Band of Brothers
One Year After He Nearly Lost His Life, Kirk Daubenspeck, a one-time Wisconsin All-American, Owes Much to His Hockey Family
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Daubenspeck reacts to the night
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Tonight marks the culmination of a lot of dreams and prayers in Wisconsin. And a symbol of the way the hockey community always seems to rally together in the toughest times.
Kirk Daubenspeck, an All-American goaltender at Wisconsin in the mid-'90s, will drop a ceremonial first puck at tonight's game, when Wisconsin faces Denver. Last year at this time, Daubenspeck was fighting for his life, the victim of a nasty accident, his car colliding into the back of a semi truck on a foggy road. A victim of a serious head trauma and left in a coma, there were times it seemed he wouldn't make it — a lot of tense moments.
Lots of people rally to a crisis. In few walks of life, however, do you see such a wide-reaching and deep outpouring. Even though he played at Wisconsin many years ago, it shows again that once you're in the family, you're always in the family.
* * *
A former teammate, Mark Strobel, was on the phone with Daubenspeck just minutes before the accident. They were making plans for their families to meet in the Twin Cities for the weekend, including a game between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Daubenspeck was riding through rural roads, and warned Strobel they'd get cut off from cell service eventually. After a few minutes, the call dropped out.
Strobel continued on as normal. Daubenspeck kept driving.
A few minutes later, Daubenspeck slammed into the slow moving truck that he couldn't see in the fog.
The call came from Peggy Daubenspeck, Kirk's wife, about 2 1/2 hours after that phone call. She was calling from the ER. Strobel immediately left work, picked up another former teammate, and his brother-in-law, Tim Krug, and headed in. They called Jamie Spencer, another close friend and teammate.
When Spencer found out, he said he was initially paralyzed, but then, like an athlete, jumped into an action plan. "I wanted to get to him as soon as I could," he said.
"My phone blew up. I ran home and got a bag together."
One by one, friends and teammates from across North America dropped what they were doing, left work behind, and rallied to his side. More specifically, they rallied to the side of Daubenspeck's wife and young family. They came because of their instincts, because that is what you do.
Spencer met with Corey Rhodes, a teammate from their days at Culver Academy in Indiana, who wound up playing college hockey at Princeton. People started coming from all over, flying into various airports, picking each other up in cars from there, in various combinations, all to arrive in one final destination — near the side of Daubenspeck and his family.
"Guys kept coming in left and right," Strobel said.
* * *
Friends didn't just show up, they stayed. They stayed over a week, even as Daubenspeck began showing some signs that he would pull through.
"The whole incident reminded me how great a community it is," Spencer said.
But the doctors were taking care of Daubenspeck.
"All we could do is sit there, pray for him, play music, but what about Peggy?" Spencer recalled.
Spencer said it was Jeff Sauer, their old Badgers coach, who helped do a lot of rallying early on, making sure Daubenspeck's wife Peggy was taken care of.
"We wanted to get her out (of the hospital), get some food, because no one was really eating at that point," Spencer said. "I said, 'Coach, I'll get a head count.' It was about 50 people — friends, people with the program. At the end, it was great. We sat eight to a table. The end of the night comes and we said, 'How do we settle up?' And (the restaurant) said (that) Coach Sauer had settled up the tab.
"Years removed from the program, years removed from Daubenspeck, coach was still finding time to take care of the players."
Strobel concurred, noting that Sauer came to his father's funeral years ago.
"This is where true character is revealed, not winning national titles," Strobel said. "It's in the times when you unselfishly give up everything on your agenda for someone else. And for him to rally so many people, get people together at a restaurant — that to me is true leadership. It's not the things you say, it's the things you do."
Spencer also started reaching out to everyone who could help, like a lawyer friend who set up a fund that was controlled by himself, Peggy and Strobel. It wasn't just the medical costs, it was things like putting the family in hotels in places where Daubenspeck was getting treatment, meals, and so on. They set up Facebook accounts and Paypal accounts, worked out all of the legal issues. Back home, he heard that the Aeros booster club raised almost $10,000 to help.
A year later, the total reached over $100,000 in donations to the Daubenspeck family.
* * *
The two were first teammates at Culver, a place where many kids from Wisconsin and elsewhere had gone to hone their skills.
Spencer, now an executive with the Houston Aeros of the AHL, was one year ahead of Daubenspeck at Culver, but two years ahead at Wisconsin, because Daubenspeck went to junior for a season despite many scholarship offers.
"You're going to take one, right?" Spencer advised his friend at the time.
"No, the right school hasn't called me yet," said Daubenspeck, waiting for his hometown Badgers. "I'm going to turn them down and play in junior."
Spencer thought he was crazy. Of course, Spencer was already headed to Wisconsin, where the team had Jim Carey in net.
After a year in junior hockey, Daubenspeck got his deal with the Badgers, but he had to sit behind Carey for the whole year.
The next year, late in the summer, Carey left school for a pro deal. With only Daubenspeck left behind, Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer was scrambling over what to do.
"Guys, we have nothing to worry about," Spencer said.
Everyone tried to latch onto that same kind of confidence as Daubenspeck laid in his hospital room.
"You see how frail everything is," Rhodes said. "And to see his hospital room was packed, at one point they had to put a sign on the door — only two people at a time. His blood pressure would go up and he was starting to get a fever. There was too much commotion."
Rhodes played with Daubenspeck early on, when both were on Culver's 'B' team, essentially the junior varsity. Like everyone else, Rhodes recalled Daubenspeck's time as a player to look for inspiration on how he'd battle through a more life-threatening issue.
"When Dauber was on, he was unbelievable," Rhodes said. "We were in the championship (of a tournament) against a team called Edgewood, which is where Dauber was supposed to go. So he was amped up from the beginning, playing all his neighborhood friends. We snuck a 2-1 lead into the third, then all hell broke loose. If it were a fight they would've stopped it. I think they had 30 shots in the third period. Dauber stood on his head. He had 54 (saves) for the game, and it wasn't even 20-minute periods. He saved them all. And his post worked overtime too.
"By the end, even the Edgewood fans were giving him a standing ovation. To this day it's the game everyone talks about."
* * *
Over a week from the incident, Daubenspeck was still in danger, but had stabilized and was soon to be transferred to a facility in Milwaukee. Spencer knew he had to get back to his normal routine at some point, especially with his own child turning a year old.
"I gotta get home, I know you understand," Spencer said to his friend. "But I will be back, probably in Milwaukee. But you gotta promise me you're going to do this, you're going to pull through."
And with that, Daubenspeck, propped up at a near-90-degree angle in his hospital bed, leaned forward, one eye slightly open. And he put out his left hand, and made a fist pump.
Spencer turned to Peggy and said, "The first chapter is written. Now I can go back home."
* * *
That support comes full circle this weekend. Daubenspeck recovered more quickly than anyone could have imagined. Two months after the accident, he was alert and asking to play golf.
As Daubenspeck said in a recent Wisconsin State Journal article, his goal going forward is to live a life worthy of all the care he received.
There are more chapters to be written. Daubenspeck, now 37, still has some issues with coordination and anxiety, and his eyesight has worsened. Sometimes his memory isn't as good.
But a volume, at least, is closed. Daubenspeck made it through the toughest parts, through the force of his own will, his family, and the unyielding support of a bunch of hockey players.
"He's a brother, he's more than a friend," Strobel said. "Whatever it was, whatever triggered it — whether it was two of us coming from divorced parents, or our socio-economic backgrounds are similar, we all have a similar mold. We always thought we were privileged to play college hockey, let alone for the Badgers, let alone go to school for free.
"She (my wife) knows she has all my heart, but there's a little chunk in there for guys like Dauber or Spencer. We're of one and the same."