By Jimmy Gilligan
DULUTH, Minn. –
After playing a key role in the University of Nebraska Omaha making a run to its first NCAA Frozen Four in program history in 2014, Avery Peterson shocked his teammates by leaving Omaha midway through his sophomore year to return home to Grand Rapids, Minn.
He wanted to be closer to his older brother Evan, who is battling a rare, terminal genetic brain disease called Metachromatic Leukodystrophy, or MLD. It progressively deteriorates intellectual and motor skills, and affects about one in 40,000 people.
Wanting to play in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) and for a strong program, Peterson officially committed to Omaha in August of 2013, five months after his brother’s diagnosis. At that point, he was largely out of the loop.
“I really didn’t know. My parents kind of kept it away from us kids,” Peterson said. “I don’t think they wanted it to affect us too much, but I knew there was stuff going on.”
After finishing up his senior season at Grand Rapids High School where he received Minnesota high school hockey’s highest honor, Peterson was a key offensive producer as a freshman at Omaha. He went on to record 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) for the Mavericks, but his family — and brother — were in the back of his mind from the get-go.
“It was tough being so far away from my brother,” Peterson admits.
“We had a series in Mankato to start my freshman year and my parents left after the first game. On Saturday (Evan) was just kind of hanging out in the hotel by himself, and it just sort of hit me that he doesn’t have anybody. I know it’s a lot of stress on my parents, ‘cause in a small town like Grand Rapids, there really isn’t much to do there.”
The brothers were close growing up, playing on the same travel hockey team (even though Avery was two years younger), and skating together on their backyard rink. Peterson looked up to his brother, noting that he was the best player on the team — above himself and current University of Minnesota forward Jake Bischoff.
Their closeness, coupled with Evan’s terminal illness, made the 570-mile distance from Grand Rapids to Omaha feel like light years away.
“He really got in a tough situation his sophomore year, but while he was here he was well-liked by his teammates and coaches and did a great job in school,” said Omaha head coach Dean Blais. “It was totally his decision, encouraged by me. We’re in the business to win, but we’re also in the business to develop character.”
After several weeks, the 2014 Minnesota Wild sixth-round draft pick chose to finish up his collegiate career at UMD — a place that felt like home given all the familiar faces. While he could have kept up to game speed by playing somewhere in the USHL last year (while sitting out a year of collegiate action per NCAA transfer rules), he elected to remain close to home and train in Duluth.
“When I came here for my visit, you could just tell it was the place to be. There were so many familiar faces that it was a warm, welcoming feeling there,” Peterson said.
That familiarity stems from Peterson growing up playing alongside and against a number of current teammates including Dominic Toninato, Neal Pionk, Adam Johnson, Karson Kuhlman, Jared Thomas and his former high school teammate, Hunter Shepard. Furthermore, Peterson played 27 games under current Bulldog assistant coach Brett Larson, when he was the bench boss for Sioux City of the USHL.
But the real benefit of playing for UMD is that Duluth is just a 90-mile drive down Highway 2 from Grand Rapids, which allows him to go home on off weekends. When the Bulldogs are playing in Duluth, his parents and brother make the trip east. Even though Peterson just saw his first action as a Bulldog at AMSOIL Arena last weekend (Jan. 6-7), his family has yet to miss a home game this season.
Being so close, Evan is able to spend a lot of time at Avery’s house in Duluth, hanging out with his Bulldog teammates, playing video games and living the college life — something the 22-year-old wouldn’t have a chance to do otherwise.
“We played a lot of ‘Chel (NHL 17) over Christmas break, probably too much,” Peterson quips to a passing teammate. “It’s cool to be able to hang out with him in that atmosphere and the guys accept him so well. It’s something that I’m pretty grateful for.”
While his brother and family are certainly appreciative of Avery living nearby, the feeling goes both ways. Because in Avery’s life, his family is far more important than hockey.
After undergoing a bone marrow transplant (of which his sister was the donor) in 2013, Evan appears to be handling his ailment well, although the nature of the disease leaves plenty of uncertainties. Even so, he continues to inspire those around him.
“It’s such a weird disease that you never really know, when people are diagnosed some people last a year, some people last five,” Peterson said. “He’s doing pretty well it seems like, in other areas it seems like he’s gotten worse. But he lives life, and he’s a good role model because he lives it to the fullest every day.”
Peterson has only played three games for UMD, having sit out a full year per NCAA transfer rules, but so far his impact has been clear. Head coach Scott Sandelin credited him with providing an extra spark in his debut with the Bulldogs, a 2-1 win over Bemidji State on Dec. 17 — UMD’s first win over their intrastate rivals in four years. In his second game, Peterson scored his first UMD goal, a tally which proved to be crucial in a 2-2 tie with Colorado College Friday night (Jan. 6).
On a team with plenty of depth, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound forward is able to contribute wherever the third-ranked Bulldogs need him.
“I think the intangible things he can bring, he can play center, he can play wing, big strong kid that can shoot the puck,” said Sandelin. “Just having him there, and him bringing that energy and excitement to play was a big lift for our team.”
Toninato, who played for Grand Rapids’ arch-rival Duluth East in high school, agreed with Sandelin’s sentiment, noting Peterson’s large presence on the ice and in a leadership role.
“He’s a big strong body, he uses that body well to protect the puck and he goes to the dirty areas,” Toninato said. “He’s really good on draws, he’s a smart hockey player and he can shoot the puck, so he basically brings it all.
“He’s also a huge locker room guy, and he adds depth to this team on and off the ice. We’re lucky to have him.”
Despite no longer being teammates, Peterson said that he still has a lot of friends in Omaha, and several of them even made the trip to Duluth to hang out this past summer.
While the Mavericks certainly won’t be lodging at Peterson’s house when they travel to Duluth for a series in early February, there’ll still be warm feelings and well-wishes for a former teammate.
“When you play hockey with the guys, you end up being such good friends, so I keep in touch with them,” Peterson said.
Some would even call that bond between teammates brotherhood. But for Avery, that’s a distinction reserved only for Evan.