by Dan Bauer
We have all had a dream.
Some are based on chance or luck like winning the lottery or marrying a millionaire. They require little or no effort, just mere thoughts dancing in our heads. Others are a challenge; they are laden with obstacles and failure and require hard work and perseverance.
Most all of us have seen a dream die.
My dream began sometime decades ago in my neighbor’s backyard or the driveway at my house in Spencer. Perhaps it was Kenyon’s Pond down the street or at Ken Anderson’s Basketball Camp in Woodruff. I wanted to be a coach. Not just the coach organizing my neighborhood gang, but a coach as famous as Vince Lombardi, who as a kid, I watched pace the sidelines of the Green Bay Packers.
While I will never be mistaken for Lombardi or win more games than I have lost, I did turn coaching into my career and my passion. Along the way, my wife & I (she once told me “she wasn’t going to have any kids”) had five children. When our first, named after Badger Theran Welsh, started down the hockey path, a new dream was soon to be born.
When I got my first paid coaching job in Spooner as head coach, getting to the state tournament became a dream that consumed me. As each of Theran’s high school seasons passed, the urgency intensified. In 2000, at the Rice Lake Hockey Arena, the rink I began my hockey journey, we fell short, losing 3-1 in the sectional final to New Richmond. A year later as a senior, the dream died at the hands of the Superior Spartans in Wessman Arena.
The dream was over, or was it?
Like most hockey families, the game had enveloped our entire family. Daughters number one and two, figured skated, because as hard as it is to believe now, girls playing hockey then was quite rare. They were managers and the team’s biggest fans and had crushes on all their favorite players. All of us wore the faces of victory and defeat. It was a family affair.
When I left Spooner to take on a reclamation project at Wausau East, the dream had grown into winning a state title. When my son Theran joined my coaching staff, we got another kick at the can. Yet again we fell short, but along the way came daughters three and four, Elizabeth and Emily, and at the same time no less. When at age eight they decided to give hockey a try – the dream of going together was back on.
Fast forward to 2014 and as an assistant coach with the Storm, the three of us achieved that dream with a trip to the state tournament. Our season was ended in the semi-finals, on an overtime goal by Courtney Wittig; little did we know that our paths would soon cross again. I had finally checked that box of getting to the state tournament, but at the same time discovered that the end of the season felt no different. The pain that comes with the last game had extinguished the joy of our achievement.
We would make three state tournament appearances together, but never hold the trophy. As their senior season slipped away, the prospect of playing beyond high school looked dim. That was until first year Blugold women’s head coach Erik Strand watched them play. Their lack of “elite” level experience and height did not discourage him. It was their hockey brains he was after.
Only the architect, coach Strand himself, could have possibly dreamed what would happen over the next four years. Wittig would go from villain to line mate and the Blugolds would literally rise from the ashes of a burned out program to a national power. The dream of a national championship quickly went from unthinkable to palpable. With each season, they inched closer.
On Thursday, less than forty-eight hours away from their third consecutive appearance in the national tournament and a quarterfinal victory from the Frozen Four, a lightning bolt struck with its suddenness and dream piercing power, as the NCAA canceled the season. Preparations for a third straight match-up with arch-rival River Falls disappeared and the stark reality of a season, career and dream-ending decision came crashing down with a tidal wave of hurt, disbelief and uncontrollable emotions.
“I’m numb, no words. Anger disbelief and shock are the only emotions right now,” said Strand.
The Covid-19 pandemic, that began thousands of miles away, had suddenly become a foe no team could conquer. A tiny enemy, as small as a molecule of liquid, could not be game planned or out worked by any collection of elite athletes. Helplessness is seldom felt in athletics where we are taught to get back up and keep fighting. This invisible nightmare of an opponent with the power of a mythical god had struck down every major sport without a fight.
It was a scenario no coach has ever prepared for and no athlete was equipped to handle.
Outside the athletic world many were quick to dismiss and criticize the heartbreak athletes were feeling. Their focus, and rightfully so, was on the impending chaos that Covid-19 was causing. I was reminded of Theodore Roosevelt’s quote, “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles… the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…” That is the abbreviated version. Quite frankly I don’t think it serves anyone well when we try to tell others how they should feel. Players, coaches and families floundered through a river of emotions.
Still feeling the gnawing dull pain brought on by the end of every season and the regret of a dashed dream still as fresh as the arriving spring air, I hit my own pause button to reflect on this thirty year journey of chasing dreams. The fear of having watched the last game of my daughter’s careers was paralyzing. As I unpacked the wins and losses, the struggles, the achievements and the great people I have met along the way, I came to a realization that there was a dream I had accomplished—without even realizing it.
When you chase dreams of merit and not chance, you discover something along the way. Daring dreams challenge us in ways we could never imagine; they keep us focused, they put us on a path. That road is difficult; sometimes it is as beautiful as a walk through a championship golf course and other times it is as dark as the deepest cave and every step you take is into the unknown. The dream provides you with the hope, the motivation to keep moving. It is the pot of gold we believe in even when we can’t see the rainbow. And as awful as it is to see your dream end, the thought of not having a dream and chasing it with all your heart is so much worse.
I discovered it is our dreams that make us who we are and they influence those around us. Not just the achievement of them, but the struggle, the perseverance, the courage and character needed to step into that arena and put ourselves out there day after day knowing full well there is no guarantee. The thirty year pursuit of a championship had at times completely consumed me, even at the expense of my own family. It has caused me some regrets.
Those regrets may never fade, but I now understand more clearly how important that pursuit and the daily diligence to achieve it has helped mold myself and my family into strong adults who are not afraid to chase lofty goals and dreams. Not achieving dreams is not failure, but not trying is.
My family makes me proud every day. Soon we will have seven college graduates. I see it with my daughters, one who has the courage to hold her students accountable and the empathy to reach their heart and the other that as a young college graduate jumped on a plane to Africa and dedicated the next seven years of her life to teaching the children of Zambia. Pride in my son, the oldest who blazed the trail and still plays the game of hockey at age thirty-eight and loves it like he is still twelve. It is there in my wife, who north of sixty like me, just recently stepped out of her comfort zone and took on a new job. There is no fear of failure.
And finally in my twins daughters who didn’t allow an inauspicious entry into this world slow them down one bit. Their most recent heartbreak will only serve to reinforce what they already know. That the relentless pursuit of dreams, even if we never realize them, is what makes us who we are.
And for me, that is the real dream come true. Never stop chasing…