my dad put skates on me. I actually still have those skates. They are pretty small, you could put them on my dogs feet. I started skating pretty young and went from there, I guess.”
Avery began skating on hockey teams with his older brother Evan at a young age. “My brother was two years older than me and I always played up a few age groups just because it was easier on my parents for traveling and what not.,” Peterson said. “So, I wasn’t good enough to do it but just saved them time and money so I played up.”
Evan and his friends pushed Avery to keep up whether it for survival or to be the best he can. Avery admitted that Evan was a better player than him when they were younger.
“Me and my friends joke about it because he doesn’t play hockey anymore but he was always better than me growing up,” Avery mused. “He was the best player on the team we had in squirts. It was funny how it worked out how he was always the best one on the team and there was a compete level inside the house you could say.”
A back yard rink at the Peterson household was another source of Avery’s development for his passion of the game, and an understanding mother watched and appreciated how Avery took ownership in the rink and having friends over.
“A few years we had a rink in the back yard and Avery would be at Tom’s side of the bed early in the morning asking if he could go out and flood the rink,” Linda recalled. “It was literally twenty below, 6am, and Avery is out there hammering on the faucet that is frozen. He busts the faucet, is flooding the ice, his mitten has come off, and he had the big flood lights on. That was passion and he couldn’t have been more than eight. To come home from work, I teach first grade, and to find an entry way just full of boots and kids in the back yard playing on that little rink, that’s just heaven.”
Things Would Change
Along the way, there would be a change in Evan around 9th grade. As Evan worked his way through school, things became more difficult for Evan and that included focus and following simple commands. When Evan moved on to college, keeping up in life became more pronounced.
“He went to school and you could see that things were different in every-day life like things changed over the course of seven years,” Avery observed. “So he’s probably had it for a little while before it was diagnosed. Simple tasks like getting to class on time was difficult and frustrating for him so that is where the diagnosis came from, I think.”
The disease is called metachromatic leukodystrophy or MLD. It is a genetic disorder that affects the central nervous and peripheral nervous system, nerves, muscles, other organs and behavior that slowly gets worse over time. Typically, it affects younger kids and is diagnosed early in life and is considered a rare disease. In Evan’s case, MLD was not detected or did not occur until later in adolescence which is even more rare.
Currently there is no cure for MLD and is fatal. However, there are several trials of bone marrow and stem cell transplant therapies under way designed to treat the disease or, at the very least, slow its progress.
“The first doctor told him to just go and live the rest of your life however long it is and live it the best you can,” Avery said. “But he went to the [University of Minnesota] hospital and ended up having a bone marrow transplant that could stop the progression of the disease and just kind of stay how he is for the rest of his life which would be the goal of it.”
“[Avery] had to grow up fast, all my kids did,” Tom said of the sudden changes his family would endure. “It came on pretty suddenly and when we left with our older son we were gone for over four and a half months. I was on the road every second I could back and forth.”
Currently, Linda has taken a leave of absence from work and is now helping with the day-to-day management of Evan’s condition which includes numerous trips to-and-from the University of Minnesota during the bone marrow process.
Tom put it in perspective this way and said, “It’s so rare, nobody really knows. We went into it hoping that we could slow down, the progression of it. We can’t fix anything, we can’t stop it, we don’t think. He has done tremendous and the bone marrow has grabbed a hold. We are going through a whole new era. We hooked up with the U of M, research-wise, and now they are hoping that it did halt it. There is no information out there and there is nothing to look at. The bone marrow isn’t even up until April 30th. That will be the one year mark and that is what they shoot for. We are still in the bone marrow process and he does not have an immune system right now. There is a lot of unknowns. We are just hoping for the best and go day-by-day, hour by hour and it is what it is. That is why we live each day now. it’s totally different there are things we used to care about that we don’t care about anymore.”
The bone marrow, which came from a sibling, Annika was an eight out of eight match and MLD-free which is ideal. There have been around 200 such transplants and 45 of them have come from the University of Minnesota, making it the leading bone marrow transplant facility for MLD, followed by Duke University.
“That was the greatest gift from above and she so wanted to be the donor,” Linda said. “For her to step up willingly like that for her brother who was been tough to live with for as long as she can remember in that brother-sibling way. She is a bitty thing, 5’5″ and they drew out a good two liters of marrow from her little body. She was fearless, and she is a champ.”
For Avery, it was a stark realization that life is fragile and, while pursuing hockey, his brother had a difficult diagnosis for all to deal with. “It was tough obviously. That’s your brother, it could have been me too. It’s a tough situation to be in,” Avery said.
He went on to say that the diagnosis came during the state hockey tournament and said, “It was last year, my mom kind of jokes about it. It was right at the state tournament time and we just got beat out in sections and then we were down for the state tournament for family stuff and they got the news. They had admitted him to the hospital down there. So, it’s been a year now exactly.”
Hockey played an important role for the Petersons, not as an escape from reality, but something to turn to as a positive in their family’s life. “It kind of shifted [hockey] on a lateral movement,” Tom said. “It is still very important but it was basically a huge release for our family. It was one of the only things that we sidetracked out of the bone marrow transplant and the full medical situation that we were in. It still had its grip and importance, but it showed Avery also that there are more important things than hockey and life in general, how quick it can change. Today is a new day and and you are going to experience what is going to happen and what it’s going to make for tomorrow.”
That way of thinking has helped a player that has a high level of expectations on him from multiple hockey related sources. As a highly regarded player entering his senior season, Peterson was on the short list to win the Mr. Hockey award meaning there would be plenty of pressure and attention on him not only from Grand Rapids hockey fans, but from Minnesota Wild fans as well.
But Linda explained her son does not like to be the center of attention and said, “He does not like to be the focus of anything. He doesn’t like being singled out for his accomplishments at all.”
Avery handled that new found attention with grace. Playing hockey in a town like Grand Rapids that is passionate about their team helped making the expectations on him from multiple teams and sources a little easier to manage. The Wild have a player that has size at 6’2″ and skates like the wind. He is a clutch goal scorer and makes others on the ice around him better. Peterson has long been keyed on from other teams as he has been the focal point to the Thunderhawk offensive game. This year, he had 67 points (37g-30a-67pts). He has the ability to take over a game and had points in 26 of his 27 games including multiple point efforts in 18 games this year.
“Being drafted, people keep an eye on you and if you play bad you will hear it from the other team like they will rip on you for it but it’s just something you play through,” Peterson observed. “There are more expectations just in the town of Grand Rapids in general. We have this huge fan base and we play between 2 and 3,000 people every night and they expect you to win. They expect you to be good and that’s almost harder pressure-wise than individually being drafted. It’s a team thing that you are supposed to be good and you are supposed to win.”
Linda said that Avery has a grasp on handling those expectations and on a night before a game, may skip a social event in order to be prepared for his game.. “We have always sent him out the door with play hard and have fun,” Linda said. “He has always approached it that way. He’s one of those kids if he is at the rink, if he is talking hockey, he’s content. He has been able to handle those things and still do well at school and be a solid member of his family and community. He is his own person and we have to respect that. He is very true to himself.”
This past summer, among things Avery needed to consider was whether or not he was going to return to Grand Rapids High School for his senior season. He played eight games after his junior season concluded with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL and began the season with them again this past fall, forgoing an opportunity to play in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League.
With interests in his development that included the Wild, UNO, and Sioux City, there were plenty of discussions regarding Peterson’s future and development.
When Avery was interviewed for this portion of the story, the Thunderhawks were preparing for their last regular season game of the season. “I bleed orange and black,” Avery proudly stated. “Tuesday night is my last game I will ever play in that rink. I spent a lot of time there growing up and that had a factor in coming back to play with my friend’s for one more year. The Wild and UNO were great about it . They really supported me and they said they don’t care where I play, like go home and be with your family and then Sioux City. I will be going down there after high school season and finish the season with them too. It worked out good, all three organizations were really supportive of that decision.”
When asked if he could do it over again and if he would make the same decisions, Peterson said he undoubtedly would, “Your family comes first for everything and family will always be there for you and hockey can come and go quick so you get the best of both worlds,” he said. “I am excited to get back to Sioux City too. I miss the guys down there and I’m looking forward to getting back.”
The Draw of Grand Rapids Tradition
“The tradition in Grand Rapids is just unbelievable like random people will come up to you, I’d be at a restaurant or something and they say, ‘Good luck this week, good luck in your game,’ and that is really cool,” Avery claimed of his hometown. “That’s something you don’t get especially playing juniors. In Sioux City, you are just another person out there, nobody knew who I was. We had jersey auctions down there and mine probably sold for about the minimum they could sell it for,” Peterson said as he laughed.
“In Rapids, it’s different. Everybody goes to the games, it’s like Texas football almost. The games are awesome you see the little kids, every time you get off the ice they are giving you knuckles, and that’s something you don’t get at the next level either, Peterson said.
The youth hockey program in Grand Rapids is strong. Peterson grew up in an environment that created plenty of competition among kids in Grand Rapids and was healthy.
“We were talking about it in the locker room the other day,” Avery recalled. “We have four main elementary schools in Grand Rapids and you play for your elementary school and we played outside every Saturday. I went to Southwest. We were the Southwest Tigers and you play your buddies from other schools and that was really cool. We miss that. They don’t do it anymore and we were talking about it in the locker room how they should be doing it because that is part of the best memories of playing growing up with the other schools. We barely ever practiced inside. It was always outside, the school had an outdoor rink right there, it was cool. It was really for bragging rights we had little sayings like Southwest is the best or something like that and it was more for bragging rights against the other kids you knew at the other elementary schools.”
“We want our children to all live their lives as God intended, God’s plan and celebrate life,” Linda said. “To be cognizant of the needs of others and everyone around you. There is good lessons to be learned from all of them and I think they are doing that as well as they can. The kids are pretty grounded in their faith, it has been a big part of our life forever and we rely on God to sustain us and give us the grace to face what we have to face. Our faith community, our hockey community has stepped up and the community in general. There isn’t a better community to go through this with than Grand Rapids and the surrounding area.”
The Minnesota Wild keep tabs on Peterson and his development and Director of Player Personnel Brad Bombardir checks in with Peterson frequently. “He will call sometimes every other week or once a month and he does a good job to keep me in contact with them,” Avery said. “When it came to decision time after development camp, they said UNO is a good place and they just told me to go where I want to go.”
Participating in the Minnesota Wild development camp held in Traverse City, Michigan, this past summer was eye opening moment for Peterson. “It was awesome,” Avery said. “It was definitely the highest level of hockey I have played. Some of the guys were five or six years older. The big thing was the physicality in the corners you get thrown around like a little rag doll. It was really fun and I am looking forward to the future.”
He will be going straight in to play at UNO next year, at least that is the plan as of now as he is signed to begin play this upcoming season. He will be joining several familiar faces from Minnesota at UNO, including three other 2014 Mr. Hockey finalists. The list is impressive and includes Phil Beaulieu (Duluth East), Luc Snuggerud (Eden Prairie), and Steven Spinner (Eden Prairie).
“I know (Steven) Spinner and (Luc) Snuggerud real well and (Jake) Randolph has played in the USHL. He’s a little older kind of a rival, he played at Duluth East. I played with (Jake) Montgomery two years, a Shattuck kid and Minnesota boy he’s in Sioux City so I know all the guys pretty well and I am really looking forward to going there and playing with that group.”
One of the Grand Rapids area’s own will continue his journey as a hockey player and in life. As the 30th annual Mr. Hockey award winner, there could not be a better player that better understands the heritage of not only northern hockey, but of the role it plays in his life. Avery Peterson’s passion toward his community, teammates, family and the game is evident in his actions and there could not be a more deserving winner of the prestigious award.
Peterson now closes those chapters, a successful player who earned over 200 points in a Grand Rapid uniform, a Division I college hockey recruit, NHL Draft pick, compassionate family member, contributor to his community, and now Mr. Hockey winner. New chapters will be written in Avery Peterson’s story, and certainly, they will be filled with the same themes; hard work, determination, passion, loyalty, challenges, and many successes.