Ryan Fischer was supposed to be there standing on the blue line with his Grandville High School teammates. If not for him, none of them may have been standing there at all. But when the Bulldogs took the ice at Compuware Arena in Plymouth, Mich., for their semifinal matchup against Michigan High School Hockey power Detroit Catholic Central Friday night, they did so without their 17-year-old co-captain.
Earlier Friday morning, Fischer was found unresponsive in his bed. Later that day, it was determined that the young hockey and football star had died of hyperthotic cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart. No warning. Few answers.
He had gone to bed around 11 p.m. the night before according to MLive.com, likely with his mind on the biggest game of his young career, and he never woke up.
Ryan Fischer was quite clearly a special person. He had been accepted to both the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy. He chose West Point and had planned to study aerospace engineering.
He was popular and kind as classmates and friends recalled. A multi-sport athlete with so much more to him than a life in sports.
Within a matter of hours, his teammates had to process the sudden loss of their co-captain and friend. They would play on. They would play for No. 11.
“We’re going to persevere and play in Ryan’s name and we’re going to honor his legacy,” head coach Joel Breazeale told MLive.com, still reeling from the news ahead of the game. “That’s what our team is about and that’s what we have in our locker room.
“We ask each player who puts on that jersey to leave a legacy to be proud of. Ryan did that for us, so we’re going to do the best we can to do the same.”
Before the team left for the game, Fischer’s parents, who also wanted the Grandville boys to play on, came and spoke to each player individually as Breazeale explained.
Fischer helped his team get to this game. He had an assist on the overtime game winner over West Catholic in the quarterfinals to get Grandville farther than they had ever been in the state playoffs before.
Despite an up-and-down season, the Bulldogs earned the right to play at Compuware and take on the state’s best.
Detroit Catholic Central was a sympathetic opponent. The Shamrocks had been through a hardship of its own earlier in the season. Senior Matt Sorisho suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a game leaving him paralyzed and two years previously a CC football player died of similar causes to Fischer. They understood, but they had a game to play, too.
Somehow, both teams found a way to play in the heaviest of circumstances. Grandville senior Max Houtman wore Fischer’s No. 11 jersey in the game. Many students wore T-shirts with 11s on the back, and many students made signs to honor Fischer.
Grandville students wearing no. 11 tribute t-shirts for#ryanfischer. pic.twitter.com/MiRpfTpXZe
— Pete Wallner (@petewallner) March 7, 2014
Even the Detroit Catholic Central student section honored Fischer with this giant No. 11 they held up at various points during the game.
Novi Detroit Catholic Central student section. Tribute to Ryan Fischer. All class. pic.twitter.com/tsxHkmUGd3
— ericzane (@ericzanefbhw) March 8, 2014
The game still had to be played. Detroit Catholic Central earned a 3-0 victory over Grandville, a result that paled in comparison to the morning’s news.
After the final horn sounded, the two teams joined together for a scene that is beautiful and devastating all at once. The CC players formed a circle around their counterparts from Grandville. They all knelt to the ice huddled together and they prayed. Once opponents, now just human beings who needed each other.
— Dan Allmayer (@danallmayer) March 8, 2014
UPDATE: Via MLive, here is video of this incredibly emotional moment after the final buzzer.
It’s hard for a kid to process one of his or her peers being ripped away so suddenly. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a prolonged illness. In a lot of ways that makes it harder to understand. It was as unforgiving and shocking as anything you can ever imagine. Having dealt with a similar situation in my high school years, this is going to be hard for a while.
Kids can be resilient, though. A tragedy almost forces maturity and poise in the most dire of circumstances. The Bulldogs played, they fought and though the result was not what they preferred, they honored their brother and learned the hardest lesson about how precious life can be.
Fischer’s parents decided to attend the game and before the Grandville team took the ice, they spoke to the players one last time.
“They came in…and just said, ‘We came in as a team, we started the season as a team, so many of you grew up together, the best thing to do is move forward and honor him in that fashion,’” Brezeale shared with MLive.com. “I certainly believe our young men did that.
I sit here hundreds of miles away and I’m astonished by this story. I’ve been floored by it all day and was so moved by the photograph of the two teams huddled together, I felt compelled to share it and Ryan’s story, even if from a distance.
The way these kids rallied and played, I’ll never know how they did it. The fact that Fischer’s parents managed to be there on what I am sure is the worst day of their lives is incredible. They may have needed the game as much as the kids did.
The more you learn about Fischer, and his classmates seemed to speak glowingly about the young man, the more your heart aches for his parents, his friends and for all of us that won’t learn what kind of impact he could have made throughout his life in this world.
There is some solace in the way Fischer’s untimely passing showed just how much of an impact he already made in his 17 years and in his ability to unite a community that includes not only Grandville, but anyone he touched. It is clear he will never be forgotten.
The coming days will be harder for those nearest to Fischer, but if Friday showed anything, this is a community with unwavering support for one another. Though much of the comfort comes from within, there’s a larger group that will huddle around it just as the Catholic Central players did for Grandville Friday night on the ice. They won’t be alone.
MLive.com did a spectacular job covering this awfully sad occasion. They have many more articles about Fischer and a photo gallery from the game here.