11

A Love of Hockey Helps Healing

Peyton Kalbfleisch was born March 7th, 2004. He is the second of five children and only son to Chris and Tracey. Paige (16) is the oldest, Peyton, then Kruise (13), Kadence (10) and Kourtney (8).

He loves his family and he loves hockey.

Peyton played mini sticks with his father when he was two. He was very active and always moving, and like most kids, sometimes arguing with his four siblings. In October of 2008, he was registered in Initiation One to play hockey. His first practice was on October 17th.

He didn’t make it.

Two days prior to his first skate Peyton was diagnosed with an astrocytoma on his cerebellum. “They found a baseball-sized tumor on his brain stem, at the most delicate part of the brain; the network,” explained his father Chris.

A few weeks earlier Peyton threw up in the morning, but then he was fine for the rest of the day. This happened for a few days and Tracey knew something wasn’t right. She took him to the doctor, but the only diagnosis was, “Maybe he is stressed from preschool.” She wasn’t impressed.

Following advice from a friend, she took him to see her eye doctor. The optometrist dilated Peyton’s eyes and noticed there was pressure on the eye ball. He ordered an MRI, and four days later Peyton had brain surgery.

He endured a 12-hour life threatening surgery. He was four and a half years old.

Two days after surgery the neurosurgeons informed Chris and Tracey that Peyton was now functioning at a level equivalent to a six month old baby.

He couldn’t walk.
He couldn’t talk.
His left side was paralyzed.

He spent over 40 days in the Stollery Children’s Hospital, before being relocated as an out-patient at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital for seven months of rehab.

Peyton worked hard and a few months into his rehabilitation he regained 75% movement on his left side, but his face was still paralyzed. He required two major surgeries over the next 18 months as doctors transplanted nerves and muscles out of his leg into his face so Peyton would have a more symmetrical smile. It worked and Peyton was very happy when he looked in the mirror.

After his seven month rehab Peyton managed to play hockey in 2009. He couldn’t balance so the league let him crawl around the ice. He loved being part of the team. Then they allowed Chris to go on the ice with him. “I was pretty much standing behind him, holding him up around the rink, but he was still out there and he loved it,” said Chris.

One father told me, “I marveled at Chris’ patience and love for his son. It was amazing to see how calm and supportive he was, and how hard Peyton would try.”

By the end of that season he was skating on his own. He played defence for one season, but his balance issues combined with the sutures on his eyes – he can only see up and down, not peripherally – made it hard for him to pivot or turn without falling. So he became a goalie. His favourite goalie is Devan Dubnyk.

He played goalie despite having no peripheral vision.

“He was determined to do everything he could,” said Tracey. “Seeing how much fight he had in him made me proud, but there are many hard days. As a parent it is tough to see kids make fun of him, or not include him,” said Tracey as her voice trailed off.

Because Peyton had a brain tumour so young regular visits to the hospital became his routine. Going to school, playing hockey, playing with his four sisters and going for regular brain scans were Petyon’s normal routine.

He kept playing hockey through Novice and Atom. He’d endured major brain trauma so he was a bit behind in some facets of his life, but it didn’t slow him down.

In November 2015, in his first year of Peewee hockey they discovered a second tumour.

The family was devastated.

Peyton finished that season, then played his second season of Pee Wee. He didn’t play Bantam because he was preparing for his second brain operation. He finally had surgery in February, 2018.

“The second tumour was a lot smaller, but it still caused Peyton some issues post-surgery. This time on his right side and his speech is slurred,” explained Chris.

Peyton lost some mobility in his right hand (dominant one). He returned to the Glenrose for intense rehab to regain mobility.

Peyton tried to remain upbeat. His occupational therapist learned of his passion for hockey so together they came up with a plan to combine hockey and rehab.

Now he builds chairs out of used hockey sticks. Sadly he has yet to regain the self-esteem to play hockey again, but building the chairs helps him regain mobility in his right hand.

Friends and acquaintances have offered to purchase his chairs, and Peyton donates some of the money to the Glenrose. What a special young man.

Lack of mobility in his dominant hand and motor skills of an eight-year-old makes building the chairs a huge challenge. Peyton is now 14 and already 6’2”. From a distance you can’t tell he’s had two major brain operations and various other surgeries.

But he knows he is different and some days are very hard.

In his young life he has been sedated 44 times, had eleven surgeries, hundreds of appointments and MRIs and he has suffered severe brain damage causing depression, mental illness and even thoughts of suicide.

But he fights.

“He gives us his best daily and that is the most we can ask of him,” said Chris.

Peyton hasn’t played hockey since his second surgery. He doesn’t want to. He was in a dark place, but then a young man came up with an idea that changed Peyton’s life.

A HELPING HAND…

(Peyton and Logan)

Logan Cyca is 16 years old. He plays centre for the Sherwood Park Kings Midget AA Oilers. He shares Peyton’s passion for hockey and when he heard how down and depressed Peyton was he took action.

Cyca dated Paige, Peyton’s sister, for a short time, but with so much going on with Paige’s siblings –Kadence has a spot on her brain, although the doctors say it is nothing major at this point — they decided to just be friends instead.

Peyton wanted to be part of a team and do something with his High School football team, unfortunately the head coach told Peyton there was nothing he could do. This coach wasn’t ready to see the bigger picture, but others knew better.  Logan found out Peyton was upset about not being team and took action.

Cyca asked Kings head coach, Tyler Steele, if there was something, anything Peyton could do to become a part of their team. They made Peyton a honourary Captain.

Cyca explained his intentions.

“I knew he was supposed to be part of another team but for some reason this year it didn’t happen for him,” said Cyca. “I have always thought of Peyton as my third brother and I wanted him to be part of something.  When I knew I had a good chance to make the team I asked Coach Steele if he could be part of our team somehow. Turns out Coach Steele knew Peyton from volunteer work at Camp Everest, a camp for kids with brain injuries and other challenges. Everything happened pretty fast and now he’s just one of the guys,” explained Cyca.

Tracey was emotional just talking about what Cyca’s unselfish act means to Peyton.

“He is such a great young man. He is always looking out for others,” said Tracey. “When Logan found out Peyton was going to be part of the team he called me. I started crying. At my insistence, Logan came to the house and asked Peyton, “do you wanna be our Honourory Captain.’

“Peyton looked at me with a huge smile, ‘Can I mom, can I.’ It was beautiful. He was so happy and being a part of the Kings has really lifted his spirits,” Tracey said.

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION…

(Peyton and Tyler at Camp Everest)

Tyler Steele is 36. He is a firefighter, the head coach of the Sherwood Park Kings Midget AA Oilers and happily married to Effie.

Steele started coaching with the Kings organization in 2004 when he was 22 years young. He was an assistant coach in Bantam AA. He loved the game and enjoyed teaching and helping kids. He’d known Effie since he played bantam hockey. She was a few years older, but he’d always had a crush on her. They started dating in their early twenties and were married on August 19th, 2006.

On December 16th, 2007 they had a baby girl. Taeya was born prematurely at 24 weeks old. They held her. They fed her, but she only lived three days. Effie and Tyler were devastated.

Luckily they got pregnant again, this time with twins. Effie gave birth prematurely at 20 weeks on July 9th, 2008. The twins, Aleksa and Kylah, only lived one day. The pain was crushing.

“Effie was diagnosed with an incompetent cervix,” explained Steele. “You need to have two failures (premature births) before they can accurately diagnosis it.”

The doctor informed them they should try for another baby. With Effie’s diagnosis, once she got pregnant the doctor would put a stitch in her cervix and she could carry the baby full term.

They got pregnant. But on February 26th, 2009 at only 24 weeks old their strong baby boy, Kael, ripped through the stitch. He lived one day.

Effie and Tyler lost four babies within 18 months.

Two weeks after Kael passed Effie had major clotting and she was bleeding out. They rushed her to the hospital and the doctors gave her three litres of blood. Blood was spilling out of her and onto the floor. If they had delayed any longer in getting the blood she would have died.

She lived and Tyler cried in the hospital. They wanted children, but as he sat mourning the loss of four babies, and almost losing his soulmate, he came to the conclusion being a father just wasn’t going to happen.

Tyler stopped coaching and quit his job as a project manager for a commercial construction company. He needed to be doing something more satisfying. Within a few months he missed the atmosphere of a team dressing room. In 2010 he joined the Edmonton Fire Rescue Service and has worked there ever since.

Steele and Effie has always loved kids, but after the tragedy of losing four babies the risk of trying for another one was too much. Or so they thought.

GIVE OTHERS A CHANCE

Six months after burying Kael the Steele’s were having dinner with one of Tyler’s childhood friends, Jordan, and his wife Cindy. Cindy asked if they’d ever considered surrogacy. They hadn’t, but after many long and serious conversations they agreed that Cindy would carry their baby. It was Effie’s eggs and Tyler’s sperm. It was their DNA, and Cindy would protect and grow their baby in her womb.

On August 20th, 2010 Zaeya was born. She turned eight earlier this year. She is happy, healthy and has her mother’s calm personality. The dream of being parents became reality for the Steele’s. “We owe so much to Cindy for making such a selfless offer,” said Tyler.

A few years later Effie was attending a mother’s group. She enjoyed meeting other moms and hearing their stories. Cheryl was in the group. She noticed how much Effie loved being a mom and heard about her story.

She offered to be a surrogate. Tyler and Effie were floored. Cindy and Jordan were long-time friends, but for Cheryl, a virtual stranger, to make such an offer shocked them. “At first I was leery. It is such a huge sacrifice and we didn’t know Cheryl and her husband Jeff very well. I was skeptical. I wondered, what they wanted,” said Tyler.

“It turns out they are just great people. My concerns were all wrong,” he said.

Cheryl carried their baby for nine months and on November 21st, 2015 Nevaeya was born. She is very energetic like her father.

The Steele’s now had two beautiful daughters. Tyler couldn’t believe his luck, and despite experiencing massive heartache, he was always willing to help others.

FIRST MEETING…

He first attended Camp Everest in 2011. Camp Everest is for kids aged 7-17 who have an injury, surgery or a condition that effects their brain or spinal cord.

Tyler’s nephew Jacob, has both Cerebral Palsy and Epilepsy, he is in a wheelchair. He also has a G Tube. Tyler took him to Camp Everest and Jacob’s mother, Soula, Tyler’s sister-in-law, welcomed the rest. He appreciated the time spent with Jacob. They had a joyful weekend at Camp Everest and that is where they met Peyton.

“Peyton and I had an immediate connection,” said Tyler. “Peyton is quite shy and reserved, but I sensed he had a great spirit. He has been through a lot, and I could relate, but he was still battling,” said Steele.

“Peyton came home from camp and all he talked about was Tyler,” beamed Tracey. “Every year since he only wants to go if Tyler is there.”

After years of battling his illness, Jacob passed away in May 2015.It was tough on Tyler, but he still attends Camp Everest. It reminds him of Jacob, and he gets a lot of enjoyment from interacting with Peyton and other kids.

Becoming a father re-invigorated Steele and he got back into coaching in 2016 as an assistant with the Kings. After a successful season he was given the opportunity to be the head coach and is now in his second season on the bench.

FULL CIRCLE…

(L to R..Back row: Tracey, Paige, Chris. Kruise in middle, front row Peyton, Kourtney, Kadence)

When Cyca approached head coach Steele about having Peyton join their team it was an easy decision.

“We always preach to our players the only thing you control in the face of adversity is work ethic and attitude. Peyton is the perfect example of both. Peyton attends the game, helps in the room filling bottles, sits with the boys on the bus and has become an important part of our team,” said Steele.

And the entire team has embraced their new teammate.

“Peyton is a completely different kid now,” said his father Chris. “He is much happier. Being a part of the team has been amazing for him. He does different jobs helping the team and guys off the team even swing by his school (Bev Facey) and take him for lunch. I’m not sure they realize what a difference they have made in Peyton’s life,” said Chris.

The day after Peyton showed up to his first practice one of Steele’s player texted him and asked for Peyton’s contact info. “Nolan reached out to him and took him for lunch. He went out of his way to make Peyton feel welcome. It makes you very proud,” said Steele.

Did young Cyca know the impact he and his teammates have made?

“No,” said Logan. “I guess when you are always part of a team you don’t realize how much it can change someone’s life when get that same chance. I think it’s been even better for Peyton. When Peyton walked in to the dressing room the boys welcomed him like he’d been around since tryouts. We love being around him.”

Being a teenager can be very difficult. It is an awkward and sometimes confusing time in our lives, but most of us just want to feel part of something. Add a brain injury and it is somewhat more than a challenge.

“We watched the movie Radio earlier this year and afterward Peyton said, ‘That boy got a chance and I didn’t.’ It breaks your heart, but what Logan and Tyler and all the boys on the Kings have done for him is amazing. It has really lifted his spirits.”

Last week Logan arrived at Peyton’s house with a track suit, a hoodie and a black coaching coat. He wears it to every game and it is the exact same as the all the coaches. He loves wearing his track suit to school.

“I can tell people I’m part of the Kings team,” Peyton shouted gleefully to his mom.

But Peyton and his family still have major challenges.

“Peyton is learning at a grade five level right now,” said Tracey. “This past year has been the hardest year in the past decade. He is frustrated. He had adjusted well to having 25% paralysis on his left side, but after the second surgery limited his mobility in his right hand it has been tougher. Right now he can’t even write his name. That really bothers him.

“He doesn’t have to be the popular kid, but it would be nice for him to have one solid friend. It is hard to see kids mock him when they see him walk. He does his best,” said Tracey.

She acknowledges it is also difficult for their children. “It is hard for all our kids sometimes, because he requires a lot of our time,” she said.

Paige, Peyton’s big sister has a lot on her shoulders. She is the only one who can calm him down. He listens to her. He loves Paige. He listens and he confides in her. One time he told her, “I think I’m done. I can’t live like this anymore.” She calmly listened, “That’s not an option Peyton.”

Tracey marvels at how patient, tender and watchful Paige is with her brother. But she also wants her to be a regular 16-year-old and have fun. It is a difficult balance for the entire Kalbfleisch family, but they are up for the challenge.

Peyton’s position on the Kings team has helped a lot. He goes on the team bus for day trips, and being around the boys has definitely boosted his confidence.

“He talks to the guys much more now,” said Logan. “He knows a few guys from his school and other teammates will drive across town to pick him up for lunch on school days. I think we have all learned that giving back to someone who isn’t as privileged as we are to be able to play a game, or just be to be part of team, is important. I’m happy we are able to be part of his team.

“I’m glad he is on our team and I hope in the future other associations will do the same for other kids so they can experience what Peyton has and what we have,” said Logan.

WRAP UP….

It’s all about that six degrees. Chris Kalbfleish played on my team at the Alzheimer’s Faceoff tournament four years ago. Last month he sent an email asking if I could help them find some hockey sticks so Peyton could build his chairs.

Building the chairs (pictured above) gives Peyton something to focus on and his occupational therapist is hopeful it will help him regain more mobility in his right hand.

This is where you come in. If you want to help this courageous boy you can drop off your old hockey sticks at the following four Edmonton area locations. Please cut off the old blade and donate the shaft.

The Sports Closet in Sherwood Park Mall.

The brand new Sports Closet in St.Albert Centre.

Tier One Energy at 4253 97 Street, Edmonton

TSN 1260 located at 18520 Stony Plain Road

Thank you in advance.

I’d also like to thank Chris, Tracey, Tyler, Effie, Logan and the entire Sherwood Park Kings Midget AA Oilers for sharing their story. We need more of your kind of love and support for others. Thank you.