Sontag Inspires Amid 'Miracle' Cancer Fight
January 3, 2020
By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
PINCKNEY – Dave Sontag could tell something was wrong.
The gymnasium at Petersburg-Summerfield High School is bigger than most in Monroe County. But when Sontag, a veteran official, was running up and down the floor, he felt unusually tired and began feeling pain in his back.
“I knew something was wrong,” Sontag said. “During a timeout, I told one of the other officials who was in the stands watching that he might have to finish the game.”
Sontag, however, pushed through and made it.
“That’s when it all began,” he said.
A few weeks later, as the Saline varsity baseball coach, Sontag was hitting fly balls to the Hornets’ outfielders.
“I was struggling,” he said. “I called the players in and told them something was wrong. I had to stop.”
Still trying to fight through whatever was wrong, Sontag was coaching third base during a Saline intra-squad scrimmage a short time later.
“I started to see white,” he said.
He had another member of the Saline coaching staff call his wife, Michelle, who came and picked him up and took him to the hospital in Chelsea.
“My blood counts were trash, just trash,” he said. “The doctors said I need to have a blood transfusion.”
He was rushed to a Detroit-area hospital for the transfusion. After tests, Sontag was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an extremely vigorous, aggressive cancer. That was May 15, 2018.
During the 18 months since, Sontag has gone through chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He’s watched multiple communities respond with fundraisers and benefits and amazing support. He’s had more than one bone marrow transplant. He’s heard from countless friends and ex-players who have continued to lift his spirits day after day via e-mails and text messages. He’s been counted out more than once.
Yet, he’s survived.
“Every day has been a challenge,” he said.
Sports and Sontag have gone together from the beginning.
He is a Monroe County native who was The Monroe Evening News Player of the Year in baseball in 1978 and went on to play at the University of Toledo. He taught journalism and English at his alma mater, Monroe Jefferson, before becoming a counselor for another 12 years. He was also the Jefferson director of athletics and recreation for a time.
He coached baseball for the Bears, leading the team to nearly 400 victories and the Division 2 championship in 2002. He stepped down from coaching to follow his kids, who were playing at higher levels; Ryan Sontag played at Arizona State University and in the Chicago Cubs organization. Susan played softball at Bowling Green State University, and Brendan played ball at Indiana Tech University.
Still, the desire to coach never left their dad.
“After my kids were done playing, I coached freshman baseball at Jefferson,” he said. “I missed it and still wanted to be part of it.”
With his wife a principal in the Saline district, Sontag was asked by Scott Theisen, Saline’s head coach, to join his staff in 2015. He was with the Hornets when they captured the Division 1 championship in 2017, then was named head coach before the 2018 season started.
“That was the year I got sick,” he said. “I didn’t even finish the year.”
Sontag also has been a basketball official for years, getting his start in the early 1980s. He’s been a registered MHSAA high school basketball official for 40 years and has trained officials for the Monroe County Basketball Officials’ Association. He’s called four MHSAA Finals championship games.
“My first varsity game ever was when I was 21,” Sontag said. “I refereed a game at Whiteford.”
Sontag previously battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995-1996, beating that disease after a nine-month battle.
Although this cancer battle began as he was new to the Saline community, they embraced his fight, selling “Team Tags” T-shirts and painting the youth baseball diamond with a big ribbon. His son, Ryan, was invited to throw out the first pitch before the youth baseball season started in Dave’s honor.
Back home, in Monroe County, Sontag’s school held similar fundraisers and blood drives.
“I had so much support,” he said. “It was quite amazing to see.”
He tried all sorts of treatments, ultimately boarding an airplane and heading to Seattle for a clinical trial. It didn’t work.
“At that point, I didn’t think I was going to live,” Sontag said. “They told me there was nothing more they could do. They just were giving me something to take the pain away. I was miserable.”
Still, Sontag said, he held out hope.
“I felt it wasn’t time yet,” he said. “I have three grandkids. There are things I want to do. There’s so much I haven’t accomplished yet. In Seattle, they didn’t count on me living.”
But, for a still-unexplained reason, a combination of the medicine he was given to “take the pain away,” on his flight home and a different medicine he received when he returned to Michigan, started to change the way he felt. His blood counts started getting better.
“The side effects were lousy, but, for some reason, it threw me into remission. They checked for leukemia and it was not there.
“We called it a miracle.”
Sontag, who lives in Pinckney now, is still dealing with the side effects of nearly two years of treatments. He has a tingling sensation in his arms and legs – the feeling people get when their hands or feet ‘fall asleep’ – and he has a weak immune system.
But he gets a little better every day.
“Every day is a blessing,” he said.
In addition to the community support and constant praying, he credits his wife with guiding him through this process.
“Michelle has been a rock through all of this,” he said. “She’s been by my side every single day. Without her, I don’t know if I would have made it.”
Recently, the Monroe County Officials’ Association held a banquet during which Sontag was presented with a “Courage Award.” He isn’t sure if he’ll be able to referee again anytime soon.
“I told them that night that I’d like to do it again, somewhere,” he said. “I don’t care of it’s a seventh-grade game. I just want to get out there again.”
In addition to the outpouring of love from multiple communities, family and friends, Sontag said sports has kept him alive.
“Sports is part of my fabric,” he said. “Baseball and officiating basketball games has given me that motivation I’ve needed to fight through this. I don’t know if I will coach again or referee again. I’m definitely not going to jump into the same schedule. But there are things I would like to do.
“Will I become a head coach again? Probably not. The task of being a head coach is probably too big right now. But I’d like to be involved. I’d still like to run camps and clinics. I’d still like to officiate too. I want to be a part of it. It’s something that’s in my blood.”
His son Ryan lives in Saline and has three children. Ryan coaches his son in a youth baseball league.
“He called me the other day and asked if I’d help him out,” Dave Sontag said. “I told him I think he will get me out there at some point.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: Longtime official and coach Dave Sontag – standing in front row with wife Michelle, daughter-in-law Amy and son Brendan – is presented a “Courage Award” by the Monroe County Officials Association. (Middle) Sontag, formerly baseball coach at Monroe Jefferson and Saline, mans his spot on the baseline. (Below) Sontag with officials, from left, Mike Gaynier, Mike Bitz, Mike Knabusch and Dan Jukuri. (Top and below photos courtesy of Knabusch; middle photo courtesy of the Monroe News.)
Retired NHL-er Back on Ice to Answer Call - By Making Them
By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor
March 16, 2023
The most accomplished skater on the ice during Friday’s triple-overtime MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal hockey thriller between Hartland and Brighton was not wearing the school colors of either team.
In front of a packed house at Plymouth’s USA Hockey Arena, referee Bryan Smolinski was in stripes, just like the rest of his officiating crew.
In his former life, he pulled on plenty of sweaters before lacing up the skates. That happens when one logs more than 1,000 games, tallies nearly 300 goals (274) and close to 400 assists (377) with eight teams spanning a 15-year playing career in the National Hockey League.
So, how did the 52-year-old former star player find himself on the ice last weekend as one of the referees for the pinnacle weekend of this high school season? Good question, even for the man known as “Smoke” during his playing days.
“I was working in youth development programs a few years back and reached out to some Michigan guys I had connections with about other ways to help the game,” Smolinski said. “I called Kevin May just to chat and asked, ‘Hey, how’s your reffing going?’ He said, ‘You know, we’re down a little bit,’ then said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I said, ‘Not a chance,’” Smolinski laughed.
Never Say Never
May persisted, imploring his friend to skate with him during a Fall league at Cranbook in Bloomfield Hills. After eight weeks, once a week, Smolinski had a revelation.
“I’m like, ‘I’m kind of diggin’ this,’” Smolinski said “So, I did all the testing, and the educational part of it, and I really enjoyed it. I got with Danny (DiCristofaro) and his group, and he put me in as much as he could, and I really started to get my feet wet.”
DiCristofaro is the assigner and referee-in-chief for the MHSAA’s Northeast Hockey Referees Association, and he has seen Smolinski’s growth first-hand.
“Obviously he’s got great instincts and a feel for the game, along with a wealth of experience, all of which has allowed him to climb the ladder quickly,” said DiCristofaro. “It’s been a joy to watch his growth as an official.”
Fast forward to last Friday, and there were Smolinski and May sharing duties as referees during the MHSAA Semifinal with linesmen Michael Andrews and Thomas Robbins.
In between, there has been a learning curve that still continues, but the jump to officiating was not quite as daunting as his introduction to the NHL.
“I was scared to death. My first game was against Mario Lemieux. I’m in the old Boston Garden and now I’m playing against these guys and it’s their job, and they’re out there trying to make a living,” Smolinski recalled.
The emotions were not running nearly as frenzied for his first game as an MHSAA official, obviously, yet respect came in a different form.
“I couldn’t pick the puck up, I was breathing heavily; it was Kevin and me doing a two-man game in Brighton,” Smolinski recalled. “There were a few high-end kids playing, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m dying here.’ You know, there’s no training for that first time.”
What that experience did, however, was revitalize Smolinski in a new way. His playing career is well documented, not only in the NHL, but around Michigan. He enjoyed an honor-laden career at Michigan State University from 1989-93 before joining the Boston Bruins (who had drafted him three years earlier) at the end of the ’93 NHL campaign. Even after his final season, with Montreal in 2007-08, he stayed in the game via men’s leagues, or coaching his son, Max.
Smolinski and his wife, Julie, have three daughters: Ashtyn (22), Jojo (16) and Rylen (12), along with Max, whom dad coached for seven years including during a national championship run with a Little Caesars U15 team in 2019. Max, 19, is now playing collegiately at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
So, for Smolinski, officiating offers a new chapter.
“Reffing brought back ... I wouldn’t say love of the game, because that’s always been there; it’s a different side of enjoying the game now. I have no horse in the race, my son’s off to college, my daughters are doing their thing; I wanted to find something new in the game,” Smolinski said. “I’ve coached, and I don’t want to do that. I found this, and I’ve stuck with it.”
Old College Ties
One of the great benefits of athletics at any level are the friendships made. For two kids who met in their first years on the MSU campus and forged a bond that lasts to this day, it’s amazing how their careers reached the pinnacle and have now come full circle.
Wes McCauley, an MSU teammate, is one of Smolinski’s best friends. After numerous years in the minor leagues, McCauley, like his friend, made it to the NHL. But McCauley made it as an official, working his first NHL game in 2003, when Smolinski was nearing the end of his playing career.
Their games lined up on just a few occasions in the NHL, and the two lobbied hard to have McCauley work Smolinski’s 1,000th career game in his final season with the Canadiens in 2007-08. The request, sadly, was denied by the league.
On the rare occasions when the friends did share the same ice, less than a handful by Smolinski’s count, it was McCauley who was forced to rebuff any attempts at fraternization. It’s just part of an official’s edict.
“For both of us, it was amazing; it was just great,” Smolinski said. “I’d say, ‘Hey man what’s up?’ and he says, ‘Can’t talk.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean, we talk all the time.’ Again, he’s like, ‘Can’t talk, get away from me.’ You know, it was just business.”
McCauley then reached the 1,000-game plateau himself in 2018 and is still going strong as a regular selection for playoff duties with nine Stanley Cup Finals assignments, including last year.
So, it should have been natural for Smolinski to go to his old friend immediately for officiating pointers once he joined the ranks, right? Well, maybe not immediately.
“I talk to Wes all the time, but I actually hid it from him right out of the gate because I didn’t want to take his razzing. Eventually it got out, and he was loving it. He started sending me whistles and visors and pants,” Smolinski said, grinning. “And none of it fit, you know, because I’m older and fatter, and he’s so damn skinny. So, I still had to go out and get all new gear.”
Both Sides Now
Having been to the top of his profession, now moving to the other side of that same mountain that his friend McCauley scaled, the respect has grown for those blowing the whistle.
“The preparation for officiating is much more mental,” Smolinski said. “Way more rules oriented. You’re always trying to get away with things that you can as a player; now you have to police that.”
Smolinski has a distinct advantage.
“I know everything they’re trying to do because I’ve done it. I know where you’re going with the puck, I know what kind of breakout you’re trying to do,” Smolinski said. “I have all the instincts, now I just try to stay out of the way and not ruin their game. The most fun is watching the game develop and the ups and downs. For me to be out there and enjoy it with them, that’s the fun part.”
Those who have played hockey at any level have a built-in advantage should they consider the officiating avocation: the ability to skate. Unlike officiating in any other sport, skating is a prerequisite. This makes the pool limited, and almost solely composed of former players. Smolinski offers this advice.
“I prefer sticking with high school because I think there’s more decorum, more administrative structure. Kids are playing for their schools, there’s loyalty there,” said Smolinski. “And there is more accountability. People need report to athletic directors and supervisors. Other levels can be more loosely governed, or a bit more maverick in nature. Moms and dads get involved more, coaches maybe know a little less,” said Smolinski.
He has, in fact, worked a handful of non-school games, and there’s a stark difference.
“I wanted to see what was going on, and I see it first-hand,” Smolinski said. “There are some crazy people and parents out there, and these guys are getting absolutely tortured. I’ve been tortured. There has to be a level of respect for what officials do. I think schools can rein that in a little more. All the guys I’ve met give up a lot of time and work hard because they love to do it and love the game.”
All sports need an assist from school administration and from those who once played the games to keep the officials recruitment moving in the right direction. People like Smolinski can help.
“He clearly doesn’t need to do this, and that’s what makes it so fantastic,” DiCristofaro said. “We need more people who have played – at any level – to do what he’s done and stay in the game as officials.”
Smolinski continues to promote the game in other ways as well. Currently he is involved in the NHL’s Learn To Play initiative, which aims to inspire youth and welcome more families into the hockey community.
“We work hand-in-hand with the NHL Players Association for player development and industry growth,” Smolinski said. “Ages 5 to 9 are introduced to hockey, get head-to-toe gear and instruction, and meet some former players.”
The idea is to have fun first, which can translate into years and maybe even a lifetime in the sport. It’s a lifetime that has given Smolinski so much and continues to do so as he watches it unfold for others from his new vantage point.
PHOTOS (Top) MHSAA official Bryan Smolinski signals during Friday's Division 1 Semifinal between Brighton and Hartland. (2) Smolinski, a retired NHL standout, communicates with the Bulldogs' bench. (3) Smolinski keeps watch during game play. (4) Smolinski, third from left, with his crew: Michael Andrews, Kevin May and Thomas Robbins.