Published: 40 days ago
Courtesy of Pam Shebest
KALAMAZOO, MI — Tanner Sorenson will celebrate his birthday with 19 friends but the day won’t be filled with ice cream, cake and beverages.
The forward will spend the weekend on a team bus, not a party bus, with his Kalamazoo Wings teammates, traveling to Fort Wayne Friday then to Wheeling, W.Va., Saturday.
Sorenson turns 24 today, Feb. 17.
“I’m getting old,” he said, laughing. “Hopefully we’ll win.
“This is our last time playing Fort Wayne until, hopefully, playoffs and then we hop on the bus to Wheeling.”
A second-year pro, Sorenson is having his best season yet with 12 goals and 19 assists for 31 points in 49 games.
Eleven of those points (2 goals, 9 assists) came in his last 10 games.
Amid his success has been heartache.
His brother Josh, who was living in Texas, died unexpectedly Jan. 22 from complications of diabetes.
That day, the K-Wings were at Wings Event Center hosting the Toledo Walleye.
In a 5-4 ECHL win, Sorenson tallied a goal and one assist.
“I think my dad purposely waited (until after the 3 p.m. game) to tell me,” Sorenson said. “He called me Sunday night.
“I was empty at that point. It was just, ‘Wow.’ It kind of hits you. He was supposed to come (to Kalamazoo) the next weekend.
“He had been struggling a little bit with sickness but they never said death could be on the way. It kind of randomly happened. Everything slows down for you and I was pretty empty.”
Sorenson’s roommate and longtime friend, Jimmy Mullin, said the news was a shock.
“Tanner’s a brother to me and I’m extremely close to the family,” he said. “Obviously it affects me because it affects my best friend’s family.
“Unfortunately we have to go through things like that, but as a team we’re trying to help him get through that and distract his mind. You never expect that. Reality kind of hit when I spoke to his mom. You’re looking at someone who lost her first child.”
Sorenson travels to Alaska
K-Wings coach Nick Bootland said he talked with Sorenson about going home to Alaska to be with family for a while.
“Family will always be first here before hockey,” Bootland said. “That’s who we are as a hockey team. We talked to Tanner when that happened. I literally can’t imagine what he’s dealing with and what he had to go through.
“We asked Tanner what he wanted from us and we were willing to accommodate him in any way.”
Sorenson said his brother would not want him to miss any hockey games, so he opted to wait until the K-Wings had a week without games to fly back to Alaska for a Celebration of Life gathering.
When Sorenson got his father’s heart-wrenching call, “We were starting all-star break, so we had four days off. You could say it came at a good time.
“I just sat around the apartment. At that point there’s nothing you can really do. It’s been a roller coaster.”
The team’s next game five days later was also at home against the Brampton Beast — with Sorenson adding an assist in regulation then scoring the only shootout goal in the 2-1 win.
“During the game I did a shoutout beforehand,” he said. “Hockey kind of tied us together. I think I cried like three times during the game, before, during, after.
“The nice part of hockey is you have so much going on it kind of keeps your mind off it. When you’re sitting around with nothing to do, you start thinking. That’s why some days are worse than others.”
He said his brother made the most of his short life.
“It’s hard to say you want to appreciate life and all that,” he said. “He traveled the world in his job as a salesman. The thing about him is he lived every day to his last.”
Bootland said the forward has handled everything well.
“I feel he’s done a pretty good job dealing with it and trying to stay focused,” the coach said.
“He had success right away and I’m sure that was a great moment for him. I’m sure he thought a lot about his brother after that (shootout goal) happened.”
Mullin, who went to Alaska with Sorenson for the gathering the week of Feb. 5, said players first learned of his brother’s death through the grapevine.
“Tanner is very intrinsic when it comes to personal stuff,” said Mullin, who has spent the entire season on Injured Reserve after tearing his ACL in training camp.
“We got a team jersey and everybody signed it to give to the family. Thanks to (PR director and broadcaster) Joe Roberts who orchestrated that. It was really nice to be able to give them a token of our sympathies.”
Sorenson comfortable in Kalamazoo
In his second season with the K-Wings, “It’s nice to find a spot where I haven’t moved around,” Sorenson said. “I’ve got buddies that have bounced around. One has played on five teams this year.”
Part of his success is more ice time and playing on the top line with Justin Taylor and Josh Pitt.
“We’re all different players and it seems to click,” Sorenson said of his linemates. “We’ve got speed and we’re not afraid to get into the dirty area. It’s a good mixture of a little bit of everything.”
Bootland said he thinks Sorenson is starting to show what he is capable of doing.
“He has the energy, he has the skill set. Now we just have to keep pushing the professionalism,” Bootland said.
“I know it’s so cliche, but the sky’s the limit if Tanner wants to put in the work and wants to put in the time. If he wants to practice like he’s an NHLer and get something out of every day, I feel he could be an American League player.”
Hockey genes from his dad
Sorenson got his hockey genes from his dad, Dennis, who set several records, including most career points of 197, as a player at University of Alaska Anchorage from 1980-84.
His dad is currently head hockey coach at Dimond High School in Anchorage where his teams have won more than 500 games in his 25 years there.
“It’s nice to have another eye in the background that gets the game,” Tanner Sorenson said. “I’m always hearing back from him.”
The K-Wings forward left home at age 13 to play hockey in Minnesota. He played collegiately at Michigan State University before signing with the K-Wings last year.
The K-Wings (24-21-1-3) are 7-3-0 in their last 10 games and one points out of a playoff spot with 23 games left in the regular season.
“As a group we’ve grown immensely and we’ve even be able to change the way we’re coaching this team a bit now as opposed to two and one-half months ago,” Bootland said.
“Now we’re having some success so we can be a little bit harder on them. We can look at the minor details even closer than before. You can see that our group is growing and playing as a team.”
Mullin gets a good look at the team during games while he is in the stands.
“I keep stats like faceoffs, individual stats on five or six key categories the coaches want us to look at,” he said. “I’m getting the hang of it so I can watch the game and still tally it.
“I like it because it keeps me engaged and understanding what our coaches want to see when I do come back to play.”
When he has a chance to go on the road with the team, he has been trying his hand at broadcasting as Roberts’ color man.
“That was more so for my grandmother,” the personable Mullin said. “She watches every game and I told her I had a surprise for her. I got to give her a shout out.
“I enjoy just talking hockey every chance I get.”
Looking at broadcasting as a possible career after playing hockey, Mullin laughed: “I like to think I have a face for TV, not a voice for radio.”