No matter how sick she was, Shannon Hoefler always made sure her son, Prestyn, made it to Hobart Arena before the sun had risen for his 5:30 a.m. hockey practices.
She would often schedule her radiation and chemotherapy treatments around Prestyn’s hockey games and tournaments.
With cancer ravaging her body, she would frequently wrap herself in blankets to ward off the cold coming off the ice so she could be front and center to watch her son play the sport he loved. Watching her son streaking up and down the ice with a rubber puck at the end of his wooden stick served as a homeopathic medicine of sorts for Shannon.
When Prestyn was on the ice, Shannon could forget, for the briefest of moments, she was battling stage 4 breast cancer.
“She was always my biggest fan,” Prestyn said. “She was always very loud at my games. I remember hearing her in the stands yelling, ‘Hit somebody, P!’”
Hockey was an integral part of the Hoeflers’ lives for as long as Prestyn can remember. He started playing when he was just four — he learned to skate not long after he learned to walk — because he looked up to a family friend, Danny Bates, who was 10 years his elder and would go on to play collegiately at Ole Miss.
When Prestyn approached Shannon about playing hockey, she was initially confused — “Like a lot of people, she didn’t really understand the sport at first, but she became a huge fan,” Prestyn said — but, like everything else, she gleefully supported her son in his dream. Love and support were never in short supply in the Hoefler household. Prestyn said he has never known his father and his relationship with his mother often felt like “brother and sister.”
Shannon — who had been a cheerleader at Northmont High School — became her son’s biggest cheerleader. Like most hockey families, they would find themselves traveling together to far-flung locales in search of ice time and tournaments. Even as the owner and operator of her own dance studio, Turning Pointe Dance Studio in Englewood, Shannon always found time for her son.
Despite the jam-packed calendars and daily rigors of a single-parent household, things were running smoothly for the Hoeflers — until 2007, when Shannon was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Prestyn — in the third grade at the time and perhaps unable to fully comprehend the gravity of the situation — reacted with equal parts fear and anger.
“I was mad at her,” he said. “I didn’t really understand it. I didn’t really start to understand it until my grandmother took me to a cancer event at an old train station in Cincinnati. That’s when I started to get what it was and kind of understood it.”
Once Prestyn was able to wrap his head around the battle his mother was about to fight, he joined in it with her. When Shannon lost her hair to cancer treatments, her son — who has always had long hair and currently sports a blond mane that cascades over his shoulders — shaved his hair into a mohawk.
Shannon would continue to do all she could for her son, but when cancer treatments precluded her from being there, her parents, David and Linda, would pick up the slack.
“My grandparents have helped me a lot with everything,” Prestyn said. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for them.”
Shannon would eventually beat her cancer into remission. While her son flourished on the ice, Shannon’s health continued a tenuous ebb and flow between sickness and health. As Prestyn was nearing high school, he knew he had a decision to make. The school district in which he lived did not have a high school hockey program.
The summer before his freshman year, he made the decision to transfer to Troy High School to play for the Trojan hockey team. Right around the same time Prestyn was starting his freshman year at Troy, Shannon learned her cancer had returned with a vengeance.
She was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in August of 2013.
“In 2013, we got the diagnosis it had returned,” Prestyn said. “This time it had spread into her liver, into her bones — into everything. She told me that summer it had come back. I was scared. Things would get better for a little while, then it would get worse. I was pretty much always scared.”
That Shannon was sick at all came as a shock to many.
“Shannon was the last person you would have thought would get cancer,” said former Troy High School principal Bill Overla. “She had always been a beacon of health. She was a well-respected dance teacher in the community, as was her mother. She just had this vivacious spirit about her. People just naturally gravitated to her.”
Shannon and Overla had been friends at Northmont High School in the mid-1980s, when she was a cheerleader and he was a football player. When she was in the process of enrolling her son at Troy prior to his freshman year, Overla was one of the first people with whom Shannon met.
“I remember she sent Prestyn outside while we talked a little bit,” Overla said. “That’s when she told me her condition — it was stage 4 cancer and it wasn’t looking good. You know, I truly believe all things happen for a reason. We talked about a lot of things that day, but I remember promising her I would look after her son and do everything I could to look out for him and make sure I was an extra set of eyes.”
Turns out Overla wasn’t the only one.
As his mother’s health deteriorated, Prestyn began to lean heavily on the Trojan hockey family he had joined. In particular, he formed a bond with teammate Caleb Salazar, whose mother, Heather, is a breast cancer survivor and executive director of Pink Ribbon Girls, a local support group for those battling women’s reproductive cancers.
With his world spinning around him, Hoefler would often seek and find some sort of solace on the ice and with his teammates.
“When I step on the ice, it definitely clears my mind,” Prestyn said. “My teammates have always been there to give me a lot of support. I’m really close with one of my teammates, Caleb Salazar. Me and him have both had to go through some of the same stuff. I love my teammates. They are great.”
Just a few months after learning his mother’s cancer had returned, Prestyn received the news he had been dreading. While adjusting to a new school and getting to know his teammates, Prestyn knew deep down his mother was losing her battle with cancer.
“I remember it was a Tuesday night practice,” Prestyn said. “When they came and got me, I knew something was wrong. When we got home, there was an ambulance at our house. That night we went to the hospital. I remember she looked up at me and said, ‘We’ll be okay.’ That’s the last thing she ever said to me. She went to sleep and didn’t wake up again. She died the next afternoon.”
Shannon Hoefler passed away on Oct. 2, 2013, less than two months into her son’s freshman year at Troy.
A beloved figure within the community, Shannon’s viewing and funeral drew lines that stretched around Kindred Funeral Home in Englewood and lasted for hours, Overla said. Near the front of the line were Prestyn’s teammates.
It has now been a little more than three years since Shannon passed away. Shortly after Shannon’s passing, Prestyn and his grandparents moved to Troy. Like his mother before them, his grandparents are his biggest supporters. Prestyn has continued to excel on the ice — he leads the Trojans in goals and assists — as well as in the classroom and in the community.
“He’s a kid who has had to grow up really, really quick,” said Troy hockey coach Phil Noll, who has known the Hoefler family for years through the youth hockey system. “He’s handled it well. Much better than I would have, that’s for sure.”
This Sunday at 5:45 p.m. at Hobart Arena, Prestyn and the rest of the seniors on Troy’s team will be honored on Senior Night before they take on Cincinnati Sycamore. It will also be Breast Cancer Awareness Night, honoring those who have fought — and continue to fight — breast cancer. The Trojans will eschew their red and gray and instead wear pink jerseys for the event.
“I know Shannon is going to be watching from somewhere with a twinkle in her eye,” Overla said. “I know she’s proud of the person he’s become.”
Prestyn knows it will be an emotional day for him.
“I miss her,” he said. “I think about her all the time.”
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong