HOUGHTON - Northern Michigan University senior forward and assistant captain Andrew Cherniwchan took to the ice at Michigan Tech's John MacInnes Student Ice Arena on Saturday night with a heavy heart.
The day before, Cherniwchan learned his father, Richard, had lost a more-than-two-year battle with cancer in his early 50s.
The decision between staying and playing or heading home immediately to be with family was not an easy one for Cherniwchan.
"I kept going back and forth whether I was going to head home before the game or stay and play," he said. "I had all my family behind me saying he'd want me to stay and play. Also, I had all the support from the coaching staff, the players, the fans.
"It was just incredible how supportive everyone can be. I'm glad I stayed and played this game."
In front of 3,708 fans and even a few NHL scouts, Cherniwchan and the No. 19-ranked Wildcats did what they hadn't done in three seasons - beat the Huskies in Houghton.
Northern Michigan University senior forward Andrew Cherniwchan plays the puck behind the Michigan Tech University net during the second period on Saturday at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton. Cherniwchan played in Saturday’s Wildcat victory a day after learning his father, Richard, lost his two-year-plus battle with cancer. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by David Archambeau)
The 5-2 victory gave Northern its first undefeated season against Michigan Tech since 2007-08 - the last season NMU won at MacInnes - and its first season sweep of the Huskies since 2006-07.
Those accomplishments were notable to Cherniwchan, but it's not what made Saturday special.
"It teared me up as much as anything could at this time," said Cherniwchan following the win and a conversation with a scout from the Washington Capitals. "It helped me dealing with it a little bit. With this win, he'd be proud.
"We haven't won up here since I've been here so that was a first. I'm glad I played."
Cherniwchan, who participated in a Capitals camp this summer, finished with three shots on goal, was plus-1 for the night and was called for charging in a penalty-ridden second period for both Upper Peninsula teams.
Cherniwchan leads NMU in penalty minutes with 59 while totaling five goals and four assists as a key component to the Wildcats' special teams, which combine to rank first in the nation.
NMU head coach Walt Kyle called the performance "a courageous thing" while Cherniwchan's teammates made sure the Wildcat got a win in his time of need.
"As close as I am, all the boys are so close on this team. It meant something for everyone to win this game for Andrew tonight," said NMU senior Tyler Gron, who grew up and played with Cherniwchan in Spruce Grove, Alberta. "I can absolutely say there was a lot of motivation and all the boys were working as hard as they could for Andrew tonight."
Cherniwchan returned home this week following the victory over Tech to be with his family and it is likely he will miss Friday and Saturday's CCHA games at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
In between Northern's CCHA series with Alaska in Marquette and Michigan State in East Lansing, Cherniwchan returned to his hometown of Hinton, Alberta, to be with his father, who had been released from the hospital to spend time with his son at his home in the Canadian Rockies.
"It was really important for me to get home and see him while I could," Cherniwchan said, "to do things that we've always enjoyed doing together - going to dinner, just going to our favorite places, having some laughs. That meant a lot to me. It made me cope with this a little better, as good as I can."
Cherniwchan said he learned of his father's illness two summers ago. After being diagnosed, Richard stepped away from his job as a high school teacher to do everything he ever wanted to, his son said.
Cherniwchan said his father's battle with cancer was an inspiration, one that has driven him on and off the ice.
"There've been some really good times, there's been some really bad times, but I don't think anyone fought harder than he did," Cherniwchan said.
"He always told me to just enjoy every day, do the best you can, don't waste any days. At first I took that to the training part of hockey. Don't waste any days. I definitely stepped up how I trained in the offseason and during the season, and also at practice.
"While you are there, you might as well work your hardest and make the best of it and also enjoy it. If you're not doing that, you should reconsider what you're doing."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.