When Hunter Fejes graduates this spring with an economics degree from Colorado College, he’ll most assuredly look to the sky as does before every hockey game and just about everything else he does in this life of his.
He’ll share the moment with mom the only way he knows how.
So Thursday night, when you watch him on ASN standing with the rest of his team during the national anthem before the CC-Denver game, know that this is his ritual: He’ll say a prayer to God and then to his mom.
He’s been doing it every time he’s stepped on the ice since she died in a road–rage accident while driving him to hockey practice in Anchorage, Alaska, nearly 12 years ago.
He was 10.
“I say, ‘I know you’re here with me, guide me along the path,’” the senior forward said. “I know I probably view life in a different perspective than most kids my age. I see the way some of them treat their parents and take things for granted and think, ‘Wow, I would give anything to have what these kids have.’
“My mom won’t meet my future wife, my kids, she didn’t see me get drafted, all the big moments … I just miss out on having her in my life and that’s made me grow up pretty fast. I learned early not to take life for granted.”
June 27, 2004, started like any other day. Gail Fejes was the homemaker, carting Hunter’s two older sisters around and taking Hunter to hockey practice while his dad Sam built two thriving tour-guide businesses for Alaska hunters looking for anything from Big Horn sheep to moose, elk and bear.
Hunter remembers the drive and how a man in his pickup was slowing traffic. As mom maneuvered around him, she honked. Hunter said the man flipped them off and sped up, cut them off and slammed on his brakes.
“We couldn’t stop and mom tried to swerve,” Hunter said, “but she knicked the car and clipped the tire and we rolled.”
Neither mom nor son were wearing a seat belt. The Land Rover rolled end-over-end into the ditch.
Hunter spent five days in a coma with a cracked skull, a blood clot “the size of a baseball,” a collapsed lung and the loss of hearing in one ear.
When he finally woke up his dad was by his side, along with police. He asked how his mom was, and they told him she wanted him to get better. They asked what he could remember.
Through his description they caught the man who forced the accident, but because there were no witnesses except for a 10-year-old boy who had just been in a coma, the man got 90 days in prison for a hit-and-run.
And like that, Hunter Fejes went from a self-proclaimed momma’s boy who used to try to sneak into his parents’ bed at night, to having to stay at his friends house for nights at a time because his dad was not only caring for three children alone, but also running the family business.
“I think back now and how hard it must have been on him and my sisters,” Hunter said. “They were just at that high school age where a girl needs her mom, and dad had to run the guide service.”
And yet Hunter is OK with all of it now.
He doesn’t think about the man in the truck, who was eventually charged with manslaughter. Hunter has moved past it and prefers to move on.
When he talks about his mom’s death, he thinks of the good times. And he knows she’s still around.
“I had therapy for a while but as I’ve gotten older I’ve shared it more. You always wonder why bad stuff happens to good people,” Fejes said. “But you have to deal with it.”
It wasn’t until a few weeks after the accident, when he was stronger, that he learned his mom didn’t survive. He also found out that his own heart flatlined, but it started beating again at the same time that his mom died.
He believes she saved him.
“I know she’s always with me. What’s crazy is seven years later on that same road I got into another accident that should have killed me,” Fejes said. “It’s a U-shaped road and one car coming the other way was pulling into a driveway and the lady behind was on her cell phone and didn’t see the person stopped in front of her. That car drifted into my lane and I swerved but caught her tire and rolled. I should have been dead, but I unbuckled the seatbelt, kicked out the window and crawled out without a scratch.
“I know I had a guardian angel that day. I really believe things happen for a reason. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about her and wish she was here. I do everything in my life as if she’s looking down on me.”
He takes nothing for granted and uses his past to fuel his drive to reach the NHL. Drafted out of high school in the sixth round by the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, he attacks each shift like it could be his last. In 28 games this season he has 13 goals and 9 assists. He’s played 130 games for CC, including an injury-riddled sophomore season that saw him earn just one assist.
It’s all about perspective.
“There are going to be difficult points in life for everybody,” he said. “But difficult points are nothing compared to the adversity I went through in losing my mom.”
Whether or not he makes it to the NHL, Fejes said hockey has been a godsend for him. While sleeping over his friend’s house in Alaska he found out his friend’s brother played for a boarding school, Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota. His friend gave him a brochure and not long after he was hooked.
For the next five years he ate, slept and talked hockey with his teammates and classmates.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said “Playing hockey everyday and being involved in the sport all the time help me through a horrific event. It kept me motivated instead of going down on another path.”
Life is good nowadays. He speaks Japanese and Spanish, and he’s building into his younger teammates’ mind the importance of tonight’s game against Denver, as well as Saturday’s second game of the series outdoors at Coors Field.
“We hate them, they hate us,” Fejes said. “Every time we play regardless of standings it brings out the the best game. It’s one of biggest rivalries in college hockey. We express to freshmen at beginning of the year that this rivalry is bigger than the guys in the locker room. Alumni watch to see how we do. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went in to beating these guys. These are the games I will remember for rest of my career for the competitiveness and intensity.”