Coming home to play with Oil Kings meant the most to Kieser’s family
Disease made it difficult for Edmonton centre’s father to travel to games
Guelph Storm defenceman Matt Finn tries to beat Riley Kieser of the Edmonton Oil Kings to the puck behind the net during Saturday’s game in the Mastercard Memorial Cup at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont.
Photograph by: Claus Andersen, Getty Images
LONDON, Ont. — Edmonton Oil Kings centre Riley Kieser is invariably referred to as a “glue guy” on the Western Hockey League team, and his line — with Luke Bertolucci and Mads Eller — is “the heartbeat of our hockey club,” says head coach Derek Laxdal.
“I think we just work hard, shift-in, shift-out,” the 21-year-old Kieser said the day after the Oil Kings’ 5-2 victory over the host London Knights got Edmonton on the board at the MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament.
“We get pucks in deep, we play that simple game and we wear their team down. We’re going hard every shift and we can play in both ends of the ice. We can take a big faceoff in our end or we can get that puck going in their end.”
Discipline, commitment and relentless hard work, in other words, are central to Kieser’s game, which is normal for elite hockey players, certainly for the successful ones.
What’s different for Kieser is that those values are woven into the fabric of his life and his upbringing in Sherwood Park by his parents, Chris and Susan.
Six weeks after Riley was born, Chris, now 48, learned that he had multiple sclerosis, a neuro-muscular condition in which damage to the protective sheaths surrounding the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord cause impairment of speech and muscular function, as well as severe fatigue.
“I was a manager at Holt Renfrew,” said Chris, who gets around in a wheelchair. “I worked for a year (after diagnosis) and haven’t worked since. I’m at the stage where I don’t get attacks, I just kind of progress.”
Initially, Chris experienced periods of relapse, followed by remission when he could function normally, or nearly there. That phase of the disease didn’t last long.
“It (the progression) has been very slow, so we’ve been very fortunate,” Susan said. “He was very mobile until the kids were in high school. So when they were young, he was very involved and was able to do physical activities.”
That included coaching Riley in his early years in minor hockey and spending long hours at the outdoor rink with his son.
“Riley, he had his routine,” Chris said. “I’d get in the car, he’d load my chair in the car. Then he’d (load) his equipment and we’d drive to the rink. He’d set up my chair, then I’d get in the chair and he’d take his stuff and I’d go to the dressing room. Then after the game, he would do the reverse.”
All families have their challenges, tough situations that must be normalized, accepted as part of life’s routine.
“There have been pros with Chris not working,” said Susan, an accountant supervisor with ATCO. “I was working and he was a stay-at-home dad. So not a lot of kids get that experience, a stay-at-home dad with a very outspoken, bubbly personality.
“They went to the outdoor rink every day since Riley was three, ever since he could skate. They went to the outdoor rink and had the whole rink to themselves. We have videotape of him sitting in a chair and Riley skating around. So it had its positives; it wasn’t always challenging.”
Time at the rink, and lots of it, is gold to a young hockey player, of course. Time to create, perfect skills, learn what you can and cannot do.
“(Riley’s) dad has been a hockey fan forever,” Susan said. ”He played hockey, so it was ingrained in Riley very early. Hockey was life.”
Riley had evident ability and would go on to earn a spot with the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. From there, he had a brief stint with the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, then it was onto the WHL and the Vancouver Giants, where Riley played in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
It was a normal junior hockey progression, but one with a bittersweet twist for the Kiesers.
“The difficult part when he was in Vancouver was that I’d go visit, but Chris didn’t go,” Susan said.
The logistics of Chris travelling on a quick turnaround to see his son play in Vancouver didn’t make sense. Which is why the off-season trade that brought Kieser to the Oil Kings last July was more special to the family than it was helpful to the Oil Kings.
“Last year, we talked about (acquiring Kieser as) a player that we could bring into our dressing room to solidify the character,” Laxdal said. “Then we had a chance to trade for him when (former Oil Kings centre) Stephane Legault retired.
“(Kieser) just fit in right from training camp. He was a glue guy. Our young guys gravitated to him right off the hop.”
When veteran stars Griffin Reinhart and Curtis Lazar were away from the team in December and early January, competing for Canada at the world junior hockey championship, it was Kieser who wore the captain’s “C” for the Oil Kings.
Here in London, Kieser’s line has arguably been Edmonton’s most consistent one. On Sunday, along with providing momentum and, as Laxdal said, “giving the big six a rest,” the line provided a pair of goals, both by Bertolucci.
Kieser and his linemates will deploy their useful talents against the Val d’Or Foreurs, champions of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, as the Oil Kings wrap up round-robin play at 5 p.m. MDT Tuesday.
As versatile and reliable as Kieser has been for the Oil Kings, his homecoming had more profound significance in the family household.
“Oh, for sure, outstanding,” Chris said “It’s great to have Riley at home, to communicate with him, find out how he’s doing, what he needs from us, how we can help him grow, what the next step will be, whatever it is, wherever it is.
“Is he going to school? Will he keep playing hockey? Is he going to do them both together?”
Riley may, indeed, go the university hockey route after junior hockey, but those are decisions to be made once the small matter of the Memorial Cup is concluded.
All in all, bringing his game back home has been nothing but positive for Kieser. Well, there may be one downside.
“(Riley’s) comment when he came home was, ‘Everything was good, except for his billets,’ ” Chris said, chuckling. “He was having a problem with his billets.”
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