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Ryan Bakken / Forum Communications Co. , Published December 27 2012

Former players remember Coach Stadstad

GRAND FORKS – As grade-schoolers, they would form human shields when their coach, reeling from chemotherapy, vomited on the bench. They feared that Jason Stadstad, a former hockey player for Grand Forks Central High School, would be replaced if their parents or team organizers knew how ill he was.

As deliberate as they acted in conspiring to keep their coach, they were still only fourth- and fifth-graders, shaken by their coach’s declining health from cancer and in need of counseling. The prescribed therapy for the 14 players was to list words that described their then

18-year-old coach, presenting them to him on a poster board when he returned from Mayo Clinic.

The players’ descriptions? Coach. Supportive. Optimistic. Good heart. Hope. Courage. Number 19. Fun. Role model. Inspiration. GFC Knights. Honorable. Perseverance. Miracle. Determined. Effort. Awesome. Amazing. Ambition.

Thursday afternoon, at the high school hockey tournament that carries Stadstad’s name, his parents were presented with a canvas print that contained the 19 descriptions and the signatures of the 14 players.

Eight of the 14 play for Grand Forks Red River High School, so the surprise presentation to parents Lee and Michelle Stadstad was made after the ceremonial puck drop before the Roughriders met Brainerd, Minn.

Michelle started crying as Jason’s former charges, some on skates, others in street shoes, gathered at the red line. “I remember them as being little,” she said later. “Now they’re the age Jason was when he was sick.”

Jason was diagnosed when he was 16 and died three years later in December 2006 at age 19. He coached the team in his last year of life.

“It was pretty moving,” Lee said. “These kids never forget, do they?”

Red River senior Branden Lunski, who wears Jason Stadstad’s uniform number (19) and his JLS initials on the back of his helmet, said recognizing their youth hockey coach came to mind during a casual conversation among teammates.

“Most of us from the (Grand Forks Supras) team are seniors now,” he said. “We were talking about how we have developed and Jason came to mind. He influenced us in so many ways.

“He was developing our hockey skills, but he wasn’t just coaching us about hockey. He was teaching us life lessons and made sure none of us ever gave up, even when times were really hard.

“He was more than a hockey coach.”

Fellow senior Brady Bernhardson had similar thoughts about his coach of seven years ago.

“No matter how badly he felt, he believed he had a job to do,” Bernhardson said. “He never let us down. We never wanted to let him down, either.”

Bakken writes for the Grand Forks Herald