By Jason P. Skoda
The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX – For years, Jacquie Tiltgen spent hours each day in ice rinks all across the Alberta province of Canada supporting her three sons as they made their way through the hockey ranks.
It was a sacrifice, but it’s what mothers do for their boys.
When Jacquie was hospitalized because of cancer, Dean Tiltgen quit hockey to be by her side.
It’s what sons do.
“I just did what I thought was right, what needed to be done,” Dean said. “She made a lot of sacrifices and I felt I needed to do the same. It wasn’t a hard decision when I really had time to think about it.”
Jacquie was diagnosed with cervical cancer in December 2003 and fought it until she died on Feb. 3 this year.
Dean’s return to hockey coincides with the renewal of the RoadRunners as they prepare for Friday’s ECHL season opener in Utah. The Edmonton native has been named the RoadRunners’ captain.
“This season will be very therapeutic for Dean,” his father, Bob, said. “He told me that he thought he was ready to skate again. I told him I am going to be around for another 30 years so he doesn’t need to take care of me. It was time for him to go back. He’s still young enough at 31 that he can play at a high level. If he waited much longer that might not be the case. “
Working his way back
Tiltgen wanted to come back to the right situation, returning on his own terms without the worry of having to impress a coaching staff. He trained with Winchester Johnson, a Canadian Olympian in the pentathlon, to keep in shape and his legs strong, but he wasn’t around the game. He knew there would be a period of adjustment to the speed of the game.
He was cautious about the offers he received. Eventually, he decided to go with the RoadRunners in large part because of his relationship with coach Ron Filion, who was his coach with Augusta in 2000-01. They kept in contact over the years, but Tiltgen still wasn’t ready to commit to the RoadRunners when Filion called him in January because he was still by his mother’s side.
By March, Tiltgen had started the healing process and in April he participated in the Roadrunners’ “Hockey Night in Phoenix” after agreeing to a contract.
“I trusted Tilly to let me know when he was ready,” Filion said after a recent practice at Arcadia Ice Arena. “It was a sad situation and a personal decision. I probably would have done the same thing. I knew he was a warrior and if I was going to start a team, I wanted him be a part of it.”
It’s no wonder considering the 6-foot-1, 190-pound center’s resume. Tiltgen was taken in the eighth round of the 1992 draft by the Buffalo Sabres and scored a career-best 111 points in 72 games in 1992-93.
He has shown glimpses of returning to form, but reality is Tiltgen has not played competitively since the middle of the 2003-04 season when he was with San Diego of the ECHL.
“His hands aren’t quite there yet, but the skating is as strong as ever,” Filion said. “Tilly will be back at the top of his game soon enough.”
RoadRunners President Claude Lemieux said he seen enough of Tiltgen to know the center made the right decision – then and now.
“He’s still a fairly young guy,” said the member of four Stanley Cup championship teams. “He will make it up. He has always been a consistent player in this league. He did what was right and it was important to have the right peace of mind.”
Tiltgen still searches for some of that peace as he prepares for the season. Tiltgen knows he cannot be hesitant or half-hearted once he slips the jersey over his pads.
“When you are at the rink and on the ice, you can’t let the outside things affect your play or your state of mind,” he said. “When I am away from it I think of her, but when I have the skates on I have certain responsibilities.
“Anytime you are named captain of a professional team it is an honor. I’m not real vocal, but responsibilities come with that honor. I will play hard and maybe show the younger players some things once in a while, but mostly I just want to play hockey again.”
Teammate Cory Pecker said the expansion franchise is lucky to have such a veteran operating on its main line.
“He’s been around this league for a few years and understands what it takes to be a professional at this level,” Pecker said. “He has been through a lot, but I don’t know how much we really know about everything he had to deal with.”
Part of that is the newness of the franchise and part of it is Tiltgen’s personality. Tiltgen, whose family lost his older brother, Ryan, to heart disease in 1988, is not one to be forthcoming about himself, according to his father, unless the right person was doing the inquiring.
“Dean is pretty tight-lipped, but if there was anyone who could get him to talk, it was his mother,” Bob said. “He had some time with his mom at the end that I know he is grateful he took the time to have. . . . Now that he is back on the ice, Dean will be 100 percent focused on hockey.
“He will do whatever he can to make that team better.”
After all, that is what captains do.