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Published December 02 2010

After a medical condition ends his pro hockey career, Koalska follows his heart to Fergus Falls

Fergus Falls, Minn. - Listening to his heart and the advice others gave him about it is why Matt Koalska has more than he ever could have imagined.

At 30, he’s lived the dream any Minnesota kid could have wished for. He won two national championships playing hockey at the University of Minnesota and, even if it was for three games, played in the NHL. Koalska even traveled the world by playing in Italy until it was there he learned he had a heart condition that forced him to retire.

Now his heart is in the right place, which is Fergus Falls. It is here where he’s coaching the girls hockey team alongside his wife, Leah, who is the team’s assistant coach.

“Playing hockey was fun, but it wasn’t enough. It felt like something was missing,” said Koalska, who is in his first season at Fergus Falls. “I felt like there had been things I had seen in hockey that were not honest, but I wanted to take the lessons I had learned, the honest ones, and give them back.”

Koalska was playing in Italy three years ago and, after undergoing a preseason exam, he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is a condition where the heart becomes thick, making it harder for blood to leave the heart.

He decided to retire, go back to school, and figure out the next step in his life.

Figuring out the next step might have been a challenge, but he had someone to do that with in Leah.

The two met at a country music concert about three months before he went to Italy.

“I recognized the name, but I didn’t want him to know that I knew who he was,” she said. “I didn’t want to give him that much credit.”

They started dating and remained close while he was in Italy. When Koalska returned, he had a lot to sort through when it came to figuring out his future.

Problem was, so did Leah, a substitute teacher looking for a full-time job. Leah, a Fergus Falls native, was contacted by the school at the beginning of the 2009-10 school year about a physical education job.

At first she said no, but then reconsidered. She was hired two days later.

“I thought I’d be here for about a year and that was it,” she said. “But I became the JV hockey coach and started liking my girls a lot and I really considered staying here.”

It was something the two talked over, and Leah thought it was going to be hard selling Koalska to leave the Twin Cities for Fergus Falls.

What made the move attractive was that the girls hockey job was opening up. So Leah brought Koalska to the hockey banquet, where he met some of the players.

“We got a chance to meet him and he seemed really nice,” said senior defenseman Hally Johnson. “Then we kind of learned a little more about him and we were more than impressed.”

A good impression on the players, a possible career and being close to his girlfriend was enough for Koalska to apply and get the job.

Shortly after taking over the team, he made a move that sent shockwaves through the program.

He brought Leah to the rink and proposed to her at center ice.

“He took one of his old jerseys from college and had them put ‘Mrs. Koalska’ on the back,” she said. “He put a ring on the jersey and everything, it was really sweet.”

Forward Taylor McClaflin said the couple’s relationship is strong and it’s noticeable among the players. She said the team will notice the couple giving each other a “sappy look” from time to time.

One occurrence comes on road trips when their coming home.

“We used to be away from each other on the weekends and now we’re not,” Leah said. “We can catch a movie on a Friday night. It’s just that now we are watching a movie on a bus with 27 girls behind us.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan S. Clark at (701) 241-5548