4 Friday, October 17, 2014 FACEOFF2014
Friday, October 17, 2014 FACEOFF2014 W
fnot on the iceafternearlyevery
elementary school day, JT Com-
pher found himself in one of his
three best friend's basements.
The four friends all lived in the
same neighborhood - a convenient
five-minute walk from the junior
high school - so playing pick up
sports was never a problem. If the
weather didn't hold up, they con-
gregated in front of the television
and played PlayStation 2 for endless
amounts of time.
That is, until, Compher lost a
"Sounds familiar," Compher said
with a smirk. "I guess I broke a few
controllersback in the day."
Those, though, were the mild
outbursts: If it were a had loss, he'd
proceed to fight whoever he played
- punches, tackling and all
"As a mom, you're thinking 'oh
my god, it's just a game, it's just a
game,' said Valerie Compher, JT's
mom. "But to them, nothing was just
a game. EspeciallyJT."
But this isn't out of the ordinary
for people who know Compher. They
understand he's a competitive per-
fectionist who, above all else, hates
From the outside looking in, peo-
ple who don't know Compher may
think his competitiveness is insane.
But for the Michigan hockey team
that has failed to make the NCAA
tournament two consecutive years,
Compher's compete level is wel-
comed. It's his type of attitude that
Michigan coach Red Berenson pines
for. It's his compete level that will
lead a resurgence effort to make the
Wolverines relevant again.
Bob Compher, JT's father,
coached all of his son's Little League
baseball teams - house league and
JT, one of the best players,
reached base more time than not.
He'd usually steal second and then
third, but thatdidn'tsatisfy the now-
Michigan hockey standout's inner
competitiveness. So Bob developed
a play unique to his son, one that
would satisfy his son's adrenaline.
On third base, Compher would
look over to his Dad as soon as he
touched the bag. Then, Bob would
perfectly time the catcher throw-
ing the ball back to the pitcher, and
in that short-time span, would nod
his head toward Compher, signaling
him to run. Nearly every time, Com-
pher safely stole home and scored on
a play that only he could do.
Despite the base running hero-
ics, though, both Bob and Compher
knew his talents were better suited
off the diamond.
Compher, an A-team travel base-
ball player, found more success play-
ing for the Northbrook Bluehawks, a
house league hockey team that was
no cut. Compher scored at will and
his team never had issues winning
titles, including the Northern Illi-
nois Hockey League Pee Wee cham-
But that was the biggest problem;
hockey was becoming too easy -
playing in house league hockey was
stunting his hockey growth.
"People kept coming to us and
telling us, 'He needs to leave,' " Val-
erie said. "It wasn't until Mark Brun-
ner, Director of Northbrook Hockey,
and his coach Evan Poulakidas came
to us and told us he needs to go that
it hit us."
So on he went to a higher level of
hockey, leaving no time for baseball
and that was bittersweet. Compher,
a family-oriented man, could no
longer spend countless afternoons
on the diamond with his dad. While
this could've been disappointing for
Bob, as well, he always knew this
Bob, admittedly, didn't closely fol-
low hockey so, in a sense, he learned
the sport with his son and JT loved
"I didn't have a dad telling me
what to do on the ice," Compher
said. "I never had to score five goals
to satisfy him or do certain things. It
was 'if you were working hard, good
Soon after Compher's jump
to Triple-A Team Illinois that it,
too, became simple. The forward
notched 39 points in 34 games - at
just 15-years old.
Compher quickly became a hot
commodity amongst the Major-
Junior hockey world despite his age.
The Waterloo Blackhawks, a United
States Hockey League team, noticed
Compher first and offered him a spot
on their team.
The decision seemed obvious for
Compher. Competing with kids six
years older seemed appealing con-
sidering his inherent need of a chal-
lenge. That is until Bob and Valerie
"It was gut wrenching when he
walked out of the locker room after
making the Waterloo Blackhawks
literally two months after he turned
15." Valerie said. "Especially him
saying 'I want to play here' and him
not thinking about the fact that at
the time it was because he was so
competitive and he would've been
the youngest one playing in the
"It didn't really click with him
that he'd be moving away. It wasn't
The most competitive player on the ice
BY JASON RUBINSTEIN, DAILY SPORTS WRITER
until I said something in the car,
'You know you'd be moving away?'
that he realized. And then I burst
That wouldn't be the last time
Compher, and his family, would
have to make a career-changing
In 2011, Bob, Valerie and JT were
on their way to Ann Arbor to visit
the United States Hockey's Nation-
al Team Development Program, a
highly competitive two-year pro-
gram that boasts the country's best
17- and-18-year old' hockey play-
ers. Players go through a rigourous
selection process and those selected
are required to move to Ann Arbor.
Compher met with program offi-
cials and it became clear a future
offer to join the U.S. NTDP loomed.
While in Ann Arbor, the Comphers'
figured they'd kill two birds with
one stone by also making a stop at
the University of Michigan for an
unofficial visit and chance for Com-
pher to introduce himself to the
Already beaming with excite-
ment from a positive meeting with
Team USA coaches and officials, the
Comphers were in for another unex-
pected surprise. In that first meet-
ing with Red Berenson, Michigan's
veteran coach, Berenson offered
Compher a full-ride scholarship - a
thought that never crosses the Com-
phers' minds prior to the trip.
"We were kind of shocked; we
thought it was an unofficial thing,"
Compher said. "It kind of took us
aback. We weren't expecting it and
that's when I thought I could move
on in the sport and someday make a
living out of it."
Added Valerie: "We were com-
pletely blindsided. We didn't know
it was coming at all. We just went to
visit while we were visiting the US
team. We all looked at each other
like we got hit with a hockey puck
in the head because we really didn't
Bob recalled jokingly asking
Berenson how he knew his son
would be a solid hockey player three
years down the road. But of course,
the offer stood. Better yet, soon
after their arrival back to North-
brook, Compher was offered a spot
to join the NTDP.
This time, though, Compher was
ready to leave home. He was men-
tally and physically prepared to take
on USA hockey.
Compher could've felt invincible.
He'd received a NTDP offer and
a Michigan scholarship in a short
period of time. In other words, he
had been accepted to college before
most kids his age even take the ACT.
Behind the scenes, though, Val-
erie and Bob had more news, but
not the kind they knew how to tell
their son. Bob had been diagnosed
with prostate cancer in May - three
months before Compher was sched-
uled to leave for Ann Arbor - but
they knew they couldn't tell JT,
knowing full well that he'd dwell in
the idea of staying home, ditching
the U.S. program.
"We didn't tell the kids until we
had a good game plan which was
August," Valerie said. "We really
waited until right before he left
because we didn't want him to reso-
nate in the fact that he was going to
think he was going to stay home."
So a week before Compher left,
Bob and Valerie sat him and his two
sisters, Morgan, 18, and Jesse, 14, at
kitchen table to break the news.
"My parents sat us down and my
Dad said, 'In a couple weeks, I'm
going into surgery, I've been diag-
nosed with cancer. Luckily they've
caught it early,'" Compher recalled
solemnly. "But once you hear "can-
cer," it's cancer."
Not only did this news linger in
the back of mind, but Bob's ensuing
surgery in two weeks meant Com-
pher would be away in Ann Arbor
for his first week with the national
program. The question wouldn't
leave his mind: should I stay or
should I go?
Bob and Valerie helped make
the decision easier, telling Com-
pher only one option existed: You're
goingto Ann Arbor. Still, Compher's
kept telling himself he needed to
help his dad: He needed to inject
his competitiveness into his dad.
So the first words out of his mouth
after Bob broke the news were that
See COMPHER, Page 68