GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - While Tyler Jaenicke was growing up in Spring Lake, Michigan, hockey was all he cared about.
"My dad made a rink in our backyard," said Jaenicke. "I played hockey all the time, and all I ever wanted to do was play it competitively."
Jaenicke enjoyed watching the Detroit Red Wings win several Stanley Cups, which fueled his interested in playing the sport and possibly making it to the NHL. What made him believe it was possible was seeing Justin Abdelkader graduate from Muskegon Mona Shores High School, play collegiately at Michigan State and get drafted by the Red Wings.
"Watching Justin Abdelkader come from a school near me and make it to the pros was a huge motivating factor for me," said Jaenicke.
Ironically, it was during a playoff game against Mona Shores where Jaenicke had a life-altering experience.
"It was spring of 2011 and Mona Shores was beating us badly," said Jaenicke, as he reflects on the game. "I remember finishing a shift, skating to the bench, and telling my coach that I couldn't catch my breath.
The game ended by mercy rule in the third period, with Mona Shores skating away with an 8-0 win.
A few days later, Jaenicke still had problems breathing, so he want to see a cardiologist about it.
"I was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy," said Jaenicke.
His heart muscle was dying.
"I remember my cardiologist telling me that if I had continued to play in that playoff game against Mona Shores, who knows if I'd be alive today," said Jaenicke.
His condition was caught in time, affording his doctors to begin several procedures to keep him alive.
"Soon after the diagnosis, I had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) put in," said Jaenicke.
Jaenicke would return to normal life for five years with the ICD implant, but he could no longer play contact sports, which included hockey. He still stayed close to the game by becoming a youth hockey coach.
In April of 2016, his heart started failing, and it required another surgery, which was more serious.
"I need a battery-operated pump called an LVAD (left ventricular assist device) implanted," said Jaenicke. "My cardiologist told me after the LVAD surgery that the procedure was a temporary fix, and I needed to be placed on the heart transplant list."
Jaenicke had the LVAD surgery on April 20, 2016. Two months to the day - June 20, 2016 - Tyler received a phone call from his transplant coordinator.
"She called me and said there was a heart available," said Jaenicke.
On June 22, less that 48 hours later, Jaenicke was wheeled into surgery at Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids for a his transplant.
"The surgery lasted 10 hours," said Jaenicke. "When I woke up, I could feel my heart beating inside me, and I could feel a pulse in my neck."
After his recovery from transplant surgery, Jaenicke began several months of grueling rehabilitation. The thought of being able to get back on the ice one day and play hockey was one of his primary motivating factors.
"I decided early on in my rehab that I wanted to push my new heart to the limits,' Jaenicke said. "My surgeon told me I could, so I got a pair of skates under me as soon as I was cleared."
Jaenicke worked hard at his game, and working his new heart, too. When he was cleared for full-contact, he admits he was a little apprehensive at first.
"I was a little worried," said Jaenicke. "There are still times in practice when you can see me flinch away from a hit, but I know that will go away as soon as a get a few games under my belt."
Jaenicke is currently enrolled as a graduate student at Davenport University in Grand Rapids. As a grad student, he was able to try out for and make the school's division II hockey team.
His first competitive hockey game in six years will be Friday, October 6 in Louisville, KY.
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"It's been an amazing and emotional journey," said Jaenicke. "I can't thank my Spectrum surgical team enough for saving my life and getting me back on the ice."
Davenport's first home hockey game is Friday, October 20. Jaenicke is expecting a huge representation from his family and friends to be in attendance. Several members from his Spectrum Health transplant team will also be on hand to watch him play.
He also is planning to contact the donor family to invite them to the game.
"It'll be extremely emotional for me if they show up, but I'd really like to meet them," said Jaenicke.
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