SAGINAW, MI — It’s been a little more than two years since his father died, and it doesn’t get any easier. It just becomes bearable.
Saginaw Spirit defenseman Will Petschenig’s father, Dan Petschenig, died suddenly of a heart attack in fall 2013. It’s a void Petschenig helps fill with his charity, A Heart Like Mine, where he plays off-ice host to children who’ve lost close family members.
“I share an unfortunate bond with kids (who’ve lost someone),” said Petschenig, 20. “And I just want to make sure they have fun and stay positive throughout their life.”
Petschenig invites youngsters who have lost a loved one to each Spirit home game as his guest. He dubs them “Will’s Warriors.” They receive free tickets to the game, dinner with him before puck drop, a post-game locker room tour, an autographed stick and puck and an on-ice picture.
“I’m always reminding them, even if they’re having tough days, you have to remember the positive memories you have, and I want them to know I’m always there for them,” he said.
A 6-foot-3, 210-pound defenseman, Petschenig is one of the best hockey players in the world his age. He has a career’s worth of highlights to prove it. The Spirit saw his championship pedigree and acquired the veteran blue-liner in an offseason trade with the Oshawa Generals.
So, why Saginaw? Why spend so much of his free time helping others in what is, essentially, a temporary home? Because of his age, Petschenig’s first year in Saginaw is guaranteed to be his last. He has signed to professionally next season in Switzerland.
“I spend so much time doing this because I think it’s the right thing to do,” Petschenig said. “It’s an unfortunate bond we share. I just want to see the kids happy.”
Petschenig carved out a career for himself with Oshawa over the past three years, helping the Ontario Hockey League club win the J. Ross Robertson Cup last season as league champions before capping it off as the best junior hockey team in North America with a Memorial Cup championship.
His skill as a hockey player is what initially drew Saginaw to the 20-year old, but his character off the ice has surpassed any on-ice achievement.
“He’s bringing stability and leadership,” Saginaw coach Greg Gilbert said. “He logs minutes for us and plays against top teams. That’s what we were looking for.”
Upon his trade to Saginaw, Petschenig began wearing the No. 65 in memory of his father, who wore the number as a member of the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts in the 1980s. Also in his dad’s honor, Petschenig started A Heart Like Mine.
His connection to Will’s Warriors doesn’t end after the game. Petschenig has stayed in touch with youths, meeting up with them again to attend hockey practices and volleyball games
“Will’s dad would be very proud of him for what he’s doing,” said Jennifer Bass, of Midland, whose 15-year-old son, Theryn Bass, died last year.
The family — including husband and father Dennis Bass and 13-year old Brenden Bass — gained an ally in Petschenig, who met and befriended Brenden at the Children’s Grief Center of the Great Lakes Bay Region.
The two played games during a couple of Petschenig’s visits.
Bass and her family attended the Wednesday, Dec. 16, game against the Flint Firebirds, with Brenden serving as Will’s Warrior for the game. She said it’s a welcome distraction during the Christmas season.
“December’s a really hard month,” she said.
In addition to pursuing a career playing professional hockey, Petschenig volunteers at the grief center, worked with the United Way of Saginaw to build mobility ramps at homes and visited area schools to read and spend time with children.
In sports, the athletic trainers are often the secret keepers. They see athletes when the cameras aren’t around and when the players are broken, bleeding and at their worst. Only Petschenig doesn’t have a “worst”, said Saginaw Spirit trainer Toby Blosser.
“He’s a great kid,” Blosser said. “If my kids turn out half as good as him, I’ll have done a good job as a dad.”