The last time Western Michigan goalie Lukas Hafner saw his dad was Easter weekend of 2012.
As luck would have it, the Central Canadian Hockey League team Lukas was backstopping had been on a playoff roll and wrapped up its semifinal series early, so he took an unexpected plane trip back to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, to spend the holiday with his dad, who less than a month earlier learned he had Stage IV pancreatic cancer.
“The whole family was there and dad was never one to talk about it being terminal or offer advice because he was ill,” Hafner said. “We talked every day on the phone anyway, and that Saturday when I was home we talked for about three hours. He always had the attitude he was going to beat it. He was a rock.”
Todd Hafner died a few nights later, the same day Lukas’ junior team lost in Game 7 of their championship series.
Lukas remembers because it was exactly four weeks to the day his dad was diagnosed that he died.
His dad has been with him ever since.
“I think about him every day and I wanted my senior season to be a tribute to who he is and who I want to be,” Hafner said. “He was all about family. Never missed my games or my sisters. Always there for us.
“My mom is like that, too. I told my sisters how strong she must be for what she’s gone through. A week after my dad died, her brother died. My folks were just getting to the point in life where the kids were getting out of the house and they were going to have time to travel and do things for themselves. I feel my mom got cheated out that, but she’s inspiring.”
When you tune in to Saturday’s Colorado College-Western Michigan matchup on ASN, pay special attention to the customized goalie mask Hafner had created for this season with the help of his school.
It’s all about honoring his father’s memory and legacy.
“I think it’s really well done,” Hafner said. “One side has a picture of my dad playing college football. He wore 55 and that’s the reason I chose it to be my number, too. The other side is the WM Bronco and a silhouette of my dad, my grandpa and me hunting together when I was young. It’s one of my favorite childhood memories.
“He was all about family, and on the backside you’ll see bolder letters ‘TLAM,’ which stands for Todd, my mom Lorie and my younger sisters Audrie and Madilyn.”
TLAM covers the purple ribbons near the back of both sides that are the sign of raising awareness for pancreatic cancer. Lukas said he never wanted to learn about the disease when it was discovered because his dad was positive he could beat it and he wanted to remain that way, too.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 48,960 Americans will be diagnosed annually with pancreatic cancer in the U.S., and over 40,560 will die from the disease. It’s one of the few cancers for which survival has not improved substantially over nearly 40 years, and it is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.
Pancreatic cancer, according the ACS, has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers with 94% of pancreatic cancer patients dying within five years of diagnosis — only 7% will survive more than five years and 74% of patients die within the first year of diagnosis.
The average life expectancy after diagnosis with metastatic disease is just 3-6 months.
It’s customized on all levels. A large 55 rests below the black facemask with “Dad” wavingly weaved across the bottom chin. The bottom back of the helmet has the slogan “Like a rock” because that was his dad’s nickname. “Like the Bob Seger song,” Lukas said. “Solid like a rock — that was him.”
Hafner said when his grandpa saw the helmet with the silhouette he absolutely loved it. What he didn’t like, Lukas said, laughing, is the tattoo on Hafner’s arm of the same hunting silhouette.
“He’s not big on tattoos,” Lukas said.
The mask has been a source of needed inspiration for Hafner this season. Entering tonight’s game against Colorado College, WMU is riding an eight-game losing streak. The Broncos haven’t won since sweeping then No. 1 Omaha five weeks ago.
“It’s really tough some times because Hafners are competitive,” he said. “We get into fights over card games at family reunions. It’s insane. It seems like we’re so close to winning because in the NCHC it really comes down to a fine line between the top and bottom teams. Anyone can beat anyone on a given night. We’ve shown that. So has CC.”
Prior to tonight’s game, Hafner said he’ll do what he always does: He’ll pray to his dad, ask him to be with him the between the pipes, tell him he misses him, loves him and will do all he can to make him proud.
“I made up my mind going into my senior year that I wanted to pay special tribute to him because it may be the last chance I get on the rink,” Hafner said. “I dedicated the season to him and I want to perform and battle every night.
“Ideally, I’d love to keep playing hockey as long as I can, but when this is over I think the mask is going to make a great display.”