In the sixth of a unique series of stories showcasing NCHC coaches and players from a first-person perspective, St. Cloud State junior forward Will Hammer writes about a serious health scare he faced with his heart and not knowing the problem for years, how he's since recovered, and what it's like playing for his hometown team.
ST. CLOUD, Minn. - I played hockey for four years with an undiagnosed heart condition.
That’s a long time to go without answers. I underwent a multitude of tests covering everything from a simple EKG to a Cardiac MRI, visited with multiple doctors, and still no answer as to why I was having unexplained cardiac arrhythmias. It wasn’t long before I started to accept my condition as normal and continued to go about my daily routine to the best of my ability.
Putting down the hockey stick and walking away was never the solution, though. The competition, comradery, and speed of the game—it was a sort of exhilarating freedom no other sport gave me.
But these episodes, symptoms of my condition, were challenging.
An episode typically consisted of an irregular and sporadic heartbeat, high blood pressure, and shortness of breath. Some of the more severe episodes made me consider my personal well-being, much less my hockey career.
That humbling fear of uncertainty is something I hope to never experience again.
The Speed of the Ice
It’s a good thing my older brother played hockey. He helped get my parents up to speed on the do’s and don’ts, while paving the way for an easier transition for me. Something as small as buying the right equipment can go a long way.
I started playing when I was about two years old and immediately fell in love with the sport. It came naturally to me more so than the other sports I dabbled in as a kid. The big draw for me was always the speed. Just being on the ice—I loved the speed of the game. It was much more exciting than baseball and soccer.
There was also the bond I built with family and friends throughout my neighborhood through countless hours on the outside rink. We had a rink in my backyard and I remember being out there for hours with my brother and his friends or my friends. Those pick-up hockey games helped create the love I have for the game of hockey.
My love for playing the game eventually spilled over into a passion for watching. I had become so enthralled by hockey in Minnesota that I started dreaming about becoming a collegiate athlete.
But I faced so many ups and downs along the way, it certainly took some time to turn this dream into a reality.
It’s kind of funny how life works out sometimes.
An Offer of a Lifetime
I went on to play three years of junior hockey in the NAHL after finishing my tenure at St. Cloud Cathedral High School. Roughly three weeks after my final junior hockey game, the assistant coach for the St. Cloud Huskies at the time, Garrett Raboin, called me and said a spot opened up on the team.
To say receiving that phone call was a dream come true would be an understatement.
I grew up in St. Cloud, following the team and college hockey for as long as I could remember.
Now, I was being offered an opportunity to wear that iconic jersey and be a part of the team I spent much of my childhood wishing I could be on.
Then head coach Bob Motzko told me to take a day before making a decision. Little did he know, it would only take me a few seconds. He still made me go home that day to consider the offer, but I made sure he knew I was ready to get to work.
The Scary Diagnosis
I only played in five games during my first two years at St. Cloud State.
We had some unbelievable players on the team. Although it was disappointing not getting in the lineup as much as I wanted, I found solace in the fact that I was blessed with some truly great role models.
I made the most of my learning opportunities by watching and listening as much as I could.
During my freshman year, I had one of those episodes that lasted considerably longer than my previous ones. I decided to tell my trainer Bryan about it and he recorded the symptoms I was experiencing. We wanted to get to the bottom of this undiagnosed health condition as soon as possible to ensure my life wasn’t in danger.
This was roughly one year after my first heart “episode.” Back then, a trip to the emergency room ended in me receiving a panic attack diagnosis.
Deep down, I never thought it felt like a panic attack or anxiety. That diagnoses just never matched the symptoms I thought I was having.
After failing a mandatory physical, I was sent to a clinic in Buffalo to get some tests, but nothing panned out from the doctor visits either. They allowed me to practice and lift weights under certain restrictions. I was not cleared to lift heavy weights in fear that my blood pressure would rise too high and trigger an “episode.”
They couldn’t really figure out the reason for my episodes, and they were uncomfortable with me continuing the process and playing hockey after this dramatic unexplained cardiac arrhythmia.
So, we continued to dig in and pushed hard for answers.
And I’d eventually get them.
In an effort to get a second opinion, I linked up with a doctor in the heart center at the St. Cloud Hospital to ultimately get referred to an electrophysiologist.
From there, he had a pretty good grasp of what I was going through. He diagnosed me with a supraventricular tachycardia and said that with an ablation procedure, which destroys the heart tissue causing the problem, I would likely not have an episode again.
With years of uncertainty of what my condition was, and a multitude of medical tests, I was relieved that a simple blood pressure medication is all I was left with.
It was a major relief considering a potentially scary alternative.
A New Lease on Life
I haven’t had one episode since that procedure. It used to always be in the back of my mind during daily activities, but I really don’t even think about it anymore.
It’s one of those things in life that you mature from and come out better on the other side.
I was finally able to work out without restrictions after the procedure and get my body in the right place. As my confidence grew, coach Brett Larson pulled me into a meeting to discuss what he was looking for as a fourth-line center.
This was the first time I felt like I could find my role on this team. I had more confidence in myself because I got the opportunity to train at a high level during the offseason. Because of the continual support I had from my family, teammates, and my coaches & trainers I have been able to carve out a role for myself.
It’s been a fun year already.
I could only imagine how fun it would be to win a national championship for my hometown team.
After four years of living in fear of the unknown, I’m not taking anything for granted.
-- Will Hammer, St. Cloud State
After playing only five games total for SCSU in his first two seasons, Will Hammer has played in 30 games this year after a heart procedure helped correct a health scare.