Matt Heller has had an emotional skate of late -- part surreal, part celebration. Tears of sadness comforted with tears of joy and a wild celebration of the Stevenson hockey team, with Heller in the middle, the man of the hour.
On Feb. 9, Heller went to the hospital to visit his grandfather, Jordan Waxman, who had been battling prostate cancer for about five years. Waxman went into cardiac arrest and had to be revived with CPR. Heller was right there, watching everything.
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Waxman died the next day, with Heller and the rest of his family bedside.
"Saying our goodbyes (on Monday) certainly was the hardest part," Heller said. "It was pretty rough and it happened so fast (after he was taken off life-support).
"It was very surreal, eye-opening, and really hard to watch. I had never experienced anything like that."
Heller and his grandfather were very close. They talked on the phone three or four times per week and went to breakfast every Saturday or Sunday for the past two years.
Grandpa nicknamed Heller "Bruiser" and was a regular at Stevenson games, always sitting near center ice in the front-row.
Waxman's funeral was Feb. 12, and that night, Stevenson had its first game in the best-of-three Scholastic Hockey League playoffs in Buffalo Grove against co-op Rockford.
Heller, 17, a senior in his second season on the Stevenson varsity, never considered skipping the game.
"I wanted to play, but it was hard," he said. "All of my friends, teammates and coaches came up to me before the game telling me to play this (game) for my grandpa, that he's watching -- and that's what I did. I left everything out there, out on the ice. I took every stride thinking of him, playing my heart out for him."
Stevenson won 7-3.
"Knowing he wasn't (in the stands) -- yet the rest of the family was -- was very hard," Heller said.
The series resumed Feb. 14 in Rockford, and this time, the Patriots were pounded 8-1.
Then on Feb. 15 in Buffalo Grove, it was the deciding game, a back-and-forth fight that Rockford tied at 1-1 in the third period to force overtime.
About two minutes into overtime, Stevenson goalie Corey Benjoya redirected a shot to forward Michael Trapp, the team captain. Trapp skated the puck into the Rockford zone, then "made a beautiful pass," said Heller, who had to stretch for the puck.
"I got the puck on my stick, and from one of the worst angles possible, I just snapped it in," he said.
The celebration was wild. Heller was the hero.
"It might have been the best feeling of my life," he said. "I certainly never will forget it."
The Patriots mobbed each other near center-ice, then the pile pushed toward the boards -- ironically, right where Heller's grandfather would have been seated.
"That definitely was the best moment of my life," Heller said. "All I could think about (after the celebration) was my grandfather, and I made sure to point up to the sky to thank him for that goal and opportunity, and hopefully he was smiling back at me."
Projansky, Trapp picked for showcase: Stevenson seniors Jared Projansky and Michael Trapp have been selected to represent Illinois at the America's Hockey Showcase in Pittsburgh April 10-14.
The event will feature 20 teams representing states and regions from around the country. Former Blackhawk Brian Noonan is the coach of Team Illinois, which won the tournament in 2013. Trapp was a member of last year's team and will be making his second trip. Projansky, who this year became the first player in SHS history with more than 50 goals and 50 assists in the same season, is participating for the first time.