LOCAL HOCKEY: CHET PETERSON
Hockey can mean different things to different people.
To some it is just a game, a fun activity to fill the time between warm weather seasons. Others have a hunger for the sport, consuming every stat and nugget they can feast their eyes on.
For Chet Peterson, hockey was an extension of his soul, a fundamental ingredient to his essence. Like breathing, hockey wasn't something he tried to do or liked to do. Hockey was something that he had to do.
A 31-year old computer programmer from New Ulm, Minnesota, Peterson began playing the sport as a kid and never stopped. Not on the snowy days in his home town. Not after moving to the bright sunshine of California.
Not even on the day he died.
"Pretty much, hockey and programming were his life," said friend and teammate Tony Siruno. "Well, actually, hockey was his life."
Growing up learning hockey in Minnesota is like mastering basketball in Indiana or tinkering the with finer points of soccer in Brazil. Chet Peterson's youth was a childhood on skates, consistently the best player on all of his youth teams. Following a successful high school career, Peterson even earned a try out with the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the ECHL.
There weren't many people who wouldn't want Chet Peterson on their team, on or off the ice.
"Chet was one of the most outgoing people you will ever meet," Siruno said. "He would give you the shirt right off his back. When we went back to Minnesota, he just fit right in. You know, small town people they always have a smile on their face."
According to friend Mark Stewart, hockey was a big part of Peterson's character.
"He was very intense," Stewart said. "And hockey is so fast-paced, I think it suited his personality. You know, its a game where you need to be constantly moving, constantly on the go and that was perfect for him.
"He had the best laugh in the world, the type of laugh that would get everyone else laughing. He never needed to be the center of attention."
As much as Peterson's friends liked him off the ice, they liked him even more on it. As a member of ice hockey teams in Simi Valley, Burbank, Valencia and a roller hockey league as well, Peterson was consistently involved in the game.
"Chet was the type of guy where, if he wasn't showing up for a game, we would be a little worried, like "I don't know how we are going to do," Siruno said. "But if he showed up, then it would be "OK, we're going to beat the crap out of this team."
Stewart said Peterson brought more to the table than just on-ice skill.
"He definitely motivated the team," Stewart said "He was never really showy in terms of talking big but, when you felt down, you would watch him and you felt embarrassed that you weren't going that hard. He never had a bad thing to say about anybody.
"He was never one to say he was better than us but we all knew it."
Under the bright lights and desert sky of Las Vegas, hockey tournaments abound. Along with shotgun weddings and corporate conventions, Sin City has become a popular getaway for men's hockey teams from all over North America.
The Burbank Maple Leafs, a men's team based just north of Los Angeles, were routinely one of those teams.
"We would go down for a couple of tournaments a year," said Mark Stewart, a teammate of Peterson.
As one of the best players on the Maple Leafs, Peterson had become a regular in Vegas, even being named MVP of Maple Leafs' Red Rock Division at the 2004 Las Vegas Hockey Festival.
Just weeks ago, Peterson and his teammates were once again gracing the Vegas ice, competing in an invite-only adult tournament. As defensive line mates, Stewert and Peterson were to be on the ice at the same time throughout the game.
During one memorable game, the pair took a shift or two on their normal schedule, skating with the fire and energy their teammates had come to expect.
"Chet was playing great," Stewart proclaimed.
However, upon taking the ice for a second or third time, Peterson took a much shorter shift than usual before heading back to the bench.
"Within like 20 seconds, he came back to the bench," Siruno observed. "It was unusual because Chet was the type of guy who, when he went out on a shift, he would be out there for like five minutes."
Stewart also remembered being puzzled by Peterson's quick fatigue.
"I followed him back to the bench and I thought that it was really odd," Stewart recalled. "I looked over at him and he looked fine. I think I must have started to watch the the game for a second and I turned back to make sure he was alright. He just went down.
"I was scared from the start because I knew his brother had died (from heart problems)."
To everyone's chagrin, Stewart's fears were right on the money. At just 31-years of age, Chet Peterson died on the ice.
According to preliminary reports, doctors think Peterson's death may have due to an apparent heart attack. Many of his teammates returned to New Ulm to attend the funeral, giving him a "hockey stick salute" outside of the church.
Every season the Kings hold the annual Skills Competition, a community event based on model used at the NHL All-Star Game. Hockey players of all ages are able to test their abilities against local competition in categories such as Fastest Skater, Hardest Shot and Shooting Accuracy.
Leading into this season's Skill Competition finals, held during intermission of the Kings Mar. 18 game against the St. Louis Blues, the minds of many in the Kings organization were on one of the participants from the men's division, a player that was not there to perform.
"He was certainly a favorite," said James Cefaly, the Kings Manager of Fan Development. "He recorded the best times and results of any of our qualifiers at the local rinks."
Siruno was a little more straightforward in his prediction.
"He probably would have won the whole thing," Siruno said.
All across the ponds of Minnesota, kids are digging pucks out of snow banks, practicing their skating and shooting pucks at trash cans. The rinks of California are full of men's leagues, players who carry as deep a love for hockey as Peterson once did.
Chet Peterson was just one hockey guy who lived a hockey life and, in the end, died a hockey death. And one gets the feeling, he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.