By Ross Forman
Rafe Aybar was having increased difficulty last summer swallowing food when eating, and after doctors completed an endoscopy, he was told those three words that no one ever wants to hear:
You Have Cancer.
Yep, the longtime local hockey coach was diagnosed with esophageal cancer last August, and he has been undergoing extensive treatment for the aggressive illness. He has been treated with multiple different chemotherapy regimens over the past year.
“My first thought (upon hearing the diagnosis) was, ‘What would happen (to) my wife and kids without me?” said Aybar, who admitted his emotions were fear-filled.
Aybar, 64, who lives in Wilmette, is the proprietor of Aybar Skate and has coached locally for decades. His playing career included a season in a Junior league in Manitoba, Canada, in the early-1970s.
But coaching and teaching is where Aybar has truly left his legacy on the local game.
“When I was first starting out, I taught a variety of clinics,” dating back to the late-1970s, he said. “I taught (years ago) in the Can Am Hockey Schools and the Canadian Professional clinics, as well as various Bauer camps.”
His coaching started in the Niles Park District under Jim Weides.
“The majority of my work with teams has been with the mite and squirt levels. My teaching individual players (has helped some on) the way to the professional level, including being drafted into the NHL.”
Aybar taught/coached the youth hockey Niles Sharks, (later becoming the Niles Rangers), to several NIHL championships in the 1970s. In the early-1980s, he coached and taught in Glenview for the Glenview Stars. He then moved on to Wilmette Hockey Association, and coached their teams to several championships through the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s.
He is still involved with the Wilmette Braves.
He has been coaching and teaching for 44 years.
“One of the highlights to me is watching a young player develop over the years and become a professional hockey player,” Aybar said. “That said, an undeniable highlight is knowing that I helped foster the passion for the sport in many players, and although not all of them make it to an NHL team, many of them still stay involved in hockey in some way or another – from (playing in) adult leagues to coaching, or parenting their own young player.
“Knowing that I have had a positive impact on their experience with hockey gives me great joy.”
Aybar’s coaching/teaching resume reads like a who’s who. Some of the players who Aybar has helped on their hockey path include Joe Corvo, Tom Wingels, John Moore, Brain Fahey, Andy Wozniewski, Sean Berens, Chris Busby, Sam Fields, Aviva Grumet-Morris, Dov Grumet-Morris, Evan Nielsen, Sarah Tueting, and others.
“Two years ago I was asked if I would be retiring soon. I vowed to continue with the students I was currently working with and follow them through with their hockey careers,” Aybar said. “But now, the uncertainty of my condition makes it difficult to anticipate how far along I will be able to take them.”
Cancer has hit Aybar with the hardest slapshot of his life.
“Life now is full of scheduling and (medical) appointments,” said Jill Aybar, his wife. “Since he has been consistently on chemotherapy for the past year, we have had to adjust our schedules to accommodate. I attend every appointment with him, although, there have been a couple of times in the most recent months that I have tag teamed with our daughter, Madeline, since she has gotten home after graduating from Indiana University in May.
“There are consistent doctor appointments, CT scans, chemo treatments, medicine management, pharmacy pick-ups, and the unexpected ER, or hospital admit. Many times the effects of the medications are such that he is unable to drive, so I need to adapt my schedule to provide transportation for him.
“At the same time, I have had to try to pick up more work since Rafe was not able to maintain much of a teaching schedule for a while. Adding to my own private figure skating coaching, earlier this year I took on the part-time position as skating coordinator at the Northbrook Park District ice rink.”
The past year has certainly been a financial hit to the family. “There were many times we had to use our savings to get through the month,” she said. “We have trimmed as many corners as we can to try to keep in line with the adjusted income.”
Jill also noted other changes due to the restrictions in his diet due to the complications of his cancer. “I have to be creative about planning meals to insure that he is getting proper nutritional intake, (meaning) lots of soft foods that are easy to swallow, and supplements.”
Then there are the chemo side effects. “The neuropathy has been very difficult for him,” she said. “We have tried heating pads to try to comfort the flair ups, and we have recently begun acupuncture to help alleviate the pains from the neuropathy. And of course, there are always more meds. Another difficulty is the trouble remembering things as a result of the chemo. It is often referred to as, ‘chemo brain’ … and it is real.”
Jill and Madeline have set up locations in their house to be the places that he puts things to help him keep track of things. “It is so frustrating for Rafe,” Jill said. “So, there have been many adjustments to our daily lives.”
Aybar is now on the fourth regiment (chemical combinations) of ongoing chemotherapy treatments, during which time he has undergone 16 rounds of radiation and three additional endoscopy procedures.
Last season, after being diagnosed, he was coaching a Falcons squirt team. “My health was beginning to interfere with my time coaching; it was difficult to maintain my private instruction schedule as well,” said Aybar, who had to take time off from coaching last season due to treatment. “Adapting to the treatment for the cancer was a difficult adjustment. There were times that the multitude of medications prevented me from physically being able to do my job. Watching from the sidelines was frustrating. I wished I could be in a position to have input with the teams and the players like I always had done.”
As the 2017-18 season kicks off, Aybar is still in his battle against cancer.
“The treatment has been constant, but, when able to keep it in check, I feel more energetic and able to stay involved,” he said. “I feel the support from my students, past and present, as well as family and friends.”
Aybar will be will be assisting on two squirt and one mite team this season. They are entry-level teams, he noted, “where I can contribute to the development of an upcoming player,” he said with pride.
After all, hockey is his life.
And the hockey community has been there for Aybar over the past year.
“The support has been unbelievable,” he said. “Players and families I was involved with decades ago have let me know they are there for me. Players and families that I am currently working with have been equally supportive.”
A GoFundMe page was established to assist Aybar and his family in this financially-challenging, stress-filled period – and it was built by the family of a former player, fittingly.
“Before I was diagnosed, I ran into a parent of a former student from many years ago, Louise Eichelberger. As a result, I reconnected with her son, John, and invited him to help out with an Aybar Skate Clinic,” Aybar said.
Eichelberger, a Glencoe native, played four seasons at the University of Wisconsin, then had a brief stint in the ECHL.
“The Eichelberger’s recognized the rapidly developing financial concerns, and offered to start up the GoFundMe (page). At first I denied the offer, but as time went on, and we began depleting savings, it became apparent that the idea could help out with the financial stress.”
More than $20,000 has been raised in about six weeks, with a goal of $50,000.
“We take each day as it comes,” Aybar said. “We have had to weather a few disappointing scan results, but also had some more positive ones. We will continue to follow the treatment that the doctor recommends and are supplementing with some integrative methods.
“Short-term, I plan on trying to regain some of my strength to deal better with the physical strain the treatment causes. Long-term, (I want to) continue to influence the development of young hockey players and remain a source of skill progression to the more advanced players.”
But, he added, “The side-effects from the chemo treatments are disabling at times. My sleep patterns have been greatly interrupted by all of the various medications, which impact my day. Then there is ‘chemo brain,’ which results in being absentminded, which is tremendously frustrating.
“Most of all, the uncertainty of my future is daunting and unsettling. It is a black cloud over my head that I have to carry with me the remainder of my life.”
But Aybar will continue to skate with the solid support of the entire hockey community.
“Cancer has touched so many people’s lives and that there are so many people willing to help out when they hear of our plight,” Jill said. “The skating world is a close-knit one, and it is impressive to see them rally for Rafe. We are thankful for the caring support of the hockey community and very touched by it as well.”
Madeline Aybar added, “There has been one bright side amidst all of this distress; ever since his diagnosis, my dad and I have grown closer. Life has been chaotic and stressful since his diagnosis, but we’ve been able to find our way together through the messiness that is cancer.”
Click HERE to support the Rally for Rafe GoFundMe page.
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com