Fischer Never Far From Brother, Bulldogs

February 6, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Connor Fischer couldn’t imagine a better design. He immediately knew his brother Ryan would have loved the jerseys Grandville’s hockey team will wear Saturday against top-ranked Detroit Catholic Central.

The Grandville “G” on the front is patterned after Captain America’s shield, with the American flag trimming the bottom and stars and stripes on the shoulders.

There’s definitely a superhero quality to the sweater, fitting for a game played to remember Ryan, who died unexpectedly in his sleep 11 months ago the night before Grandville took on DCC in an MHSAA Semifinal. He had a heroic make-up; Ryan was truly an all-American kid, set to begin at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the fall, who excelled in class, on the ice and football field and was gifted with a big-picture understanding and personality that drew others to him.

Connor sees his brother a little simpler – just a great guy with a goofy laugh, who like Connor clicked his heels when he walked. But to his younger brother, Ryan continues to mean so much more.

“Growing up … I realized I wanted to be like Ryan. I strived to be like him. He was my building block, my stepping stone,” Connor said. “People who knew Ryan, know Ryan and I are different in a lot of ways. Undoubtedly there are a lot of similarities, and if people are able to compare me to him in any way it’s the greatest compliment I could receive. Because that’s how I want to be. Who better to be like than Ryan Fischer?”

The “Captain America” comparisons used to get on Connor’s nerves a bit, but now he sees those comparisons as positive – ways others help his brother live on – just like he and the Bulldogs will this weekend when they play to help raise money for a pair of scholarships in Ryan’s name.

Grandville will face Detroit Catholic Central at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Van Andel Arena, home of the Grand Rapids Griffins, a minor league affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. Tickets cost $15, with a portion of proceeds donated to the scholarship fund that bears Fischer’s name, and one ticket gets fans into both the high school game and the Griffins’ game against the Rochester Americans at 7 p.m.

Grandville has a mighty following. The Bulldogs have drawn crowds as large as 1,400 this season – but they’re hoping for more than twice that many fans as they recall both a painful memory and a beautiful friendship formed with Fischer’s untimely passing.

Fischer was a co-captain of last season’s team and a leader in various capacities – he served four years on Grandville’s student government executive board and was a member of the MHSAA’s Student Advisory Council, among other duties. A senior forward, he played a main role in helping the Bulldogs to their first MHSAA Semifinal since 2001.

Fischer never woke the morning of March 7, an examination showing he died from an enlarged heart. At the urging of his parents, Scott and Roni, Grandville did face DCC that night. The Shamrocks won 3-0, and in one of the most memorable gestures of sportsmanship in many people’s memories, skated to surround the Bulldogs as they knelt after in front of their net while fans pointed both index fingers into the air to symbolize Fisher’s number 11. (See video below.)

Connor, then a freshman, was not on varsity last season; he is the only sophomore on Grandville’s top team this winter. He didn’t see last year’s game – but the significance of Saturday’s rematch is not lost on him.

“The first thing that went through my mind is DCC is a great hockey team, the best in the state. It’s a great chance to go out there, play a high level of hockey, play great competition,” Connor Fischer said. “But look past that, they’re people from across the state that really do care. They see something bigger than a hockey game, just as I do, just as my family does and the whole team does.”

Building brotherhood

The Fischers were not a hockey family until Ryan, at 3 or 4, saw a hockey game and thought it was “the coolest thing ever,” Connor said. Soon Ryan and Scott were building rinks in the yard every winter, and when he was about 4, Connor joined his brother on the ice.

Their friendship was rooted as much in lemonade stands and playing Star Wars in the backyard as in sports. But athletics definitely provide a strong family tie. Older sister Kelsea is a sophomore gymnast for Division III power University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Ryan also was a captain of Grandville’s football team, and Connor plays the same sports as his brother and has taken up lacrosse in advance of this spring’s season.

As younger kids, Connor was a tattle-tale. Ryan would get mad at him. “But when I was in middle school and he was a freshman, he realized I would be the only brother he was going to have. I’m beyond thankful for that, beyond thankful he realized that at such a young age,” Connor said.

“When he was with his friends, he’d say, ‘This is Connor. He’s the coolest brother ever.’ … It made me feel special, just like he always made everyone feel special.”

In Connor’s words, Ryan was a little bit more personable, Connor is more conservative but laid-back.

But they shared a similar way of thinking. Connor lives situations now that Ryan did a few years ago, and without always knowing for sure, he’s pretty sure Ryan handled them in similar ways.

Ryan’s death has made Connor grow to be much older than his 16 years. Like Ryan, Connor has early thoughts of following his parents into the military – both did ROTC at Michigan State University and were officers in the U.S. Army, and Connor is considering a similar route. But he feels no expectations to be Ryan, only to grow as himself.

“His maturity is well beyond his years, and he’s absolutely sincere in everything he does with it,” Scott Fischer said. “He’s had his own legacy, his own path, as much as he’ll always support the legacy of his brother.”

Among those Connor leans on are friends who are more like family. Grandville hockey coach Joel Breazeale lives just down the road, and the Fischers and Breazeale’s three sons have been friends since most of their lives.

The hockey team has become an extended family as well. Breazeale has coached nearly 30 years, and experienced losses of players from other teams. He’s watched as certain trigger points this season have brought raw emotions rushing back. But he’s also seen something like he’s never experienced with others he’s coached – a bond so strong that the competitive juices that might rule a locker room have been replaced by tolerance and understanding of each other’s personalities that point to the former teammate whose influence remains strong.

“It’s through the grace of Ryan and what all of these boys have shared,” Breazeale said. “They embrace each other, embrace the challenges they’ve faced together, and they move forward. They take on challenges with another perspective. They’ve just grown tighter, and those traits were synonymous with Ryan.”

Always with us

Saturday’s game will be one of the final scheduled fundraisers for the Fischer scholarships, which will be given annually. Response has been tremendous and allowed for two awards – the original, which will go to a hockey player from the Ottawa Kent Conference this year and be expanded for players statewide in 2016, and a second for a Grandville High School senior. Both are for $2,500, and Scott hopes that as the fund grows, the scholarships also will grow to keep pace with increases in cost for higher education.

The hockey community has played a huge part. Grand Rapids Catholic Central coach Mike Slobodnik and former longtime East Kentwood coach Ron Baum piloted the scholarship foundation. When Breazeale mentioned the possibility of playing Saturday’s game at Van Andel, the Griffins’ management jumped at the opportunity to help and will open up ticket sales at the gate to give fans plenty of opportunity to attend.

There was never a doubt who Grandville hoped to play – from competitive and personal standpoints. The Bulldogs are 14-2-2 and ranked No. 8 in Division 1, with a chance to see how they match up with Regionals a month away.

“This made so much sense,” Breazeale said. “This is a big deal, that DCC made this investment to play Forest Hills Central (tonight) and then play us, and we appreciated that. Obviously our program has come a long way in the past 4-5 years, and for us to have become as competitive as we have been, it’s a nice acknowledgement that we’re moving into that realm. … No matter how the score ends up, it’s big for our program.”

A plaque commemorating Ryan was placed in Grandville’s football locker room this fall, near the door to the field. A similar smaller plaque hangs in Grandville’s hockey locker room at Georgetown Ice Arena; Connor and Thomas Breazeale are the last to hit the ice every day and always make sure to give it a glance.

Connor was ill at the start of this week, his temperature reaching 103 degrees. There was no way, he said Wednesday night, he wouldn’t get on the ice for at least a few seconds Saturday. But that’s it as far as personal goals for what will be a titanic matchup for his team.

“I don’t want to score a goal in his honor, nothing like that,” Fischer said. “Ryan always looked at the team before himself. There’s no better way to honor him than to help to win that game.”

Connor can’t say that it feels like this year has gone by quickly or slowly. He’s not sure how to describe it. The little things spin his mind to his brother – saying the pledge of allegiance, going past his old stall in the hockey locker room, or seeing the clock read 11:11.

He admits he was a little scared joining the varsity hockey team this winter, entering that locker room for the first time. But his teammates embraced him, and he embraced them. And Ryan’s No. 11 jersey hangs in Georgetown’s rafters, another reminder to all of them he isn’t far from their hearts.

“It’s the same coach, the same players. I feel like he’s never gone,” Connor said. “He’s never going to be gone.

"It’s amazing to know that.”

Click to order tickets for Saturday’s Grandville/Detroit Catholic Central game and enter the promo code FISCHER. Also, click for more information on the Ryan Fischer Legacy Scholarship

PHOTOS: (Top) Connor Fischer taps a plaque commemorating his brother Ryan before a junior varsity football game in the fall. (Middle) The jerseys Grandville will wear Saturday include a number of patriotic symbols including trim of the American flag. (Below) Clockwise from left, Connor Fischer, Ryan Fischer and sister Kelsea Fischer. (Bottom) Ryan Fischer was a captain for Grandville's varsity hockey team last season. (Photos courtesy of the Fischer family.)

Hockey Players Transferring Winter Puck Skills to Spring Golf Swings

By Tom Lang
Special for

May 26, 2023

When the Michigan seasons shift from winter to spring, some high school golf teams are a little more eager than others for the hockey season to officially end.

This is especially true for the school golf programs in Brighton, Hartland and Muskegon Mona Shores – examples of boys teams that love having hockey players transition from the indoor frozen ice to play golf outdoors on the lush green grass.

“I would take a golf team full of hockey players any day,” said Hartland golf coach Nathan Oake. “I love them.”

We can tell, because his program is full of them.

Hartland and Brighton each have eight hockey players on their 16-golfer varsity and JV rosters.

Mona Shores has three hockey players this year, but usually has more. In 2023 it’s Oliver MacDonald (all-state honorable mention in hockey), Nathan McNarland and Nicholas Taylor, who was voted Division 1 all-state golf last spring, then leading his team to fifth place at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final.

Hartland’s Ian Kastamo (16) takes a faceoff against Brighton this winter. Brighton golfer Winston Lerch was also Division 1 all-state last year in golf and an assistant captain on the hockey team this winter that finished Division 1 runner-up to Detroit Catholic Central. Here in 2023, he shot a 65 to open the season at Oakland University for medalist and has committed to Grand Valley State for golf with his 72-stroke average.

Joining Lerch in the Bulldogs boys golf program are hockey players like Levi Pennala, winner of hockey’s Wall Award sponsored by State Champs as the top high school goalie. Pennala – who recently shot 72 at the Kensington Lakes Activities Association championship tournament, his career low for high school golf – finished in the top 30 last year at the LPD1 Final. Then early this spring when he was away at a high-level junior hockey tournament, freshman hockey player Adam Forcier stepped in and shot a school record 18-hole round for a freshman at 73. Jacob Daavetilla also works into the starting lineup at times.

Forcier tied the record of Davis Codd – who, as a pro hockey player on leave from the Saginaw Spirit OHL hockey team when COVID-19 shut down the league, won the LPD1 Final in 2021 for Brighton.

Brighton golf coach Jimmy Dewling said Codd was one of the earliest to prove to others you can play both hockey and golf and excel. In fact, that June in 2021, Codd went to an NHL scouting camp in Pennsylvania before the Golf Finals, drove overnight back to Forest Akers to play the two championship rounds, won the title, then immediately returned to Pennsylvania to resume the hockey camp.

“On our team, we believe, and TBone (Codd) was a perfect example of it, if there’s any time you have the opportunity to be competitive, it is going to make you a more well-rounded competitor and therefore better at your particular sport,” Dewling said.

“We like hockey players. In the winter, they have to think to where the puck is going, be smart enough to react, and understand how that emotion is going to carry over from one play to the next. When it’s your shift you have to forget about the last shift, or take something from the last shift and put it into the next shift, to have consistent play.

“It’s the same on the golf course,” Dewling continued. “It’s one hole to the next, one shot at a time, being tough, and that’s only going to come from competition reps. We love the athletic ability more so than anything; the toughness and competitiveness all year.”

In addition to Lerch and Pennala starting on varsity golf, they are joined by traditional golfers Matt Doyle, Riley Morton and Andrew Daily, who is committed to Wayne State and finished LPD1 runner-up last spring.

Mona Shores’ Nicholas Taylor fires an iron shot. Going into the 2023 golf postseason, Brighton is ranked No. 2 in Division 1. The Bulldogs have won the Next Tee Invite at Oakland Hills, the North Star Invite at Plum Hollow and the KLAA Conference Championship – earning Brighton’s first conference title since 2007. The Bulldogs also were runners-up at The Meadows Invite at Grand Valley State University. The team is averaging 297 for 18 holes.

Oake admitted this is a rebuilding year for Hartland’s golf program. The varsity lineup has only two returning players with varsity golf experience – Keller King and Brady Betteley.

“So, we opted to keep a group of tough competitors with a solid combination of speed and strength – and who are not concerned about the cold conditions that we play in,” Oake quipped.

Five others rotate into the Eagles’ golf starting lineup with King and Betteley: Isaac Frantti is an all-state hockey defensemen playing his first season of golf but shot a career-low 79 at American Dunes recently. He just signed a United State Premier Hockey League tender to play in Connecticut next year. Ian Kastamo scored the winning goal in Hartland’s Division 2 hockey championship victory in 2022, and LJ Sabala is a varsity hockey player as well.

Then there are two non-hockey freshmen getting shots to start occasionally – Dallas Korponic, who finished third at his weight at the Individual Wrestling Finals, and Michael Maurin. Five more sophomores and juniors are hockey players on the JV golf team.

We hope to be competitive with (Brighton) again soon, but they have the talent to make a big splash this year,” Oake said. “I also play golf at the same club as many Brighton players, so I see them quite a bit and we are friendly. When the Brighton team walked by our team on a recent Monday and all said hello to me and our guys, one of my players looked at me and said that this was the biggest difference between hockey and golf. In hockey, the small talk would be (traded) for the ice, and it would not be very nice out there.

“Either way, I believe both sports are filled with fierce competitors and respect, but when the game is over a handshake and a golf hat tip are offered to the victor.”

This story was updated and reposted with permission of

PHOTOS (Top) Brighton takes a team photo after finishing third at last season’s LPD1 Final, and all five golfers are back this season including hockey players Levi Pennala (second from left) and Winston Lerch (second from right.) (Middle) Hartland’s Ian Kastamo (16) takes a faceoff against Brighton this winter. (Below) Mona Shores’ Nicholas Taylor fires an iron shot. (Photos courtesy of High School Sports Scene, Sapshots Photography and Mona Shores’ athletic department, respectively.)