Cody Van Hersett was having the season of his young life, surprising even some of his Clay hockey teammates.
“He was on a tear,” said Eagles senior center A.J. Burns, who played on the same line with Cody along with senior teammate Logan Myers. “He was giving me a run for my money. He was the spark of the team.”
Cody, a sophomore forward, had scored nine goals and added seven assists through the first 18 games for head coach Mike Heck's Eagles. Clay was struggling with a 5-13 record, including 1-4 in the Northwest Hockey Conference's White Division, but there was still plenty of season left to turn things around.
On Jan. 12, last Thursday afternoon, Cody left school in a compact truck he'd just started driving. No one will ever know what went through his mind when a 78-year-old tractor trailer driver named Lyle Schmidt turned suddenly into Cody's path on Navarre Avenue.
The impact killed the 16-year-old instantly. Burns, a close friend, said he was told that Cody was not talking on his cell phone or texting just before the accident happened. Schmidt told authorities he didn't see Cody's vehicle approaching him, and now his - and Cody's friends and family's lives - are changed forever.
"Cody was small in size, but he was the definition of courage,” Heck said. “He was fearless in life and he loved all kinds of sports and outdoor activities, but it was most evident on the ice when he would play against kids twice his size. He would take a beating and go back for more, fighting even harder to be in the right spot to put points on the board.
“He played his hardest every shift, every game, and he inspired his teammates to step up and improve their play. As a sophomore he worked his way to becoming a starter and being an integral part of our power play. It was an honor to be a part of his life and to have him in our hockey family. He will be greatly missed."
On Tuesday, Clay hosted Cody's funeral in the school auditorium. The place was packed, wall to wall, with people paying their respects to a young man taken out way too early in life.
High school teams from around the area, including Lake and Ottawa Hills, sent flowers. So did the Toledo Walleye, who held a moment of silence for Cody prior to their 3-0 home victory over Wheeling last Friday night. Whitmer's entire hockey team attended the funeral.
“I thought that was absolutely incredible,” Burns said. “They're our biggest rival. When we play, it gets heated, and for them to come out and pay their respects is huge. The hockey community came out strong. If they weren't there (in the auditorium), they sent letters or posted on Facebook and sent flowers. It was incredible. They did everything they could to help us come through this.”
Cody built a reputation for not being afraid to mix things up with the biggest, baddest player on the opposing team. Why? Because his teammates asked him to.
“We knew he had the heart to do it,” Burns said. “He'd get everyone fired up. It helps from a mental standpoint. You take on the biggest guy on the other team, and you know there's no one else to fear.”
Bob Bundy, one of Heck's assistant coaches, met Cody three years ago during a summer hockey league. Cody wasn't even in high school, and he was “tiny,” Bundy said. When he took the ice, however, Cody didn't seem so tiny anymore.
“He just amazed me the first time I watched him play,” Bundy said. “What a big heart. He was the David to any Goliath. He went into the corners like he was 6-foot-3. He was probably 5-4 or 5-5 and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet, but he was a little guy with a huge heart. He had no fear and he was just a super kid. A heart full of gold. He did anything for anybody.”
Burns said he wants people to remember Cody not for his hockey ability, but for his heart.
“He had a heart bigger than anyone I've come into contact with my entire life,” Burns said. “The way he went about everything, every opportunity. When we were on the ice, he was the first one to go after the big guy, do the dirty work that no one else wanted to do.”
Burns added that there is “no doubt in my mind” that Cody would want the Eagles to continue their season without him.
“Everything we did, he did, was about hockey,” Burns said. “He was either hanging out at the rink or watching it on television. His room is decorated with Washington Capitals stuff. That was his life. I know, no doubt, he would want us to keep playing. We'll get through it.”
Tuesday night, the Eagles held their first practice since Cody passed away. The team wasn't particularly crisp or focused, Burns said, but they had to get their feet wet. The Clay players cleaned out Cody's locker at the Ice House a few days after his death and gave the gear to Cody's parents, John and Michelle, and his brothers, Jarod, 11, and Ethan, 4, to take to the funeral.
“That was probably the worst day of my life,” Burns said. “They offered to give us the gear back for the rest of the season, so Cody's stall's not empty.”
Clay's next game is Friday night (7 p.m.) against Maumee at the Ice House. As a tribute to Cody, Bundy said the Eagles plan to start the game short one man, with four skaters instead of five, for a short shift.
“Coach Heck talked in his speech (Tuesday) about how Cody got down and got back up again,” Bundy said. “We, as a team and as a community and a school, we got knocked down and we have to use Cody as our strength. We just have to get back up and get into it.”