FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 14, 2022
PENALIZED, IDOLIZED, NOW IMMORTALIZED; WILLY’S NO. 13 HOME
Kalamazoo Wings set to retire, legendary player & fan favorite, Tyler Willis’ jersey on Friday.
By Pam Shebest for the K-Wings
KALAMAZOO, MI - Tyler Willis’ two children never saw their dad play for the Kalamazoo Wings, but they have watched various clips of him on YouTube.
“They don’t show any goals on there,” said 7-year-old Ledger, to much laughter.
Although he was not a consummate goal-scorer, Willis created opportunities for his teammates to score by being a physical presence on the ice.
“He allowed all of our teammates to play a couple inches taller all the time, knowing that he was out there and that he had your back,” said Joel Martin, K-Wings assistant coach and former Willis teammate.
“Tyler is one of the all-time greats to put on a K-Wings uniform. Just a team-first guy, looking out for his teammates all the time.”
For his contributions, Willis’ No. 13 jersey will be retired in a ceremony before Friday’s game against the Toledo Walleye.
Making Friday more memorable, Wendi and Tyler Willis’ youngest child, daughter Bexley, turns five years old on Friday.
This will not be the first time the old No. 13 will reside on a wall.
“My jersey’s in a frame,” Willis said. “I’ve got my draft jersey (from the Vancouver Canucks in 1995)
hanging in a closet somewhere, but my K-Wings jersey is on the wall. It was one of the best times of my life.”
Playing 349 games from 2003-2010 with the K-Wings, Willis racked up 1,463 penalty minutes, second most in team history.
Many fans were disappointed if they left a game without the 5-foot-9 forward sitting in the penalty box at least once, accompanied by the spirited tune “Little Willy” and with a fan’s sign reading “Free Willy” behind the sin bin.
“They think the ref picked on me some games,” Willis laughed. “The signs were in good humor and I enjoyed it.”
At the mention of “Little Willy,” Ledger began singing it.
“I love that song,” Willis said. “It does bring back good memories. Yeah, we sing it sometimes. It kind of suits the situation where it was played.”
As for receiving the honor, when he got the call, “I was in the office, and I probably sounded like something was wrong with me on the phone because I didn’t know what to say,” he said.
“I was shocked. I just didn’t expect it. It’s the biggest honor you can give a player. The whole thing is pretty emotional.”
He already had one celebration, which came when his wife contacted several of Willis’ former teammates and coaches. The group compiled their comments and stories into a video to commemorate the honor.
“I told him we were just going out to dinner,” she said. “We had like 60-some people there and watched the video at a big surprise party.”
Catching up with friends
Willis and family traveled from their home in Princeton, British Columbia, Canada, for the week and he’s been busy catching up with friends.
And the stories keep coming.
“Walking in every morning and seeing Tyler Willis, like a true pro, warming up in the hot tub with a coffee is one of my greatest memories,” Martin said.
Willis added to the story.
“One day (former coach, the late) Mark Reeds came in and put a sign up: Try warming up on a bike,” Willis laughed.
“He just went with it. He put up with my hot tub warmups and my odd late night and bad penalties.
That’s old school, right?”
K-Wings coach Nick Bootland, was a Willis teammate and also coached the forward his final two years as a pro.
“I owned a business with him, Hat Trick Lawn Care,” Bootland said. “He was my linemate, teammate, peanut, partner, all those things.
“He’s one of the best guys to ever strap ’em up and one of the best ever teammates that I ever played with.”
Bootland said Willis was one of the last old-school guys on the team, explaining his routine after a short layoff his last season.
“After his first game back, he was standing in the shower with his beer in his hand and the other guys were drinking protein shakes and taking care of their bodies and spinning on the bike,” Bootland said.
“Willy just needed a beer. He was just one the the last old-school guys who could do it that way. He could play hard and party hard and still be a good player.”
One game that epitomizes the way Willis drew attention happened during a Rockford IceHogs game in Illinois.
Willis and Bootland were wingers on the same line and during a faceoff in the neutral zone, Bootland happened to look up.
“Their whole bench, plus the three sections behind their bench, were all making the meanest faces and screaming and yelling at Tyler Willis,” Bootland recalled.
“It felt like it was a long time, but was probably 20 seconds tops. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
That physical presence also helped the K-Wings win the UHL Colonial Cup in 2005-06.
Willis said a combination of things told him it was time to retire.
“You slow down,” he said. “I had five or six surgeries. You start getting sore and the bus trips start getting longer.
“It’s harder to get up the next day. Your play slows down, too, and it’s time to move on.”
Back in Canada
When Wendi first met Willis in Kalamazoo, she ignored the advice of friend Rick Shanley, who worked for the K-Wings.
“He always told me, ‘Wendi, don’t ever date a hockey player,’” she said, laughing.
Once he retired in 2010 and moved back to Canada, they continued a long-distance relationship until he suggested she move to Canada.
She did, and they married in 2013, living in British Columbia where she teaches sixth and seventh grades.
After retiring, Willis earned his Realtor’s license then worked as a millwright in a copper and gold mine for nine years before returning to real estate.
At Christmas, he became an owner of Royal LePage Realty and is also a partner in a subdivision with 28 units being built.
With the Covid quarantine, the Willis family has not been back in the states for three years.
“I played here so long, I know so many people,” Willis said. “We say they’re fans, but they’re all my friends.
“Some of my best friends live in town and a bunch of the guys are coming back. It’ll be a fun night.”
He said Kalamazoo will always be special.
“I played in a lot of towns and with a lot of teams, but I talk about Kalamazoo because I spent so much time here, we lived here, my wife’s family is from here,” he said.
“I love Kalamazoo. It’s a perfect size, a good location and there’s always something going on. The organization is first class. They treated everyone so good.”
The Kalamazoo Wings are a professional hockey team located in southwest Michigan that has been a staple in the Kalamazoo, MI professional sports landscape since 1974. The K-Wings compete in the ECHL and are the AA affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Columbus Blue Jackets and American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters. Kalamazoo plays their 36 regular season home games at Wings Event Center from October through April.