In recruiting Matt Laatsch, Denver coach George Gwozdecky had heard about the forward-turned-defenseman’s long arms and great reaching capacity.
But never in that process could he have imagined he would ever see those arms on the 6-foot-3 frame used like he saw a few years later.
Laatsch, struggling to recover from an infection that brought his hockey career to a halt and put his life at risk, was walking down a hallway of the hospital where he was recovering.
It’s a sight that seems etched in Gwozdecky’s memory.
“He was just shuffling along like a 95-year-old man,” the Denver coach said. “Tall, thin, gaunt, face just really drawn, extremely pale. He’s just shuffling along, he’s pushing his IV pole in the hallway, and he’s got his big long arm hanging down.
“And my daughter, who at the time is 9 years old, maybe 8, she’s hanging onto his hand and they’re walking together, and she is kind of helping him along — that’s what it looks like. He’s in such bad shape.”
Flash forward a few years to now. There’s Laatsch, back on the ice, with one extra letter on the front of his jersey. He’s the Pioneers’ captain and a source of inspiration.
“Health problems or not, to be named captain of any team, yet alone the defending national champion, is quite an honor,” Laatsch said. “It shows you that the coaches and your teammates trust you and have that respect for you to give you that honor. With what I’ve been through, it’s all that much more. It’s kind of showing what I’ve been through and persevered through.”
Between those two periods of time, a bond formed that’s more than just the average player-coach relationship. Through illness and recovery, Laatsch and Gwozdecky grew closer than ever.
It was Jan. 31, 2003. Denver hosted Wisconsin at Magness Arena. On the first shift, Laatsch went back into his zone to chase a puck. When he pivoted, he got his skate caught in a rut in the ice.
The strained knee that resulted put him out for the rest of the weekend, and perhaps longer.
But while Laatsch was in the training room a few days later, he was in great pain, Gwozdecky remembers. Laatsch had adversely reacted to the anti-inflammatory used for his knee, and suddenly he was having emergency surgery to repair a duodenal ulcer.
But his body developed infections, and soon after there were more operations — to save Laatsch’s life.
He pulled through, but the trauma on his body caused him to lose at least 50 pounds and become frail. After all the medical attention, he was finally ready to be released from the hospital.
With all the attention he was going to need, however, he needed to stay with someone in Denver who would be able to care for him around the clock.
So for six days, the Gwozdecky family added one more.
George Gwozdecky and his wife Bonnie took care of Laatsch, hooking him up to three different IVs every six hours.
“My wife, bless her soul, said, ‘George, you’ve got to take care of the team. I’ll take care of Matt,’ ” Gwozdecky said. “Here she’s trying to run the house, take care of our daughter, pick her up from school and do all the things, and at the same time take care of someone who’s trying to recover from such a horrible, horrible infection. After six days, she’s just shot. Fortunately, at that point, Matt’s mother is able to fly out from Minneapolis and take over. But it was really difficult.”
It was hard on the rest of the team, too.
“We didn’t really know how serious it was, and then a bunch of us went and visited him and saw a guy that’s usually 210 pounds on a pretty big frame down to 160 pounds, skinny as ever,” fellow senior Kevin Ulanski said.
With Laatsch in their house, the bonds started to form that much stronger for the Gwozdeckys.
“I’m really glad I had an opportunity and my wife had an opportunity to be there for him, to give him the little assistance we could because he was one of the family,” George Gwozdecky said. “I’m not talking about one of the Gwozdecky family, I’m talking about one of the Pioneer family. We would have done the same thing for any one of the other 27 or 28 guys.
“But when you go through an experience like that, you’re bound to become tied in an emotional way. I got to know his parents very well, I got to know him very well, whether it was in the hospital or whether it was at our house. I remember in the first couple of days he’s staying at our house, he knows me as the coach. So he’s sitting there in our living room or in our kitchen when I come home from the office at 7 o’clock at night or whatever, and I can see it in his eyes: ‘I wonder what he’s like outside of the work environment.’ ”
Gwozdecky’s daughter, Adrienne, had a big brother for a few days.
“It was great for her,” Gwozdecky said. “He was terrific with her, and, even though he was only with us for five or six days, she looks upon him much differently than she looks upon any of the other guys on the team. For a certain amount of time, he shared our home and was a big brother to her.
“He’s a special part of our family and I’m really glad not only that he’s healthy but he’s been able to restart his career.”
Laatsch has always viewed Gwozdecky as a coach who’ll do anything for his players. This took it to another level.
“Going through that with him, I got to learn a little more about him away from the ice,” Laatsch said. “In that situation, there are things he needed to know. I needed to open up a little more to him; he needed to open up a little bit more to me.
“Once that was over, I think it went back to a relationship as usual, but for him to do that, for him to open up his door to me when I was at my worst, I’ll remember that and be indebted to him for a long time, for the rest of my life, probably.”
One of the biggest reasons Laatsch didn’t wear a letter on his jersey last season, Gwozdecky said, is that the Pioneers coaches just weren’t sure he’d be able to make it through the entire season.
He missed only three games and was a member of the West Regional all-tournament team. (As an aside, he was in the penalty box for most of the final two minutes of the title game against Maine, when the Black Bears had a 6-on-3 advantage. He got out with nine seconds remaining, just about the time the Pioneers were able to start celebrating.)
But coming back from the injury isn’t the only reason he’s the captain this season. The pride he holds in the program is another. His dedication is another.
“He always had those kind of qualities,” Gwozdecky said. “When he was able to get back to playing shape and really force his way into the lineup, I don’t think there was really a whole lot of doubt as to at least who one of our top leaders was going to be.”
There were points along the line where Laatsch was told it probably would be a long time before he would be able to play hockey again. It takes a certain resolve to hear that news yet still battle back.
For Laatsch, it goes back to the way he was raised.
“My parents instilled in me to see things through, never give up on things,” he said.
He also thought back to a friend, former Wisconsin defenseman Dan Boeser, and his battle with follicular B-cell lymphoma before his junior season.
“For most athletes at this high level, it’s just a mind-set,” Laatsch said. “No is not an answer. There’s always another level you can go to in the sport. It’s just that will and that drive. They say that? All right, I’m going to prove them wrong.”
Gwozdecky likes to think back to when Laatsch started with the Pioneers, and how things have evolved.
“Four years later, he’s gone through all those challenges with his health issues,” Gwozdecky said. “He’s our captain, he’s strong, he’s powerful, he plays the position extremely well. Intelligent. He wears the jersey with great pride. Those are the kind of success stories that I love people to be able to read about, whether it’s our team or whoever. That’s what it’s all about, especially in college athletics.”