Steward Raygor’s eyes welled with tears.
Raygor, with four family members at his side, had just watched his son Erik accept the 1998 Hockey Humanitarian Award, presented to college hockey’s finest citizen, and the emotions hit him like a tidal wave.
“This is, I believe, every father’s goal,” said Raygor, whose son recently finished his University of Wisconsin career. “I’m just so happy; it’s my dream come true that my son could receive this honor.
“I would rather help others than benefit myself, and he’s definitely picked up on that idea.”
“I guess he’s kind of living out my dream.”
And how. Erik Raygor’s roster of volunteer activities is enough to make any college-aged kid blush; when combined with the strenuous task of captaining an NCAA Division I hockey power for two consecutive seasons, the activities of the senior from Superior, Wis., appear much more impressive.
In no particular order, Raygor has volunteered his time to the Special Olympics, community DARE programs, YMCA and emergency response training programs. These activities helped distinguish him from four worthy finalist: runner-up Steve Noble of Notre Dame, Casey Hankinson of Minnesota, Tyler Harlton of Michigan State and Erin Marie Schmalz of Cornell.
“I have always enjoyed being around kids,” said Raygor, a rehabilitation psychology major who earned a 3.8 grade point average last semester. “When I was growing up my mom ran a day-care center, so I have always been around kids.
“I love being around kids. They’re the greatest thing in the world. They don’t look at me as if I’m a hockey player — to them I’m just a big person being like a kid.”
Indeed, Raygor is a big person with a big heart, a trait which runs in the family. Steward and Gloria raised Erik, brother Brian and sister Angela to be active members of their respective communities.
“Right now we’re sort of in awe of everything,” Gloria said. “All of our children have been achievers — that’s something they’ve done.”
Erik began making a name for himself early in Superior, both on and off the ice.
“I spent many years working and living in Duluth, and I used to hear about Erik in high school,” said Western Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner Bruce McLeod.
After a successful career in prep and junior hockey, Raygor moved on to Kent State. The stay was brief, however, as the program folded early in his collegiate career, facilitating a move to his home-state University of Wisconsin.
Raygor immediately made an impact for coach Jeff Sauer, posting double-digit goal marks his first season, a season which ended with an NCAA tournament loss to Michigan State. The two succeeding seasons were frustrating ones for both Wisconsin, which missed the tournament both years, and Raygor, who missed 1996-97 with a knee injury.
“Even though he was injured last year, he was always there for the guys, tried to give as much leadership as he could,” said Sauer, who noted that Raygor is his first-ever graduate student. “This year, he’s the real reason for the turnaround from a year ago.
“The 20 guys in the locker room know what he’s all about, and it carries over to them.”
Yet while Raygor has become a fan favorite for his scrappy, opportunistic play on the ice, fans in Superior, Madison, and points in between have come to appreciate his off-the-ice exploits. These efforts include:
• Emergency response training. “It’s my favorite thing to do,” Raygor said. “We do all kinds of SWAT team training, and I get to run around and be a bad guy. It’s real-life situations — bank robberies, hostage situations — and we’ve got to train these guys to protect our community…Hopefully when I have some time off I can do that again.”
• DARE, or drug abuse reduction education. “That’s a great program, and you see that involved in all the schools around,” he said.
• The YMCA. “I’ve been there the last four years, the whole time I’ve been at Wisconsin,” he said. “I volunteer out there every Monday night, help out in the summer, and I bring a few of the other hockey players out there.”
• Special Olympics. “I go there every summer to pass out awards with three other hockey players, and it’s a nice time,” Raygor said. “They’re as well-appreciated as we appreciate them.”
John Greenhalgh, a trustee of the Hockey Humanitarian Foundation, was shocked to find in person that Raygor’s resume was in no way padded. “I went out to Wisconsin and interviewed him after the St. Cloud game, and it was obvious after reading his bio that he had so much character,” Greenhalgh said. “I went out there doubting that he could do all that they had down, went in there saying, ‘How many times did you do the DARE program?’ thinking it was once for like an hour, and it was five times. Or thinking ‘How many times did you do this?’ and it was 50 times. It just blew me away.”
McLeod said he appreciates the attention garnered by student-athletes such as Raygor just as much as the attention garnered by North Dakota Hobey Baker finalist Curtis Murphy, who was highlighted on video hundreds of yards away before the presentation of college hockey’s most well-known award.
“There’s a lot more notoriety with the Hobey Baker to this point, but when you look back, in the long run Erik will be very, very proud of this,” McLeod said. “The on-ice thing is a little more short-term, an accomplishment in itself, but this is a long-term thing. It goes to the core of a person, not just [his] athletic abilities.”
Raygor’s core can perhaps be best exemplified by two sequences of events which have transpired over the past several years. The first is the story of Andrew Theil of Marshfield, Wis., a young boy with cancer who came to the UW program three years ago after his doctor talked to Sauer.
“At that time, it was six months to a year [to live], but Erik, along with some other players, just picked him up and kept him going,” Sauer said. “They’ve been up to see him in Marshfield, keep in touch with the family.
“It’s a heartwarming story when you have a bunch of kids who have everything and a kid like that who’s struggling to stay alive — it brings back how important other things are.”
“We’re all blessed to have him,” Raygor said. “When things are going bad, we lose two or three games, here comes Andrew into the locker room, and you forget all that.
“I think of him today.”
Raygor also undoubtedly was thinking of his late grandfather and great-grandmother, both of whom passed away in the latter stages of the season. In the midst of an NCAA tournament run, Raygor maintained close contact with his grief-stricken family.
“This has been a couple difficult months for us as a family,” Gloria Raygor said. “My father passed away the night Erik found out he was a finalist, and Erik had driven through the night earlier that week when he had had a heart attack. It was really difficult for him when he was in Colorado to find out my dad had passed away.
“Then, the weekend John came to present the trophy in Madison, my grandma had passed away…”
“We come from a close-knit family,” Steward Raygor said. “His mother’s side of the family is full of very close, caring people.”
Erik successfully brought that close-knit family feeling to Wisconsin this year; Sauer dubbed him the “glue that kept the team together.” Yet more than lockerroom cohesiveness, Raygor hoped to instill the spirit of volunteerism in his UW teammates.
Does it rub off?
“Oh, I know it does,” Raygor said. “When we go out to a school, they ask when they can go back again.”
“It makes us all feel good,” Sauer said.
Also at the presentation, the 1996-97 North Dakota team was honored for its efforts during the spring 1997 flooding in and around Grand Forks, N.D., home of the university.