Friday night was circled on the calendar for a long time for Capital City coach Travis Van Tigham. As he was going over line-ups in his head, he had something else in the back of his mind: Who was going to start in net for the team’s first ever senior night?
He could have gone with a no-brainer option of starting senior Ryan Gimore who has more than earned his starting role with the Capitals. Gilmore has played in 17 games, won 14 of them, and has three shutouts on the year with a save percentage of 93-percent.
But that wasn’t the name he was thinking of.
He had another senior in mind. A senior he had known for a while in his time with DeWitt/ St. Johns in Jacob Piros.
“We started to know each other a couple of years back. I came into help DeWitt because they were struggling a bit. They had only won one game a few years ago. I started working on the periphery of the team,” Van Tigham recalled.
“(Piros) was our only goaltender last season. As a coach, that’s a fragile thing to navigate though. He was making some young kid mistakes. But when he’s your only guy, you have to give him a pep talk and other times you have to give him tough love, which made us closer.”
But there was something else that made them become closer as well.
After the 2017-18 season, Piros was feeling a little more tired than normal. He was starting to feel exhausted.
“I was starting to feel more tired than normal, and I noticed something abnormal earlier in the month when I looked in the mirror,” he recalled. “There was a weird lump that was there before, and it didn’t go away.”
Piros had a brush with cancer before. His uncle a few years earlier, noticed a similar lump. The family later found out that it was too late, and nothing could be done to fight the lymphoma. It had already taken hold of Jake’s uncle, and wouldn’t let go.
Fearing a similar fate, he told his mother immediately of what he found, and went to get the lump checked out. At the Helen DeVos Hospital in Grand Rapids, Doctors confirmed the worst fears in late April, but luckily they believed they caught it early enough that Jake would have a fighting chance.
While Piros was waging a fight, so was Van Tigham, but it was of a different nature.
“We made a conscious decision in the mid-Michigan area to consolidate from six hockey teams down to four. And in doing so, DeWitt, St. Johns, Lansing Catholic and Mason ended up forming a team that became Cap City,” Van Tigham said.
“We had an exception made for Jacob in Ionia. He played at DeWitt/ St. Johns. And with all the mergers, I was dead set that he was going to have somewhere to play, regardless of his unique circumstance. He was diagnosed with cancer at the end of last year. He played for me at DeWitt/ St. Johns, and I wasn’t going to do anything unless he was granted an exception. We did everything we could, and petitioned the MHSAA and they granted it.
“We didn’t know if he would even play. We hoped he’d come out of the better end of his situation, and we weren’t going to leave him high and dry.”
To Piros cancer wasn’t the worst part. It was the idea that he’d be separated from a game that he loved. He was set-up to participate in spring hockey, and even had plans to attend development camps with the Austin Bruins, a NAHL junior team.
All of that was put on hold. But with a new team forming, he feared that high school hockey would be put on hold before his senior season even began. Then April turned into May, and May in June. Piros started chemotherapy and began to take the upper hand.
“When he was diagnosed, we became pretty close. I’d come to visit him in the hospital and we’d spend a lot of time on the phone just talking through things. The relationship just naturally developed overtime. He’s just a great kid, he really is,” Van Tigham recalled.
“He’s just super passionate about hockey. So we just talked a lot of hockey during our visits in the hospital. We’d watch the playoffs, and sometimes we wouldn’t say a whole lot and just be in each other’s company.
“It’s astonishing. The first couple of times you don’t know what to expect when you go visit a young man like that in the hospital. Then, very quickly, you enjoy going because his spirits were always better than mine. I felt worse than he did. But, he always had a smile on his face, and he was determined to kick this thing’s ass.”
When July rolled around, Jake went in for another screening, this time the news would be better than it was before. The cancer that put his life on hold had lost its hold on Piros, and was in remission.
But there was another complication. There was an undiagnosed blood clot that prevented him from beginning a full recovery.
“I went in for a final screening and they told me that the cancer had gone into remission. But there was a blood clot that we didn’t know about. A month after surgery, I started to do some push-ups to start getting back in shape to play. I wasn’t doing anything crazy like lifting weights or anything like that, but it was a bad idea,” he said with a laugh.
“My arm started to swell up and it felt really, really painful. So we went back to the doctor and that’s when I was put on blood thinners to help treat the clot, and I was held out to late October.”
While he was still on the mend, and the season underway, there was more good news. During his treatment, Piros learned that he was eligible for an experience coordinated by the Make-A-Wish foundation.
“When my doctor told me I qualified for Make-A-Wish back in May, I knew it had to be something involving hockey. It’s my passion. So we started to explore what we could do,” Piros said.
“He and I talked about Make-A-Wish. He wanted to visit Jimmy Howard, and the Red Wings, but I told him to go big,” Van Tigham said. “Then we talked about who his favorite players were, and he really likes Pekka Rinne. I told him ‘don’t hesitate to ask to ask to go meet him and go to Nashville.”
The wish was granted.
The date was agreed upon in December, and in the middle of January, Piros and his family drove to Gerald Ford Airport outside of Grand Rapids, flew to Chicago and then got on a connecting flight to Nashville.
To say the Predators were gracious hosts would be an understatement. Former Nashville goalie and now color analyst Chris Mason met Piros and helped rolled out the blue and gold carpet.
During shoot around, Piros and Mason walked down to ice level and Jake watched pucks glance off Rinne’s pads. What draws Piros to Rinne’s game is his competitive nature and how he plays the game.
“I love Pekka’s competitive nature and the way he plays the game, and how he always makes these crazy saves,” he said.
“(Mason) kind of motioned Pekka over to the glass, and we both said our hellos to each other.
“After practice, we met in the locker room and I was getting him caught up with my story, we compared styles of play, and I picked his brain about goaltending. He plays deep in the crease so it was cool to get his thoughts on styles of play and stuff. When we went out to lunch we talked about World Juniors, and the World Cup of Hockey and stuff like that too.”
But that wasn’t all. Piros wasn’t just there to visit. He was there to be an active member of the team.
“That was really, really cool. As they pulled out a jersey for me, Austin Watson yelled ‘you’re part of the boys now’. That was a pretty cool moment. I was also able to take shots in practice too. I couldn’t tell if they were going full go or not, but I was seeing their shots all the way in. When they practiced breakaways that’s what did me in,” he recalled.
“Not as cool as leading the team out of the tunnel, though.
“The arena was sold out, and the pre-game presentation was getting everyone going. And I’m here in the tunnel just hoping I don’t trip on my way to the ice.”
After he led the Preds onto the ice, there were interviews to be done. A lot of interviews. But after those, he was able to go up to the suites, and meet some Tennessee Titan football players and another former Pred.
“During the game, I got to meet some Tennessee Titans players there as well as Cody Hodgson. I was also able to talk with Kyle Turris during intermission in the locker room too,” Piros said.
“The experience was amazing.”
But the story doesn’t end there.
Piros still had one complication to overcome when he was found his cancer was in remission in July. August provided another hurdle in the form a previously undetected blood clot.
The petition Coach Van Tigham fought for was still in affect. Capitol City would carry three goaltenders and as Piros was regaining his strength, he still had a locker and a spot with the new team.
“I was just so thankful. The first month was incredibly hard because my stamina was not what it was. I’d be out of breath from doing things very quickly, and I had to rebuild my legs. When late December came around, I finally felt like myself again and I was on top of things,” Piros said.
The goal wasn’t always to get back into playing shape, it was to actually play the game that Jake loves to play. And he wanted to play against a team that ended DeWitt/ St. John’s season a year ago.
“He and I talked about setting a goal (to get back) when he was cleared and was ready. His goal was to make his first appearance against Lowell/ Caledonia because that was the team that ended our season last year in the regional final,” Van Tigham said.
“I didn’t give him the start, but he came in and finished up for us. He came in and did a good job. He also played in the Sault and got more work there. We firmly believe he’s ready for a full slate. He’s in a tough spot this year, but he’s handling it well and being an exceptional teammate.”
Piros didn’t want to just play. He wanted to compete and he wanted to win. Cap City only had lost two games the entire season, and Jake wanted to make sure that when he was in net, he wasn’t going to jeopardize what his teammates built.
“Honestly, I just wanted to go out there and put up good numbers, and keep improving our record as a team. We’ve only lost two games, and I wanted to make sure the record wouldn’t change,” he said of his first time on the ice.
Decemeber 22nd came up and Piros took to the ice. Against Lowell, he played just over nine minutes, and stopped all seven shots he faced. After the new year, his name was called again.
This time, his playing time doubled as he skated for a full period (seventeen minutes) and preserved a shutout stopping all six shots he faced as Cap City beat Sault Ste Marie.
But what about senior night? What about Friday night?
Just like in January when Piros led the Preds onto the ice at Bridgestone Arena, Jake led Cap City on the ice. When starting line-ups were announced Piros’ name echoed off the walls and through Suburban Ice in East Lansing as it was announced that he was the team’s starting goaltender.
Cap City beat Walled Lake Northern on Friday night, 5-3. Piros played 29 minutes and faced 15 shots. He stopped 13 of them. Gilmore came in and played the final 26 minutes. He faced 17 shots and stopped 16 of them.
It was pretty gratifying to see him play. To know what he’s gone through, and to watch him go out there and battle the nervous energy. But once he got settled in, he was back to his old self,” Van Tigham said.
“He’s a kid that you can’t not like. He has an infectious smile, and he just cares so much about the game and his team. It shows in everything he does.”
With a new lease on life, and a passion for the game as strong as ever, Piros still has new goals in mind. Before he found that lump in late April, he was supposed to play spring hockey, and attend prospect camps for junior hockey.
That’s still the plan after this season is done.
“My goal is to keep playing. I started playing a bit later than normal. I started when I was 13. I come from Ionia where hockey isn’t big at all. It’s almost non-existent. But I always wanted to play goalie, and play after high school. I’ve developed pretty quickly, and I figured why stop now, you know,” he said.
“I’m going to put my heart and soul into making the NAHL, and hope it works out. If it doesn’t I’ll study mechanical engineering or marketing when I go to college.
“The Austin Bruins were supposed to have me out for a camp, until the cancer hit. I have a friend that plays there, and I’ve been in touch with the coaches and still keep in touch with them. I’ve also been in contact with the Chippewa Steel so I’m keeping my options open and working towards it.
“I have a passion and determination to keep playing. I’ve gotten better every year. I have a strong belief in myself that I can play this game at a high level.”
For More Information Contact Ben Szilagy - you can follow on twitter at @BenSzilagy