Jeff de Wit and Ryan Vandervlis have a bond that runs far beyond boards of the hockey rink.
Their hockey careers have taken different paths since they were last teammates in 2013 at the Bantam AAA level in Red Deer.
After they each started journeys in the Western Hockey League in different cities in 2014, Vandervlis in Lethbridge and de Wit at home in Red Deer, that meant only training in the summer, some ball hockey or roller hockey time.
Now, the best friends and Red Deer Minor Hockey products will be reunited once again, after committing to the Concordia University Stingers of Ontario University Athletics in U Sports Hockey for the 2019-20 season.
“Ryan and I had been talking about going to school together for a long time now. Especially after his accident. We wanted to spend the next four years of our lives together,” de Wit said.
“Jeff is my best friend, he’s my brother. If he wasn’t already this summer, it just solidified that. I’m so excited to move to Montreal with my best friend for four years, let alone play hockey. We haven’t played on a team since we were 14,” Vandervlis said.
Although it wasn’t quite the reality they dreamed of as two young teenagers thinking the NHL was just a few short steps away, it is still quite remarkable.
Vandervlis suffered a nearly debilitating injury at a summer fire in 2018, where he burned more than half his body. He was in a coma for seven days and under care at the hospital for three weeks. His life was in limbo, let alone his hockey playing future.
De Wit was passed on as an overage player by every team in the WHL one year ago at this time, not sure what his hockey playing future held.
What played out over the next 12 months for the best friends was something out of a fairy tale.
In December of 2018, Vandervlis, a veteran of 162 WHL games with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, finally hit the ice for the first time since the accident. It wasn’t in the WHL, but at home with the Red Deer Vipers of the Heritage Junior B Hockey League. The six-foot-3, 212-pound forward torched that league, with 21 points in nine games and another 10 in seven playoff contests.
Skating for his hometown Red Deer Rebels in his final WHL season, de Wit had a career year scoring 27 goals and adding 17 assists in 66 games. The 21-year-old doubled his career goal total on the campaign.
How the pair ended up with a shot at U Sports hockey next season is another exercise in overcoming the odds.
De Wit got a call from Concordia in February while on the road with the Rebels in Saskatchewan. He told coach Mark Andre- Element, he was interested, but only if Vandervlis got a shot too. A hard sell.
“I told Mark I’m probably not going anywhere without Ryan. I explained to him (Ryan) was back on the ice playing Junior B and working towards the level he was at, prior to the accident. He gave Ryan a call and we got talking more and more,” de Wit recalled.
The Stingers head coach met the duo for coffee this spring, while he was on his way to Lethbridge for the U Sports Cup, Canada’s national university championship. That meeting was productive and after a visit to the Montreal school last month, de Wit and Vandervlis were sold.
“We instantly fell in love with the city, the school and their hockey program, ultimately, that’s what it came down to,” de Wit added.
The Stingers lost a big group of forwards after the 2018-19 season, opening up the potential for Vandervlis and de Wit to crack the starting lineup, or maybe even play together.
“It opened up a couple of spots up front. My goal is to crack the top nine or top six in my first year. In talking to Mark, it sounds like a goal I can accomplish. That’s what I’m aiming for next year,” said de Wit, adding he isn’t sure whether he will play wing or center next year.
Vandervlis hopes to suit up for that first game but knows he has a long summer ahead of him to get his body ready for that level.
Waiting his a huge part of the recovery process from the burns he suffered. He says his body feels even leaps and bounds from what it did two months ago and has a firm belief, it will be even better come September.
“It’s an obstacle, but there’s been a lot of obstacles lately. I’m excited for it,” he said.
“My body even feels so much better than when I was playing with the Vipers. That was only a month and a half ago. My body compared to then, feels way better. The scaring has loosened up. I’ve gotten way more flexible. If I could play for the Vipers right now, I would be a way better player.”
Whatever the next four seasons of university hockey hold for the pair of longtime friends from Red Deer, it’s clear they’re proud to make this next step together.
“It would be cool for us to one day play on a line together again hopefully. That would definitely be a dream come true,” de Wit said.