An important tenth year anniversary is coming up, but it’s not one I’ve been looking forward to.
I first met Mike Lapprich when I was an assistant hockey coach at Ann Arbor Huron High School, and he was just a ninth grader. He was a big defenseman with a baby face, a shy guy with an easy smile – an oversized puppy.
I came back five years later as the head coach, when Lapper, as we all called him, had just finished his first year as an assistant coach, at the ripe age of 18. The team we inherited had not won a game in over a year.
When I met the returning captain, Mike Henry, over lunch that summer, he brought a list of things he wanted to discuss. The first: “You have no idea what you’re getting into.” The second: “Lapper’s our man. He’s the guy we trust. Keep him, and treat him right.”
It was not a suggestion.
We had a lot of work to do. So, we went to work. I was the drill sergeant, but Lapper was their big brother. When they felt like quitting, he was the one who kept them going.
Day by day, little by little, we learned how to stretch like a team, we learned how to practice like a team, we learned how to dress like a team – green shirts and gold ties – and we learned how to play the game like a team. By our third season, we had become a top-ten squad.
Lapper worked with the defensemen, who cut our goals-against in half over that stretch. Lapper also made our locker room look like the Red Wings’. When the players arrived for game nights, they entered an immaculate room, with hockey tape stacked in pyramids and their jerseys hanging up in their stalls, with their name and number facing them.
He loved the players, and they loved him. The best part is, both sides knew it.
The players proved it after our second season, when they voted unanimously for Lapper to receive the Unsung Hero award. I’d never seen a coach win a player’s award before. The picture of Lapper with the trophy in his hands, looking down at it, too choked up to speak, tells you just about all you need to know about the man – and what the players thought of him.
After our third season, Lapper’s world opened up. He moved into his own place, he enrolled in nursing school, and he even appeared in the pages of Car & Driver magazine, where he worked on the side. But the highlight, for him, was seeing his little brother Kevin play on our spring team. The first night they were on the same bench, Kevin notched two assists.
After the game, Lapper went back to his parents’ house for dinner, and gushed about Kevin’s play. For Lapper, life didn’t get much better than that.
Early the next morning, June 25, 2003, I got a call from Lapper’s mom. She told me Mike had been in a car accident the night before. He died instantly.
Of course, I was in disbelief — and when I gathered the players later that day in our locker room, they were in disbelief, too. For most of them, Lapper was the first person they were close to who had left them. It was brutal.
So many people showed up for Lapper’s funeral, dozens had to stand in the foyer, listening to the service through speakers. We named the Unsung Hero award, our locker room and a scholarship in Lapper’s honor. But ultimately, nothing we could do could lessen our loss.
At his gravesite, in the shadows of Huron High and the V.A. Hospital, where Lapper volunteered, the pastor said a few words. When he finished, I escorted Lapper’s parents down to their car. Then I walked back up the gentle slope, where I saw our players walking down, without their gold ties. This was not how we do it, I thought, especially on this day of all days. But, for once, I said nothing.
One of our captains, Chris Fragner, came up to me, red-eyed, and put his arm over my shoulders. With his other hand he pinched the knot of my tie, and said, “Coach, we have a place for these.” He walked me back to the gravesite, where I saw five-dozen gold ties draped over Lapper’s casket.
And that’s when I knew: Lapper’s legacy was not having his name on a locker room door or on a trophy or on a scholarship.
It was helping dozens of boys become men — something they carry with them to this day.
Copyright© 2013, Michigan Radio
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