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
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
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
“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.
never heard our rink as loud as it was that night,”
said Michigan Tech goalie Michael-Lee Teslak about Friday's
3-1 win over then top-ranked North Dakota.
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.