No stranger to adversity; Crohn’s Disease just the latest hurdle to jump for Omaha Hockey Junior Tyler Weiss

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Jordan McAlpine
CONTRIBUTOR

Tyler Weiss led the Mavericks in assists (18) and finished third in points (22) last season. This summer, Weiss was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. It’s just the latest of several obstacles he’s had to overcome in his young hockey career. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

Overcome obstacles: It’s something Omaha Junior forward Tyler Weiss has constantly had to do throughout his young hockey career, dating back to his roots in Raleigh, North Carolina.

A fourth round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2018 and a rising prospect in the United States National Team Development Program, Weiss initially committed to Boston University as a 15-year-old, before flipping to Omaha in June of 2018. He’s been one of the most skilled players on the team in the two years since joining the program.

However, even with playing for a top Division I program and being an NHL pick, it hasn’t come easily. Standing at just 5’11 and146 pounds, many consider him undersized to begin with. That size even made some scouts leery leading up to the NHL combine.

On top of that, he’s from a state that has only produced three NHL players. During his freshman year in Omaha, he missed the first ten games due to an injury. He even almost had to stop playing the game at 13 years old due to the financial situation at home. The list keeps going.

This offseason, yet another setback to deal with: Weiss was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease.

“It’s definitely another obstacle,” Weiss said. “I’ve been a pretty undersized player most of my life to begin with, but I just recently got diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. When I went to juniors I couldn’t gain weight because my body couldn’t absorb nutrients and I went through it again in college.

“These guys are older and stronger, and you need to weigh a lot in order to battle. So I’ve always had to use my skill because I haven’t been able to use both my skill and body to fight guys off. This summer though when I got really sick and found out that I’ve got Crohn’s Disease, it was pretty tough to process at first.”

Crohn’s Disease, which is an inflammatory bowel disease, can lead to abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition, among other symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is currently no known cure for the disease, but many people with the disease are able to function well with proper treatment.

However, with the 2020-21 season delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Weiss says it’s been a blessing in disguise. It’s allowed him extra time to gain that weight back, as he stayed in Omaha this summer.

“It’s really given me more time to get my weight back,” Weiss said. “I lost about 20 pounds, so I’ve been able to train and get more time to recover from this. Yeah it was tough not to be able to see my family and friends, but I think this a great time for this to happen in my life. Now that I know what it is, I can keep on going and not let it affect me.”

Back home in North Carolina though, it was initially a tough piece of news for those who know him best.

 “I was really upset about it at first,” said Tyler’s mother, Kelly. “We always knew something was wrong because he could never gain weight. At first you’re happy to finally have found an answer, but also it was hard because I knew in my heart this is something else Tyler has to go through.

“It’s not going to be easy, but that kid has so much passion and he won’t let anything stop him, so I have no doubt this won’t slow him down.”

10-year-old Tyler Weiss skates with the puck. Kelly says her and her husband knew he was “gifted with an athletic talent” at a young age. Photo courtesy of the Weiss family.]

That ‘won’t let anything stop him’ mentality is something he’s carried with him on and off the ice, but as a 13-year-old, his dream almost came to a screeching halt.

It’s a well-documented story, but as if the size and weight haven’t been enough of an issue, Tyler was nearly forced to walk away from the sport. Hockey became too expensive for his family.

Tyler’s father, Shawn, is a hockey referee and would pick up games whenever he could to help pay for the sport. Tyler says he never had the top-of-the-line equipment and the two would even stay in cheaper hotels away from the team on the road, but never complained.

Shawn jokes they used to beg the principal not to hold their kids back because they were missing so many days to go play travel hockey.

3-year-old Tyler on his BMX bike alongside his brother Ryan, who Tyler says was one of the main reasons he started playing hockey. However when he and his brother came home one night, the two were told they were not going to be able to continue playing hockey due to the family’s financial situation. Photo courtesy of the Weiss family.

One of three kids, Tyler being the middle child, who knows where he’d be right now had it not been for his older brother, Ryan.

“Ryan and Tyler were on separate teams, so my husband would go one way, and I would go the other every weekend for years,” Kelly said. “It just came to the point with a third child that we didn’t have the money to keep it up. Ryan was 15 at that point and said ‘mom, I’ll just play lacrosse for the school and just let Tyler play.’

“The hope was Tyler could make something out of hockey, so Ryan was able to give it up and let him do it. Watching him give up hockey was very hard as a parent because you don’t want to ever let one kid sacrifice something for the other. I still look back and feel a little bad about it, but Ryan made that choice to help get Tyler to this spot.”

Tyler alongside his father, Shawn, and younger brother, Patrick, after a game while Tyler played for the USNTDP U-17 team. Photo courtesy of the Weiss family.

Growing up in Raleigh, it wasn’t always easy to find the right teams in order for both of their kids to continue to improve and grow as young players. Kelly laughs when telling stories about Tyler as a mite being asked to play for a weekend with teams as a so-called ‘ringer.’

His parents spent much of his youth hockey experience driving back and forth for hockey weekends in Virginia and the surrounding area, before eventually ending up in Canada for two years.

“You always want your kid to play with better kids so they can get better, so we would always try to find better teams,” Kelly said. “We found a weekend based team in Virginia and that was a lot of traveling at that point, but we did it. But after that we got to the point where it was ‘now what do we do with him?’ because there’s not a lot of teams down here that will make him get better, so he went up to Toronto.”

“Tyler has a high talent level and has that ability to make plays at high speeds. He’s a dynamic skater and can do some special things with the puck.” -Omaha Head Coach Mike Gabinet. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

That’s right. Nearly 750 miles away from home as a 9th and 10th grader. It’s a long way from home, but at the time, they both knew it was in his best interest as a hockey player. It still didn’t come easily.

“I still can’t believe that I would let my kid leave at 14, because you never think that’s something you’d want to do,” Kelly said. “But we just kind of knew that was his path. I bawled and bawled and bawled, but we left it up to Tyler and asked to make sure this was something he wanted to do. We just knew that hopefully there was a better path and he started playing up there and excelled, so he’s never come home since.”

Her husband agrees.

“For him to follow his dreams, the only way to get better was to go play with the best kids you can find,” Shawn said. “We exhausted pretty much all the resources we could to get him to the highest amateur level we could.”

Tyler pictured with the United States National Development Team Program. Kelly Weiss says her and her husband could tell Tyler had a chance to be a special player when he was around 9. Photo courtesy of the Weiss family

With everything they’ve done, it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Tyler says he can never thank his family enough for helping him pursue that ‘better path.’

“They’ve been there since I started, and I can’t thank them enough,” Weiss said. “They’ve just been huge to help me out and they’ve sacrificed so much for me. Back in the day we would travel almost five hours just to practice and they would do that for me without any complaints, which was awesome.”

1-year-old Tyler Weiss pictured holding a basketball, which was his first sport. Kelly says Tyler began BMX racing at 3 and started playing ice hockey as a 4-year-old. “Tyler’s just never took a hockey stick out of his hands ever since.” Photo courtesy of the Weiss family.

That all came full circle on July 23, 2018 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. With his family by his side, Tyler heard his name called.

He’s still got a long way to go, but it’s one step closer to his NHL dream. A dream Kelly says Tyler was writing in book reports as a second grader.

“That was something I always wanted and it was a dream come true,” Weiss said. “At the NHL combine I interviewed with 22 teams and Colorado wasn’t one of them, and they ended up picking me. That was something I had dreamed of since I was a little kid, it was always my goal once I started playing.

“When you hear your name called, it happens so fast that you just want to replay it over and over again. But to have my family there with me, it was definitely a relief. I wanted to make them proud, and that’s always been my number one goal in life. To let them know all of that sacrifice they did for me was worth it and I’m getting somewhere with the sport, so having them there was everything.”

Tyler Weiss holds up the local sports page in Raleigh-Durham International Airport the morning his family left for the draft. The front page includes a story on the soon-to-be NHL Draft Pick. Photo courtesy of the Weiss family.

For the people who have been there every step of the way, the same can be said.

“It was very rewarding,” Shawn said. “When people go away around here and they come back, there’s a lot of ‘oh you’re not going to make it, you’re not as good as you think you are.’ Not many people leave this area and make it.

“A lot of people end up back with their tail between their legs, but he wants to keep succeeding and keep moving to a higher level.”

When reflecting on what all transpired to get to that point, his mom says the moment was just as special.

”You never know if you’re going to sacrifice all of these things and if anything is going to come out of it,” Kelly Weiss said. “So many people will tell you, ‘oh there’s no way somebody from Raleigh, North Carolina is going to get drafted or make it to the NHL.

“When we did go to the draft and you look back at all of the things we sacrificed though, it just made it all worth it and made you think, we did do the right thing? You’re always wondering if we sacrificed everything- never being home, traveling, never having a lot of money- So watching the draft and seeing him drafted was very special.”

The Weiss family pictured at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas, where Tyler was selected 109th overall by the Colorado Avalanche. Left to Right: Ryan, Shawn, Tyler and Kelly. Photo courtesy of the Weiss family.

It’s just the next step towards a goal Tyler hopes he can one day reach. If his path has taught him anything, he says he wants to be an example for those who feel it can’t be done. Whether you’re from North Carolina, Nebraska or anywhere else around the globe.

“I’ve always said this, but if kids think there is no way you can get anywhere in hockey because of where they’re at or from, they can,” Weiss said. “You just have to be willing to get better and play anywhere, and my best advice is anything is possible.”

No matter what happens on the ice in the future, his mom can’t help but laugh in disbelief at everything their family has done to help even get him to this point. She agrees it’s all helped shape her son as a hockey player, but more importantly, she’s proud of what it’s done for him as a person.

“Even if he doesn’t ever make it to the NHL, he’s become such a good human, and you can’t find that in everybody,” Kelly said. “I’m just thankful that he’s just a good human and someday can be a good father, husband and maybe even NHL teammate.

“We try to just go one step at a time and whatever happens happens, but with all these obstacles he’s dealt with, he’ll always be resilient. More than anything I’m just proud it’s made him the person he’s become.”

“The thing I enjoy the most about Tyler is he’s really a true team-first guy. Whenever I see him in the locker room after a game, regardless of how he played, I believe he’s genuinely happy for his teammates’ success.” -Omaha Head Coach Mike Gabinet. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

After receiving the diagnosis this summer, it’s something that’ll surely be in the back of his head, but the North Carolina native doesn’t plan to let it affect him on the ice. Especially for someone who is no stranger to adversity, this isn’t going to stop him from continuing to work towards his dream.

“Something my coach told me recently was if you don’t struggle, then how are you supposed to grow?” Weiss said. “And I really took that quote to heart, because I’ve gone through so much and struggled a lot in my hockey career.

“Every year I see more improvement in myself and I think I am the player I am to this day and stronger because of the things I’ve gone through. For as much as I’ve been through though, this is just another obstacle I’m ready to overcome.”

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