Photo credits: Johnny Kukla, Caleb Brenner
Days before Senior Night for the Stevenson Varsity Hockey Team on January 27, the team’s head coach, Dan Wood, told Johnny Kukla that he would be in the starting lineup. Wood wanted to make sure Kukla was mentally prepared for the Saturday night game against Saint Ignatius, played at Twin Rinks Ice Pavilion in Buffalo Grove with hundreds of fans cheering in the stands.
Wood made sure Kukla told his parents, so they too were ready, cellphones in-hand, in video-record mode. No one else knew, even Stevenson assistant coaches were unaware.
“Before the game, to be honest, I didn’t think I was going to play; I wasn’t really expecting to play; I was just happy to be there,” said Kukla, 17, who lives in Lincolnshire.
Moments before the Patriots left their locker room for the evening battle, Wood addressed the team, offering last-minute strategy to stop, or at least slow, the explosive Wolfpack offense, a team needing the victory that night to further its position in the Scholastic Hockey League playoff picture. The Patriots, meanwhile, had already been eliminated from playoff contention. Wood then told his team the starting lineup, a rarity at that moment, as he normally just recites names while the team huddled at the bench seconds before the opening faceoff.
\This night was different. Wood told them the starters:
Goalie, Anton Likhovid. Quick claps from his teammates.
Left wing, Chase Anders. Claps.
Center, Connor Ponticelli. Claps.
Right wing, Nick Carlino. Claps.
Left defense, Brandon Smoller. A few light-hearted boos because he is a junior, where all others are seniors, but the team only has five total seniors.
Finally, right defense, senior …. Wood paused for affect and many in the locker room were confused. Then he smiled and said, JOHNNY KUKLA.
“Everyone went nuts; it was a huge roar from the entire team,” Wood said.
The magnitude of the moment, even before he stepped on the ice, is rooted in Kukla’s nightmare of July 31, 2022 – when he was in a near-fatal car crash in Spring Grove. Kukla was driving by himself from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, en route to his dad’s house in Lake Zurich to get his hockey gear for practice that day. Kukla collided with a camper on a two-lane interstate that was being towed by a pick-up truck. Part of the camper broke off, impaling him.
Passing through the windshield, the piece went through his brachial plexus, coming out through his back. It missed his heart by 2 inches.
Kukla was bleeding profusely at the scene but, about 18-months later, said he was calm and remembers asking the first responders if they thought he would still be able to make it to hockey practice.
“You might have to skip this one,” he was told.
Kukla was airlifted from the scene and had immediate surgery to remove the board from his left side.
“That first time when I woke up (after the surgery) was rough,” said Kukla, who recalls being strapped down in the hospital for his safety.
His dad explained to him what happened.
The accident severed the nerves in his brachial plexus, causing him to lose function to his left shoulder/arm/hand/wrist and fingers. He also sustained a punctured lung, broken ribs, broken shoulder bone and clavicle. Kukla spent a week in the ICU after being transported via helicopter to a trauma center to remove the impalement from his chest.
Kukla was later transported to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where specialists reconstructed nerves with the hope of restoring function back to his arm. They ended up taking a nerve graph from his uninjured calves to rebuild the ball of nerves in his chest over a 9-hour surgery. And that’s when Kukla was told, “I probably wouldn’t be able to play hockey again,” he said.
While the surgery was believed to be initially successful, the crash introduced an infectious disease unknown to every infectious disease doctor across the country. This required him to undergo surgery again to attempt to flush the infection so he could heal – he ultimately learned what the foreign substance was and that he’s only the second person to contract this in the U.S.
Kukla remained at Mayo Clinic for three weeks, returning to the Chicagoland area in October – and he was placed on the Stevenson JV team.
Kukla spent months with occupational therapy and ultimately transitioned into physical therapy. He had to re-learn how to walk and skate.
“Doctors at one point told me I would be out for four years. Ultimately, I was cleared a year later,” he said. “It’s certainly been a lot of emotions (since July 31, 2022). It’s hard to describe what I’ve had to go through.
“The last year-and-a-half have been long, lots of physical therapy and more.”
JERSEY NO. 91
Kukla spent his junior and senior seasons dedicated to the Patriots, attending every practice, game, meeting, video session, etc. He was the most loyal teammate possible, filling water bottles and willingly serving bench minor penalties.
Kukla skated limitedly with the Patriots’ JV team, always wearing a hot pink Stevenson jersey, indicating no-contact. He did what he could – his coaches and teammates were thrilled to see him skate.
Last spring, when Kukla was preparing for his senior season, he progressed to a black Patriots jersey, given to a varsity defenseman.
“I’ve been through a lot and give thanks to my parents, family, friends and teammates. So many people helped me get to this point,” he said.
Kukla was a true Patriot all season. Over the past 18 months or so, Kukla had to re-learn how to use his right hand. He struggles with the usage of his wrist and thumb, but future surgeries will help regain that function.
The Patriots struggled on the ice this season, though he never complained, not even once.
The game against Saint Ignatius was pure magic.
“He surpassed so many expectations over the past 18-months. He just wants to do whatever he can to help, to be part of the team,” Wood said.
Wood wanted to pay it back on senior night but needed a bit of help from SHL foe Saint Ignatius.
“He wanted to play, but I was so nervous,” to put him on the ice, Wood said.
So, the Stevenson coach reached out to Saint Ignatius head coach Spencer Montgomery and explained the Kukla story. “I wanted to be able to announce him in the starting lineup and then asked Spencer if we could win the (opening faceoff) and then just dump it in (to the Ignatius defensive zone” so Kukla could have his moment on the ice.
Montgomery, instead, upped the ante.
Montgomery said that Kulka deserves a proper shift, and the Ignatius coach suggested playing the first shift with no-contact from either team.
Wood was emotional, grateful for Montgomery’s bonus offering.
“Whenever I think about hockey, including my playing career, it’s moments that standout the most, not necessarily scoring a goal. This was one of those feel-good camaraderie moments,” Wood said.
The starters were announced to the overflowing crowd for the Saint Ignatius game and, naturally, the arena erupted when Kukla was introduced. “That was really, really cool, really, really special,” he said.
“Seeing him able to come back against the odds, go out there and get a proper shift, hits right at my core beliefs: work hard and good things will come to you,” Wood said. “That was very, very special, something I’ll always remember.”
Wood admitted that many were skeptical of the shift, nervous energy filled the rink.
The Wolfpack won the draw, and it was dumped into the Patriots’ defensive end – on Kukla’s side of the ice. He picked it up and anchored Stevenson’s breakout.
Ignatius reclaimed the puck and made a rush toward the Stevenson goal.
And this wasn’t just any rush. This was Ignatius senior forward Tiernan Ryan leading the ‘Pack – and Ryan is, without question, one of the best high school hockey players in Illinois this season.
“I just wanted to come up with the play to block a shot and relieve my goaltender. I didn’t realize at the time who it was (against); I found out later that one of the best players in the state tried to dangle me,” Kukla said.
Wood added, “I was glad he was able to be involved in the play.”
Said Montgomery: “He made a nice stop on T-Ryan. Credit to No. 91.”
Kukla’s shift lasted about 45 or 50 seconds. The memory will last a lifetime – for everyone involved.
“I’m glad he was able to get a final high school shift,” Montgomery said. “It’s the bigger picture why we’re all able to play high school hockey – and that was taken away from this young man. Any time we can teach these kids the bigger picture (than wins and losses), we’ve got to do it.
“Hey, we were still trying to score; we just knew we couldn’t have contact (that shift). It was such a cool moment. We would do it over again, anytime.”
Kukla said he, “couldn’t ask for a better shift … it felt good and I wasn’t out of breath.”
His family and friends recorded the shift.
“It felt great to be out there, especially after having been told that I probably would never play again … heck, I’m lucky to be alive, if I’m being honest,” Kukla said. “This time last year, I didn’t think I’d be able to play again; the skating I was doing then was while wearing a sling.”
The Kukla journey was nominated by Wood, with support from the Stevenson athletic department, to the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) for the National Federation of State High School Associations’ Spirit of Sport Award, given to recognize individuals who exemplify the ideals of the positive spirit of sport that represent the core mission of education-based athletics. Student-athletes, coaches, athletic administrators, administrators, trainers and other individuals associated with a school’s activity and athletics programs are eligible for the honor, which generally recognizes individuals who have overcome adversity or gone above and beyond their peers. The IHSA receives one nominee to represent the state of Illinois each school year.
“Hockey is a microcosm of life. There are things which are bigger than hockey. It was put on full display for one shift by both teams, Stevenson and Saint Ignatius,” Wood said.
Montgomery added, “There was no pushback whatsoever from anyone on our team. Everyone was immediately all in (with the plan) and it really was a nice moment for the SHL and high school hockey in Illinois.”
Kukla, naturally, wanted to play more against Ignatius, but was more than content, if not thrilled, with his lone 50-second shift.
“When the puck dropped, it was surreal. I immediately thought, this is much different than practice. Then it was, wow, I’m back on the ice,” Kukla said.
Near the end of the first period, the Stevenson fan section started cheering for Kukla, with KUKLA chants.
“I really want to thank Saint Ignatius: an A-plus on their part; I really appreciate what they did,” Kukla said. “For Coach Dan to allow me to dress for senior night and truly be a part of the team, it means everything to me.”
Kukla said his overall recovery from the accident is now at about 70 percent. He doesn’t have any pain, just limited upward motion. He might need another surgery to help get back to 100 percent.
Kukla will attend Marquette University next fall, where he wants to pursue a business administration degree.
“It’s been very surreal,” Kukla said. “I look forward to practice every day and don’t play with any limitations; I just play the game that I love.
“My teammates have been awesome all year, last year too. I cannot want to come back next year and see what they’ve accomplished.
“So many people told me that I’m lucky to be alive and play the sport so soon. Over the past two years, everyone has been asking me how I got through it … I just keep moving forward, getting better and taking things one day at a time. It’s been unbelievable.
“Life comes at you different ways; you just have to take it and work around it.”