Hockey physical probably saved life of Quinnipiac’s K.J. Tiefenwerth

K. J. Tiefenwerth (Courtesy Quinnipiac Athletics)

If K.J. Tiefenwerth had bothered to read the small print at his first Quinnipiac hockey physical there is no telling how long — or if — he would still be around today.

If he had read it, he said, he may have skipped the optional ultrasonography test that ultimately revealed the benign tumor growing on one of his heart valves.

How bad was it? While it’s difficult to say how much immediate danger he was under, within a week of seeing the results Tiefenwerth was undergoing  open-heart surgery. It wasn’t just what one doctor told him, but because of the multiple second opinions from other doctors who all told him the same thing: Get it removed. The sooner the better. It can be fatal.

The papillary fibroelastoma tumor Tiefenwerth had isn’t typically detected unless doctors are performing other surgeries or procedures. It typically appears later in life. Many of the tumors are discovered during autopsies.

“Picture an M&M resting on a piece of string and imagine it wobbling with every heavy breath as if it were going to fall down,” Tiefenwerth said. “That’s what it looked like to me when they showed it. At first I thought he was joking because his bedside manner was so good. I felt like I was in the best shape of my life and had no symptoms. He said ‘We’re gonna rip it, clip it and zip you back up’ like it wasn’t a big deal. That helped.”

The six-hour surgery to remove the tumor was nearly three years ago but it wasn’t until last Tuesday that the junior scored his first career goal for the Bobcats in a 4-0 win over Maine. He added another goal this past weekend in Quinnipiac’s sweep over previously unbeaten St. Cloud State.

Quinnipiac (6-0) is one of the climbers in the hockey polls, having moved to fourth and fifth this week in this week’s polls, up from 18th in the preseason. They also garnered their first No. 1 vote this season.

The Bobcats are a team built on grit and backstopped by Michael Garteig, the career leader in victories for active college players with 52 wins and 13 shutouts, including two this season.

Tiefenwerth is one of the players up front providing the grit.

“This is my 22nd year at Quinnipiac and in my time I’ve dealt with most anything and everything you can think of,” Bobcats coach Rand Pecknold said. “But this is a different scenario with K.J. I have to give him credit because he’s been pretty resilient through it all and he’s been one of our more productive players. I was excited to see him score, but what made me happier was how he created another goal earlier for his teammate. He’s doing the little things well and that’s what we need on this team.”

This is Tiefenwerth’s second season with the Bobcats and the two goals signal he is finally finding stability in his playing career. While playing high school hockey in New York he briefly committed to Boston College, but he rescinded his commitment to join a former linemate at the University of Massachusetts because he felt he could get more playing time. However, when UMass had a coaching change Tiefenwerth left for the Bobcats. Just four days after his arrival at Quinnipiac, the tumor was discovered.

“I try not to think about it because it gets me into negative mindset,” Tiefenwerth said. “But I guess you could look at it as an inspiration for everything I’ve had to overcome and that things happen for a reason. If I hadn’t gone through all of what I did, the tumor may never have been discovered until it was too late. I just try not to think of anything that makes me feel bad or holds me back.”

Pecknold said he can see the recovery happening. “Last year you’d see him get winded and I think that was because of what he was going through. This year you don’t see that,” he said.
Tiefenwerth, like a handful of other Bobcats, is on a five-year master’s program. Through accelerated classes he will have a master’s in business next year.

Wherever he goes in the future, he’ll have the puck from his first goal as a keepsake and reminder. His teammates, while knowing Tiefenwerth likes to downplay what he’s been through, gathered the puck for him after he scored.

“Everyone was excited for his first goal as a Bobcat,” said team captain Soren Jonzzon. “We don’t talk too much about what he’s been through out of respect for him, but we’re all aware of what happened. Hopefully he can keep the ball rolling.”

Jonzzon is the one teammate Tiefenwerth expects to talk to someday about what he’s been through. Like Tiefenwerth, Jonzzon is on the five-year master’s plan but is studying to be a doctor and leaning toward surgery.

“What K.J. has overcome is definitely cool from a medical standpoint on what was going on, how they found it, how he addressed the situation,” Jonzzon said. “We’ve never had a real in-depth conversation about it but it might be worth it in the future.”

Above: Quinnipiac’s K. J. Tiefenwerth has bounced back well from open-heart surgery. (Courtesy Quinnipiac Athletics)

Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu