Team Alberta goalie plays through unimaginable loss

As he gears up for the 2015 edition of the roller hockey season, there will be a lot more than just stopping the puck on his mind.

Normally, Dawson Fennell would just swap out his steel blades on his ice skates for a pair of skates with wheels on them and step between the pipes as he had done so many times before.

But this summer will be different. This summer he will be thinking of a friend. A friend he lost this past August while playing for Team Alberta Inline at the State Wars Tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Playing in one of the biggest elite level roller hockey tournaments in the world is tough. The circumstances that Fennell played under were even tougher.

Fennell, a 17-year-old playing in the 18-year-old division, didn’t just play in the tournament, but also played very well. He earned Team North America status and won himself a scholarship with his phenomenal play.

If you thought that was amazing, wait for what comes next. Consider the start of Fennell’s journey to Indiana.

Team Alberta coach Jordan Vevang says Fennell knows he didn’t have the best tryout, but still did enough to crack the lineup.

“Dawson even said himself that he didn’t have the best tryout. I thought that he played a little better than the other two goalies so obviously that’s who we went with.”

So, after the first hurdle of making the team was in the rearview mirror for Fennell, the next was a rather small one, that would turn out to be the biggest story to come out of the tournament for Fennell.

“We had a practice, I don’t know, a couple weeks before we went down, and at that practice everyone decided that we were going to have white helmets on the team and mine was black. So I texted my friend and I said, ‘Hey is it alright if I borrow your mask for this tournament, and I’ll bring it back as soon as I get back’ because it wasn’t [ice] hockey season. He wasn’t going to be using it, and he just said sure.”

So, Fennell was on the team, he had his matching helmet, and he was set for Fort Wayne.

That’s when the going got tough for Fennell.

Only a day into the trip to Indiana, Fennell’s parents called with news that no one could ever be prepared to hear.Dawson Fennell follows the puck with his eyes. He was given Team North America status and won a scholarship at the State Wars 10 tournament in Fort Wayne, Ind., in August 2014.

Photo courtesy of Dawson Fennell/State Wars

The same friend that had loaned Fennell his goalie mask had suddenly passed away, leaving Fennell in total shock.

“I was just totally in shock, mostly because I was texting him a lot on my trip, letting him know what I was up to. And then, he seemed happy about everything, he liked his job, he had a girlfriend, he had a good family, he graduated that year, and never did I hear signs of him being that upset about anything so when I found out about that I was totally in shock,” said Fennell.

Out of respect for the family of Fennell’s friend, it was agreed that his name would not be used.

Fennell’s parents were not on the trip with him, it was just Fennell and his grandpa, so when his parents found out about this horrific news they were immediately overwhelmed with concern for their young goaltending son.

“The excitement of him and his grandpa doing this road trip was great. You know, always getting filled in about where they are, pictures of this and that. So the minute Dawson’s mom and I found out, it was like oh my God, our son is all alone without us there, like 3,000 miles away. It’s a tough feeling because, you know, he’s 17 years old, he’s still kind of on the verge of still being a kid, but a young man as well, and no 17 year old should have to go through this, especially with mom and dad not being right there at his side,” said Ash Fennell, Fennell’s father.

“Dawson is quite a quiet boy, he keeps things to himself, but we knew that he was in a tough place, but on the other hand, though, Dawson was absolutely thrilled to be with his teammates. He said that these are some of the greatest guys he’s been involved with a sporting group,” added Ash Fennell.

Fennell had a big decision to make. Did he want to play, or sit this tournament out?

Not many can play under those circumstances, but Fennell is one of the few who tried, and triumphed.

He wanted to do it for his late friend, and his friend’s mask was a big source of strength for him.

“The way I thought about it was along the lines of his mask, the reason he let me use it, is because he wanted it to be in good hands when he was gone, that’s kind of the way I thought about it. It just kind of gave me the confidence to keep going and just know that he’d want me to do this for him.”

Ash Fennell said that he knew that if Dawson played, he would be all-good.

“It was his choice, but that’s one thing that Dawson does very well, he rises up to the occasion when he felt his teammates needed him. It was all good, he did what he needed to do, and I think he was playing for his buddy.”

Coach Vevang thinks it was a pretty neat thing for Fennell to do for his friend and echoes the sentiment of Ash Fennell.

“One of the players had mentioned it to me that he was doing it for his friend and that’s the helmet that he was wearing. I thought that was a really cool to kind of dedicate your tournament and play so well for your friend.”

Team Alberta took home the silver medal in the AA ’96 division. And Dawson earned Team North America Status and a scholarship. He said that the team’s and his personal success was a relief.

“It was almost like a relief kind of, just knowing that I know that he’d be proud of me and he would totally support everything that I did down there,” says Fennell.

Fennell is also playing ice hockey in Edmonton this season, and needed a new mask. So what did he do? Something not only hockey fans, but everybody would find pretty cool.

Fennell’s new mask he bought for the 2014-15 ice hockey season pays tribute to his late friend on the back of the mask.

Photo courtesy of Dawson Fennell“Dawson did need a new goalie mask, so he went out and bought a white one, and on the back of his helmet it’s displayed ‘Play for Keats’, and the day his friend passed away and his [jersey] number,” Ash Fennell explains.

Fennell shared what he and his friend shared.

“Me and him, we were almost the same person. Both goalies, both shared the same ideas about hockey, both thought the same stuff was funny, we both went to the same school. We carpooled a lot, we hung out almost every day this summer. It’s almost like we had one brain. Yeah, we had a good relationship.”

Ash Fennell said Dawson and his buddy were new friends, but still very close.

“The thing about the two of them is they were both goaltenders and we know that goaltenders like they say, are an odd group, so yeah they stick together. But the two of them just became quite close. They spent many hours together taking shots. They were kind of an oddball group like sitting in the living room in both their goalie gear watching sports highlights.”

Fennell summed up his Team Alberta State Wars experience with something we all need to remember and hold with us as life flies by at light speed.

“Kind of just how you value the little things a little bit more. How you value your friends, and sometimes I’d look around the room and look at all my teammates and just be like, ‘Where are these guys going to be next year? When we’re all going to be on this team again? Are they all going to be there?’”

Asmith@cjournal.ca