The Heart of a Hockey Coach
Jon Rogger, head coach for the Philadelphia Revolution of the Eastern Hockey League, spent Oct. 6, 2019 in Garner, N.C., leading his team to a 10-1 win over the North Carolina Golden Bears.
After the game ended, around 3 p.m., Rogger and the Revolution loaded their bus and began the long trip up Interstate 95 en route to their own beds.
The two-game set for the Revolution included a relatively uncompetitive 14-2 sweep of the Golden Bears, a Saturday night crammed into a two-star hotel and a 16-hour sentence aboard a bus filled with adolescent young men.
It's the type of trip that Junior and minor professional hockey players and coaches have come to accept as simply part of "Chasing the Dream." A lot of guts and not much glamour.
The reason Oct. 6 is relevant to Rogger is because one year ago on that date he suffered a massive heart attack immediately following a Revolution-New York Applecore game in Brewster, N.Y. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, then transported to a Danbury, Conn., facility that could better handle his condition. Two days later, while still in the Danbury hospital, his heart failed and when CPR couldn't revive him he was brought back to life twice with a defibrillator.
The fact that Rogger is upright, much less back to serving as a Junior hockey head coach, is nothing less than miraculous.
This is the part of the story where a talented writer would tie together Rogger's renewed outlook on life as he boarded that bus on Oct. 6, 2019, based upon the fact that he's lucky to be alive. Not only alive, but coaching a first-place team. However, for anyone who has really gotten to know a true hockey coach, a person who has hockey running deep in his or her blood, it should come as no surprise that Rogger wasn't even aware of the one-year anniversary.
"My fiancee and a good friend in Philadelphia both texted me and said, 'Can you believe it's been a year?' But I didn't realize that. I knew it was close but wasn't really paying attention as the season was underway."
This is not to say that Rogger hasn't been changed by the process, and isn't grateful to have a new lease on life, but "life" to a hockey coach means getting back to work.
"I try to treat every day as business as usual," said Rogger. "Now I try to take care of things as best as possible. The hotels and buses can be a grind but I enjoy doing this. I live day-by-day and don't take things for granted for sure, but wins and losses aren't as important as they used to be."
Rogger grew up in the St. Louis, Mo., area and enjoyed enough success to secure a roster spot with the St. Louis Jr. Blues of the old Central States Hockey League in 1994-95. His play that year attracted the attention of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and he cracked the roster of the Danville Wings where he played two solid seasons before advancing to a solid, four-year career at NCAA Division I Ferris State University.
"I had a son while in college so when I got done playing it was time to get a real job and support my family," said Rogger about the then-potential of playing professionally. "I hooked up with Patrick Cavanagh (who is the owner of the Hampton Roads Whalers of the United States Premier Hockey League and also part owner of the Norfolk Admirals of the ECHL) and I did my internship with him and the coach in me took over."
In 2007-08 Rogger jumped into a NAHL coaching position as an assistant with his hometown St. Louis Bandits before moving to Green Bay in the United States Hockey League (USHL) for a similar position. He then secured his first head coaching spot with the USHL's Des Moines Buccaneers and spent two years leading them before taking the head coaching position with the Amarillo Bulls of the NAHL in 2014-15. The Bulls ownership group also owned the Bloomington USHL organization at the time so he spent the 2015-16 season with that franchise as an extra set of eyes.
"In Bloomington they already had their staff in place and my contract had run out but I got a call out of nowhere about the (Revolution) head coaching job being available," said Rogger, who goes back to St. Louis in the off-season. "I didn't want to move to the East Coast but I just love being a head coach. It has been a great experience so far."
For many years the Revolution had trouble gaining traction in the Win-Loss column, but under Rogger the organization has had a great deal of success, including a trip to the league championship game in 2018. This year's team is continuing that upward trajectory as it sits well atop the Mid-Atlantic Division with a 11-3-1 record through 15 games.
Rogger has also made the Revolution a big-time player in the NCAA Division III advancement game with 25 placements through his first three seasons.
Rogger figures his heart issue is part hereditary and part the result of stress. "My grandfather and both my parents had heart attacks. It's definitely in my family," said Rogger. "Being a competitive guy, and being in the USHL, the wins and losses are important. With my family spread around, and me coaching (in a different city from family) it was pretty stressful at times." Rogger and his fiancee have a blended family situation. She and his immediate family are all in the St. Louis area and his son is in college in the midwest.
"Looking back a few years, a couple times I felt some tingling in my arms in Des Moines," said Rogger. "I got checked out and it was attributed to a reaction to stress. I felt it happen a few more times (with the Revolution) last year but I didn't think much about it. Just figured I needed to take it easy."
"Right before that game (Oct. 6, 2018 the night of the heart attack) I started feeling really, really bad. I told my assistant 'something is not right' but I was determined to see the game through. I even told my assistant to be ready if something goes wrong and I have to leave the bench."
Rogger actually made it through the game but the way he felt kept getting worse. "As soon as the game ended I went outside to get some fresh air," said Rogger. "I started really sweating and I knew something wasn't right. I told a couple of the parents and they took me to the local hospital (in Brewster, N.Y.)."
Once at the hospital the doctors ordered him to lie down on a gurney and informed him he was having a heart attack. The facility did not have the proper equipment to treat him so they immediately transported him to Danbury where things seemed to stabilize.
"I got a stent put in later that night and I thought everything was good," said Rogger. Things were looking up and his coaching mentality took over. "Two days later I was trying to fight my way out of hospital."
"That's when things hit the fan. I had an arrhythmia and my heart got up to 280 beats per minute. Then I flatlined. CPR didn't work so they shocked me twice with a defibrillator to bring me back to life. I woke up 18 hours later as they were pulling ventilator out of my mouth. The last thing I remember was how badly I felt and the next thing my whole family was around my bed."
"They all started to take off from the hospital and I asked them where they were going?" I didn't know they'd been there for a couple days waiting for me to wake up."
Arrhythmia is a problem with the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat. The most common type of arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, which causes an irregular and fast heart beat. In order to treat his condition the doctors inserted a pacemaker, which is a device in his chest that provides a small jolt of electricity if his heart beat becomes irregular
The insertion of the mechanical device seemed to be working and Rogger was discharged a week after being brought back to life. The advice he was given by the Danbury medical staff was perfect for a hockey coach because his heart actually suffered very little damage.
"They said to take some time off but the quicker you get back to normal activity the better," said Rogger. "They said if you take too much time it actually can lead to a more stressful in recovery for your heart. They said you'll feel weak to rest, but otherwise get back on the horse. I went back to St. Louis for two weeks then back to Philadelphia to be with team. A month later I started interacting with the players."
This is where you realize that hockey coaches coach hockey. Not to overstate the obvious, it's just what they do. It's not that most coaches can't do other things in life that would be less stressful on the mind and body, they just don't want to. The heart figuratively and literally pumps the sport through their veins.
There wasn't even a thought by Rogger that he'd maybe consider a career change.
"I came back probably much sooner than I should have," said Rogger. "But I probably would have had more stress at home watching team on Hockey TV with no ability to help. It was better get back at it. Over two months I slowly eased myself back into the day-to-day."
From the outside, Rogger's post-heart attack life isn't all that different from a year earlier. Like a true hockey coach, attention to fundamentals is priority No. 1. "I think the biggest thing I do differently is simply go to bed a lot earlier. I have gotten on a normal sleep routine and waking up I feel a lot better than before," said Rogger. "I'm also more conscious of what I eat during the day."
His medical attention is hampered somewhat by health insurance that might not crack the figurative starting line-up. "Unfortunately I had bad insurance and I never got a regular cardiologist, but I got on medicine that I take every day," said Rogger. "I have only seen a cardiologist twice but I also see the doctor about the defibrillator. (With better insurance) I'd be doing a normal routine with stress tests and working out regularly with a cardiologist. I'm one of those guys that, when you look at your doctor bills, you just decide to take your chances because of cost."
His outlook and definition of stress has also slightly changed. "Stress is just a mindset. I'm a competitor and I want to win but I try not to let the job get to me as much as it has in the past. My GM and ownership have been great and that helps," said Rogger.
"As I'm getting older and after going through this, I want to be in a position where I'm happy. That's where I"m at right now. I don't care if I make it back to USHL or higher levels. I love being a head coach."
And for now the Revolution love having him at the helm as the fortunes of both him and the team seem to be on the rise.
Jeff Nygaard is the editor of The Junior Hockey Podcast. He covers Junior and college-bound hockey as a traditional “beat,” in addition to breaking news stories during the course of the year
He has a vast amount of experience on the business and organizational side of the sport as a former owner-operator of two Junior organizations two youth clubs and having served as executive director or commissioner of the Eastern Hockey League and the United States Premier Hockey League.
A Fergus Falls, Minn., native, Nygaard grew up playing for the Fergus Falls Youth Hockey Association, Fergus Falls High School, Fergus Falls Community College and North Dakota State University programs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions, story ideas and anonymous tips.