Through adversity, Ice Hawks players grow stronger
By Ben Pherson
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
When Robby Dahl and Danny Grady joined the Rochester Ice Hawks three years ago, they didn’t know each other.
Now, they’re the best of friends.
"Right away, we hit it off and started hanging out," Dahl said.
After a year of living with separate host families, Dahl and Grady moved in with the same family — Norm and Karen Reopelle — last season and have been there ever since.
In addition to having personalities that mesh, their friendship has grown stronger through a set of tragedies.
When Dahl was a senior in high school, his father passed away due to heart trouble. So leaving home that next summer to join the Ice Hawks wasn’t easy. But when he arrived in Rochester, he found his second family.
Early on, Dahl, a defenseman, struggled with the mental and physical requirements of junior hockey. He found himself out of the lineup many nights. Things got worse when the anniversary of his father’s death came in February.
"The first half of the year, he really struggled to find maturity," Ice Hawks coach Nick Fatis said. "And then when (the anniversary of his father’s death) rolled around, things started to get worse. But who wouldn’t that affect? Shortly after, Robby finally started to open up to his teammates. And he started to bounce back. He finished the year strong, on a real high note."
After an offseason of improvement, Dahl came back for his second season with the Ice Hawks and picked up right where he left off.
Then tragedy struck again.
About a month into the season, Dahl’s older brother, Rusty, died suddenly.
"I remember sitting there, and we had just got done with dinner when I found out," Dahl said. "I don’t know what I would have done if (Grady) wasn’t there. I’m just really glad he was there."
Grady spent the next few weeks doing everything he could to support his best friend.
"When you grow a bond like me and Robby have and something like that happens, it hits hard," Grady said. "It was a tough time. But everyone on the team did everything they could to help Robby through it."
With his mind in other places, Dahl’s hockey game dropped off significantly. But he gained the respect of teammates and coaches by rejoining the team less than a week after his brother’s death.
"Every male role model in his life had just passed away, and it really threw Robby," Fatis said. "But as he came back into balance, things just continued to get better and better. I’m so proud of him for battling through that. I think a lot of kids would have packed up and said ‘I’m not playing hockey any more.’ But Robby’s a resilient kid."
Now Dahl and Grady are working through one more hardship together — the end of their junior hockey careers.
Dahl and Grady both age out after this season, and the fact that this weekend, when the Ice Hawks compete at the Junior A, Tier III national tournament in Marlborough, Mass., will be their last together as junior hockey players started sinking in early this week.
"Honestly, I couldn’t sleep thinking about it," Grady said. "I don’t want to leave. I’ve made Rochester my home for three years. It’s been the best time of my life, and I don’t want it to end."
Dahl and Grady both are likely to play college hockey next season. Dahl is leaning toward attending Division III Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wis., while Grady is undecided.
Both have improved by leaps and bounds since joining the Ice Hawks. Dahl scored 59 points (21 goals, 38 assists) this season and was named to the All-Minnesota Junior Hockey League first team, while Grady, a forward, scored 61 points (27 goals, 34 assists) and received honorable mention for the All-MnJHL team.
While they’ve upgraded their hockey skills, Fatis said he’s most impressed by how much Grady and Dahl have grown as young men.
"Robby is an amazing person. He’s so well adjusted for someone who’s had so much happen to him in his life," Fatis said. "And Danny, let’s just put it this way — my son wants to be Danny Grady. Danny’s great with kids, and I hope he goes into a profession where he can work with children. I’m just really proud of those two. They’re what the Ice Hawks are all about."