The top four qualities of a role model are passion and the ability to inspire, a clear set of values, selflessness and acceptance of others and the ability to overcome obstacles; qualities not normally associated with an 11 year old boy.
Billy Gatske is a 6th grade student at Traughber Middle School in Oswego, Illinois, and like many young hockey players his age, Billy was bitten by the hockey bug during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. His parents, Bill and Jennie Gatske, enrolled Billy in Learn to Skate programs at Fox Valley and Rocket Ice Arenas where Billy’s love for the game of hockey became evident and his path to becoming a role model to other youth athletes began.
Billy was born with VACTERL Association. VACTERL stands for vertebral defects, anal atresia, cardiac defects, tracheo-esophageal fistula, renal anomalies, and limb abnormalities. A child diagnosed with VACTERAL Association will not necessarily have problems in all these areas; Billy has one kidney, an extra rib, no radius bone in his right arm (making it significantly shorter than his left) and a club hand absent a thumb with fused fingers.
Bill and Jennie Gatske had long instilled in their son that he could do anything to which he set his mind. They shared inspirational stories of great athletes like Major League Baseball Pitcher, Jim Abbott and Division I Notre Dame Goalie, Joe Rogers. Abbott, who despite being born without a right hand, won the James E. Sullivan Award in 1987 as the nation’s best amateur athlete, threw a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in 1993 and won a gold medal in the demonstration event at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Joe Rogers, who himself admired Abbott, was also born without a right hand and recently won the CCHA’s Terry Flanagan Award for “perseverance, dedication and courage while overcoming extreme adversity.”
Combining inspiration from his role models, Abbott and Rogers, encouragement from his parents and steely determination Billy suited up for his first season of hockey with the Cyclones Amateur Hockey Association in Geneva in the Spring of 2012. While playing on Coach Joe Allamain’s Fall 2013 NWHL Pee Wee team, Billy insisted on no special treatment working just as hard as his teammates to hone his stickhandling, passing and shooting skills. Billy’s work ethic and determination both on and off the ice spurs other players to work that much harder. Over the course of the Fall season and again this Spring it was evident that Billy demonstrated all the qualities most associated with a role model and team leader, motivating and encouraging his teammates during practice and in games, demanding fairness, and displaying excellent sportsmanship. “In my opinion, Billy isn’t just a role model for athletes with disabilities, or people with disabilities, he is an inspiration to all of us. When you see him on the ice, it is not immediately evident that he has a disability or is disadvantaged in any way. What is evident is his passion for the game and no one works harder or has more fun playing the game than Billy,” says Mark Plantery, President of the Cyclones.
Like every other young hockey player on the ice, Billy has dreams of playing for Team USA in the Olympics or his favorite NHL team, the Chicago Blackhawks. When asked who his favorite Blackhawks player was, Billy quickly answered, “Duncan Keith! I admire him for his work ethic, sportsmanship and overall toughness.” Taking his dreams quite seriously, most days you will find Billy practicing his stickhandling and shot in his driveway and playing basketball, swimming and riding his bike to maintain his endurance.
“He was an inspiration to coach because of his passion for the game,” says Keith Gorczyca, Billy’s Spring Coach, “Billy was one of the hardest working players I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach. He set a great example for his teammates through his hard work during games and practices. Billy never let anything stand in his way. If there was a skill he was struggling with, he worked harder to become better at it. Asked what his favorite memory was from this past Spring season, Gorczyca said, “Billy was awarded a penalty shot in the Spring League Championship Game. He scored a goal to tie the game, using a move he had been working on all spring during our practices. After he scored he came to the bench with a huge smile saying, ‘See, Coach, it worked. Just like in practice.’ Billy is an inspiration to his teammates because he never gives up. As a coach I would take an entire team of kids with the attitude, passion and work ethic Billy has.”
Asked why he loves hockey more than any other sport, this self-confident 11 year old said, “It’s the competitiveness, team play and skill that’s needed to be a great player; those are also my three favorite things about hockey too. The great thing about hockey is that everything can be adapted to the individual player – skill, shooting, maneuvers, even the equipment.” When asked what he would tell other young hockey players he said, “that they should focus on things you HAVE, rather than things you DON’T and never let anything stand in the way of your goals!”