By Lee Samuels
Las Vegas – When Harris Whissel of the AA Vegas Jr Golden Knights 16u gears up in the locker room and heads to be with his team on the ice he is a Miracle – a Miracle on Ice. When he and a friend climbed up a mountain ‘just for fun’ a few years ago they got up ok but then tumbled and fell. It took a fire and rescue crew using a heat imaging device to locate him.
“God decided right then his job on earth was not completed,” said his hockey mom Nancy Whissel.
Harris Whissel skates on the third line at left wing, with hard-skating sharpshooter Kenneth Curtis lll at center and a hard worker Chason McCrossan on right wing on a team coached by Wally Lacroix who are the defending National Champions.
Lacroix and assistant Todd Owen are premiere coaches in a city which is packed with great coaches in youth hockey.
Lacroix calls Harris ‘Big Red”
“Big Red is definitely a great role player on our team. He has brought into the role of the 3rd line player at his best a huge asset to our team. There are tough conversations to have with young athletes and their families understanding how you fit into a hockey team helping to insure future success in this game we all love,” Lacroix said.
By Hockey Mom Nancy Whissel
Harris started learn to skate at 5 years old when his father, Paul, drove by Las Vegas Ice Center and thought that it would be good for him to take lessons so that his Grandma, my mom, who was sick with cancer could come out and watch him. Paul thought since his grandma was a professional ice skater in her youth, that going to watch Harris would be fun for her. After about 9 months, Harris grandma had passed away and Harris was bored in the learn to skate program. Paul decided to sign Harris up for hockey even though I was less than thrilled with the decision. I was a competitive figure skater growing up and had a disdain for hockey players for reasons like the spit on the ice, destroy the ice with the deep ruts they dig in the ice, they fight and they get their teeth knocked out.
After completing hockey 123, Harris enjoyed house league and was an average player . When Harris was at the squirt level, Tom Lackas invited him to play on a tournament team. The competition sparked a little fire in Harris and he started to play at little harder. John Brooks then approached Paul about putting together a Pee Wee B team the following year and managing the team. Paul got his coaching credentials and took on the challenge. It was a struggle to find enough players so the team consisted of 5 girls, 2 boys who had skated less than a year, one goalie, 1 squirt player and 6 other mediocre players including Harris. The head coach unexpectedly moved to California in the first couple of months, and thankfully Nick Robone took on the team. They were 16-1 for the season and then Paul entered the team in a verified Pee Wee B tournament where the team placed 2nd out of 8 teams. It was a fun year that instilled the travel hockey bug in the family.
The next year Harris was on the Pee Wee A team coached by Jeff Bruckner and Paul and Harris worked hard to increase his skills. He thrived on the competition and really became committed to playing hockey to the best of his ability. He took lessons with Jeff and hit all the stick and puck sessions he could. Jeff taught the players the basics of body contact to prepare them for the Bantam year to come and Harris enjoyed that aspect of the game.
Harris’ first year at the Bantam level was on the Bantam A team coached by Adam and Evan Zucker. Harris had begun taking lessons from Vassili and was quickly becoming a faster more stable skater. Checking was heavily pushed by the coaches and Harris was very good at it. He hit hard and part way through the season had accumulated ten 2 and 10 penalties. I was not happy watching Harris sitting in the penalty box for a third of the game for so many games. One morning before an out of town game, I had a discussion with him letting him know that if it happened again, I would pull him off the bench. I sat next to the coaches at lunch that day and let them know I had that conversation with Harris. They quickly informed me that they were both coaches and that Harris’ hits were hard but not illegal and that the referees were only calling the penalties because the hits were so hard. They proceeded to tell me that they wished the rest of the team would play like him. I apologized to Harris and decided that going forward I would no longer interfere with Harris’ play.
Harris worked super hard with Vassili and the following year, Harris made it on to Wally LaCroix’s team. He learned so much from Wally that year. He was a volatile player that year, he lacked confidence and Wally once said that in some games Harris was the player on the ice and other games he couldn’t find that player. Harris struggled to be a consistent player. Over the summer, Harris began working with Brian Salcido to develop his hockey skills.
The next season, Harris did not make Wally’s team, So he was on the Varsity High School team. Wally talked to us after tryouts and said that the Zuckers were good coaches and that Harris was actually on the better team. Harris liked his teammates and was happy that he was on a talented team. However, the team struggled and was far from disciplined on the ice. The beginning of the season was disappointing. And I was fearful that Harris would get hurt playing on that team. Little did I know what was in store for him that New Years Eve.
December 31, 2018 at 15 years old, Harris started the day playing 2 games with the adults, Vegas Valley Hockey and Ronnie’s. I picked him up after he was done playing and drove him to Blue Diamond to spend the day with his best buddy. He held my hand as I drove all the way to Blue Diamond, he has always been very affectionate and compassionate. The plan was that I would pick him up after he celebrated New Years Eve after 12:30 am. Harris is a very good kid and so is his buddy, they didn’t get in to trouble or do things that were detrimental to their health so I was very comfortable knowing that he in Blue Diamond for the night.
Harris and his buddy, Alex, decided to hike to the top of the mountain behind Alex’s house to watch the fireworks at midnight. They packed some snacks in their backpacks and headed out. It was 22 degrees out and the boys were not dressed appropriately which is not uncommon for 14 and 15 year old boys. They got to the top and decided it was too cold to watch the fireworks. They decided to try to meet me on the road when I came to pick Harris up. On their way down, they realized they were in trouble as the terrain was too steep. They decided to go back up the mountain and when they turned to go back Harris fell 110 feet. At 11:45 pm, Alex called 911 and told dispatch that Harris had fallen. He said he could hear him crying but could not see him. Metro Search and Rescue helicopter was dispatched to rescue Harris. Alex told them that he was going to climb down to help Harris. Of course he was told to stay where he was, but he started to climb down anyway. He climbed part way down and he fell as well. Dispatch had the open line with Alex’s phone but he was no longer talking to them. They did not know why.
Thankfully, being that it was New Year’s Eve, Search and Rescue was on call and already at the hangar. They were in the air in 20 minutes. Precious time was ticking away, however it would have been an hour for the helicopter to get airborne had the team not been ready at the hangar. At 12:40 am, when I was driving to Blue Diamond, I watched the helicopter scanning the mountain looking for Harris. Since Alex had fallen as well, there was no way for the rescue team to know where the boys were. Fortunately, once a year the railroad police come out to the old tracks near Fossil Mountain and that day was New Years Eve. They were able to pick up a slight heat image on Harris and give the location to the helicopter.
At approximately 12:45 they spotted Harris, and were fairly certain they were on a recovery rather than a rescue at that point. Harris had fallen so far they did not think he could have survived. it was a windy night and the ledge Harris had fallen to was appoximately 9 feet wide. John Thayer, was the officer in the helicopter, along with 2 pilots. Because the ledge was so narrow the helicopter could not land. Officer Thayer had to jump from the helicopter to the ledge to get to Harris. By chance the large helicopter was in Henderson so they were in the small helicopter. Had they been in the larger, he would not have been able to get close enough to jump to the ledge. The officer believed that Harris had not survived and was spooked when Harris popped up. He started to evaluate him and then heard someone say, “I am over here”. Not knowing that Alex had fallen, Officer Thayer didn;t know what was going on. Alex was behind a boulder 15 feet from Harris. Both boys were telling Thayer to take care of the other. Because of Harris’ condition and the fact that he was close to the edge of the ledge and starting to roll over, he went over to attempt to stablilize Harris.
Fortunately, there was a volunteer member of the Red Rock Search and Rescue volunteer, Mike Ward, lives in Blue Diamond and neighbors had alerted him of the incident and he had suited up to help if needed. The helicopter left Thayer with the boys and flew over the fop of the mountain to land in the baseball field in Blue Diamond where flight for life was waiting. Mike hopped into the helicopter and also jumped out on to the ledge to assist Thayer with the boys. The helicopter leave once more to pick up some additional equipment to rescue Harris. Eventually, Harris was put into an orange sleeping bag, put in a litter and loaded in to the little helicopter. The Search and Rescue helicopter landed in the park, Harris was offloaded. According to the rescue team, they did not expect Harris to be alive at that point, but when they unzipped the bag, Harris’ eyes were open and he was conscious. They were surprised.
He was loaded on the flight for life helicopter, which was coincidentally, piloted by a fellow player from Vegas Valley Hockey. Vegas is such a small town. One of the Search and Rescue pilots also plays on the Vegas Valley Hockey league, though Harris had never played with him. Harris was transported to UMC Trauma. Where his luck continued, there was only one other patient in trauma that night in addition to Harris and Alex who arrived later by ambulance.
The doctor was not confident that Harris would survive through the night. He was severely hypothermic and was bleeding internally. His known injuries at that point were: lacerated liver, lacerated kidney, lacerated adrenal gland, punctured lung which collapsed, both lungs bruised, bleed in his brain, fractured pelvis, lacerated heel and 2 broken toes . It was later determined that his heart was bruised as well. All the injuries were a result of the incredible force at which Harris sustained when he landed on the ledge, there were no punctures to his skin. In all, he was given 8 units of blood due to the internal bleeding. He had several bruises and abrasions but otherwise from the outside he was in half way decent shape. The medical team struggled to get him stable. but were successful by late morning, which was January 1, 2019.
I had to make several phone calls New Year’s Day to inform people of Harris’ accident. I let his current team manager know of Harris’ condition. I knew that rumors would start to travel through the hockey world as people began to find out that Harris was injured, so I called Vassili and Coach Wally as well so they would have first hand information. Vassili and his wife came to visit the next day which was heartwarming. And a statement from Wally that, “There is no one stronger than Red” was comforting, inspirational and so true.
Harris was moved up to the Peadiatric ICU (PICU) that morning. He was hooked up to over a dozen medications in his IV and pic line, on a ventilator and had a chest tube. The nurses and medical staff in that unit are absolutely amazing. The care Harris received was outstanding and no doubt was a big contributing factor to his recovery. They watched him almost every minute for the first 4 days. The estimate for his stay in the hospital was initially months. But on the 2nd of January, Harris had over 40 visitors. Most from hockey teammates both from his current team at the time and many from teams he had played on in the past. Harris though heavily sedated and on a ventilator, acknowledged everyone with a thumbs up or some sort of hand signal. I kept thinking that he should just rest but he brightened up with every visitor that walked in the room so I figured it was beneficial to him and the nurses were okay with the steady stream of traffic. The compassion that was displayed by those boys was touching. On the ice, they are rough and tough, but when one of theirs is in trouble, they are the kindest, most compassionate, sensitive humans imaginable.
Harris was able to communicate by spelling things out on a tablet that I would hold up for him. And his first question……………Am I gonna miss the game this weekend. He was on a ventilator, couldn’t talk but was appalled that he could not play that weekend.
Visitors continued to stream in on the 3rd as well. Those young men and their families definitely contributed to Harris’ speedy recovery, and we are grateful to all of our Las Vegas hockey family for their support. The one hurdle that Harris had any control over was getting off the ventilator. He worked hard to breathe after suctioning so that his oxygen saturation level would remain high enough to warrant removal of the vent. He concentrated and worked to take deep breaths. He was determined to get off that vent and get a drink of water.
On January 4th, Harris began to get strong, astonishing the nurses and doctors. They were also impressed that no matter how uncomfortable a procedure was, he always gave them a thumbs up. His attitude was positive. He soon became a favorite in the PICU and had yet to speak a word. The ventilator was removed on the 4th and on the 5th Harris spoke to the head nurse about his estimated discharge. By then they were estimating 2 weeks, but Harris told her that he was going to get out sooner. She told him that she hated to disappoint him but he would definitely be there at least 2 weeks. But the next 2 days were very positive and his stats were all getting back to normal. His next hurdle to getting out was to walk and get up and down stairs. In 2 short days, Harris worked on his ambulatory skills with deep determination. He was walking and walked up and down a half a flight of stairs. So, on the 7th of January, Harris was astonishingly discharged. I am not going to lie, I was a little nervous bringing him home especially since we live 45 minutes away from the hospital, but it was so good to sleep at home and Harris felt so much more comfortable back in his own house.
He had lost 30 lbs in that week in the hospital and lost most of his strength. Everyday he healed a little bit and soon was back on his feet. I still find it hard to believe that he only had three doctor appointments post discharge. The pediatrician checked him out a couple of weeks out and cleared him on his side. At 5 weeks, Harris was out on his plastic ice shooting pucks for hours. There were 2 visits to the orthopedic surgeon who cleared Harris to get back on the ice in 8 weeks and cleared full contact at 12 weeks. Though the pelvis had healed, he said Harris would not be 100% strength wise for 2 years. Harris missed the rest of the Hockey Season with the High School team, but quickly went back to play on Ronnie’s and Vegas Valley Hockey. He also worked with Brian Salcido again on a weekly basis.
Harris tried out for the 16 U AA Memorial Day tournament in April 2019. He made the team and played without issue as far as his physical condition. In June, he tried out for the 16 U AA 2019-2020 team. He was devastated that he did not make the team. It was more impactful to Harris than his fall. I have never seen Harris that sad in his life. But he picked himself up and went on that evening to tryout for the High School team. He made the varsity team. It was not his ideal choice, but at least he would still get to play. He shifted his attitude and decided he would strive to be the best player on the HS team.
Harris made an appointment to speak with Wally a week after tryouts and Wally was very honest with him. He told him that he could 100% be on the team but that Wally needed to know that Harris would play the way Wally needed him to play. He gave him some off ice exercises to work on and told Harris to work on his hockey skills over the summer.
Harris spent hours everyday with his stick and golf ball, out on his shooting pad, on the frontage road with his roller blades and on the ice. He would tell us all the time that he was going to be on Wally’s team. In July, he texted Wally that he was either going to be on his team by the end of the summer or Wally was going to wish he was on his team. One week after that text, Wally offered Harris a spot on the 4th line. He was very clear that Harris would have to work his way on to the 3rd line if he wanted to play. Harris has developed not only his hockey skills, but has also developed as a young man as a result of Wally’s mentorship.
He learned that you are not owed anything by anybody and that you have to work hard for the things you want.