Family matters

by Don Power || AHL On The Beat Archive   

In July 2011, Jason DeSantis didn’t think he’d play hockey this season.

Without a contract after finishing last year in the ECHL, DeSantis received terrible news at home: his mother, Carol, had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Suddenly the 25-year-old Michigan native was at a crossroads. He could sign somewhere as a free agent and continue his pro career, or he could stay home with his ailing mother and give up on hockey – at least for one season.

“It was definitely a big decision once I found that out,” DeSantis said of his mother’s diagnosis. “Obviously I love hockey, but family is more important to me. At that time when all that was going on in July, I was talking to some teams but I really didn’t have any interest in signing anything because I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I thought maybe I’d stay at home. I gave it some thought, but my mom would never want me to not do what I love.”

It was an agonizing time, but eventually, with the support of his parents, he signed as a free agent with the Winnipeg Jets, and was assigned to their new AHL affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps.

The young defenseman was excited again. Staying in touch daily with his mother, who was going through rounds of chemotherapy, the Ohio State University graduate could focus on the game he loved. He felt fit, enjoyed his new surroundings and was looking forward to a productive season with the brand new franchise.

But then October rolled around, and DeSantis found himself in the press box to start the season. For the IceCaps’ first five games, DeSantis watched, practiced hard and bided his time.

Any hockey player will tell you sitting out not enjoyable and tests your patience at the best of times. Sitting out when your mother is home battling cancer is exponentially more difficult.

At a time when DeSantis felt he should be supporting his mother through her difficulties, the tables were actually turned, and it was Carol DeSantis doing the comforting.

“Sitting in the stands is not fun at all,” DeSantis agreed. “I just had to be patient. It’s the only thing that got me through. I had a lot of support, with my family and a lot of people back home. That helps a lot because no one has fun from sitting up top watching.

“It’s definitely tough sitting, and it’s frustrating not playing, but thinking I could be back home with my family and spending more time with my mom, that made it difficult. I’d much rather be sitting home with my family, spending time there, than watching the games from the stands.

“That’s the great thing about having my parents and their support. If it wasn’t for them saying stuff like that – ‘go play hockey’ – then I might not be playing right now.

Patience and perseverance paid off for the young defenseman though. After sitting five games, DeSantis made his IceCaps debut Oct. 22 against Bridgeport, picking up a pair of assists. The next four games, however, he found himself back upstairs watching with the other scratches.

Finally, on Nov. 1, DeSantis got back in the lineup, and he’s been one of the team’s top players ever since, recording 31 points in 41 games — tied for fourth among all AHL blueliners.

DeSantis loves St. John’s, the arena, the fans and the atmosphere during the games.

“You’re frustrated – and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t get frustrated by that,” he said, “but you have to realize it. Being a fourth-year in the AHL, it’s something you take in and do whatever you can to get in the lineup. I could have had a bad attitude and didn’t care but I just kept working hard every day and I think that’s what matters the most.

“You could be sitting out and if you get thrown in the lineup that might be one of the only chances you’ll get, so you have to take advantage of it. There’s a lot of pressure in that too. You’ve got to be prepared. It is pro hockey, so you have to hold yourself accountable.”

His second family – teammates and management – have supported him fully as he deals with the struggle at home, and given DeSantis a new appreciation for the game and a brand-new appreciation for a city 3,000 kilometers from home.

“I know, but I’m glad I’m here though,” he said. “I tried to put a picture in my head for what it was going to be like, but I didn’t expect it to be this crazy. I think we have the best fans in the league. They support us, selling out every night – you don’t get that in the AHL. I just love it. That’s why I was dying to get in the lineup. I was watching the guys play at home, it’s awesome.

“I heard a lot of things this summer about the new team and the excitement surrounding it. The whole experience has been great.”

Meanwhile, back in Oxford, Mich., Carol and Doug DeSantis continue their battle, and listen to their son’s games online. It’s an outlet that provides both mother and son a break from the daily grind of her illness.

“I think about her every day,” DeSantis said, lowering his head and voice as his thoughts turn to his mother once again. “It’s always in my head. But that’s the thing ever since I played hockey, and especially since I turned pro – it’s just nice to get out there. Even in practice with the guys, you feel like you’re in your own little bubble. You don’t really think about too much, but just play the game.

“I was thinking about not playing this year, (but) now I think this is a great thing because even though I’m not with my mom, I can still keep in touch with her, see her on the computer, but at the same time I have something else to focus on. It’s always in your head and you always think about it. Yeah, I might go through some rough days, but that’s what family is for.

“If we were on the opposite end of the spectrum, losing and things not going well, I think you’d start thinking about that situation and wishing you were at home. I love being home when I’m there, but right now I can’t say enough about St. John’s, the arena and the atmosphere.

“I’m having a lot of fun.”