Coming off a disappointing 2010-11 season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the offseason brought some unexpected news to defenseman Jason DeSantis.
His mother, Carol, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
The news meant DeSantis had to make a decision – hockey or family?
Before he could decide if he should resume his career, DeSantis had to deal with the shocking news.
"It came out of nowhere and I didn't know what to think at the time," he said. "I know I wasn't thinking about hockey because family always comes first to me."
With the support of his parents, DeSantis, 25, decided to keep playing and signed a contract with the Winnipeg organization.
He was assigned to St. John's and soon found that hockey was a form of therapy.
When he walked into the IceCaps locker room and formed bonds with his new teammates, DeSantis found a temporary respite from worrying about his mother.
"It was a hard decision, but a good one," he said.
It's a decision that proved to be beneficial not only to DeSantis but his parents as well.
Now in his fourth AHL season, DeSantis has already set career highs in goals (10) and points (36). He ranks sixth in the league in points among defenseman and has established himself as a top blueliner with the IceCaps.
And back at their home in Oxford, Mich., his family has watched or listened to every game that DeSantis has played.
"Wherever I'm playing, my family's plan for the night is to sit down and watch me play," DeSantis said. "It means a lot to have parents that care."
It also means a lot for DeSantis to finally have a chance after years of being a healthy scratch or bouncing between the AHL and ECHL.
That was the situation last season when DeSantis appeared in only 19 games with the Penguins and spent much of the year as a healthy scratch or down with Wheeling.
It was a frustrating time.
"It was kind of a wasted season," DeSantis said. "I know I can play the game when I get my chance, but I just didn't get that chance."
One bright spot from last season was an opportunity for DeSantis to reunite with head coach John Hynes, who was his coach for two years in the U.S. National Program.
"I played for coach Hynes as a 17-year-old and it was good to play for him again when I was in Wilkes-Barre," DeSantis said.
Hynes knew DeSantis was capable of playing at the AHL level last season, but the Penguins had few injuries on defense and it was tough to get him a chance.
Seeing DeSantis bounce back to have a career year this season while dealing with his mother's diagnosis isn't a surprise to Hynes.
"It's good to see him work through things with his family and have this success," Hynes said. "He was always a guy who could rise up to challenges and overcome things in his career. The season he's having is well-deserved and it couldn't happen to a better young man."
A main reason why it happened is because of the lessons DeSantis has learned from his mother, who taught him to be confident and positive.
Those lessons also helped DeSantis this season when he began the year with St. John's as a healthy scratch for a handful of games.
"It's not easy to sit out or go to the ECHL, and if I didn't have confidence in myself I probably wouldn't be playing right now," he said.
"My mom and I are really similar in that regard. She's a very caring, confident person who has such a good attitude. That's important for what she's going through and it's been important for me to overcome adversity throughout my career."
DeSantis keeps in touch with his family daily and said his mother's condition is improving as she prepares to go through another round of chemotherapy.
"That's a tough thing to go through and it really gets her tired," DeSantis said.
"Seeing what she has been able to go through really has changed my outlook on the ice and in life. It's important to make every minute count, whether it's with hockey or with my family."
On Monday night before St. John's took on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Jason DeSantis and Penguins defenseman Alex Grant met for dinner to recollect about the similar struggles they have each endured during their hockey careers.
Like DeSantis, Grant has also felt the disappointment of being a healthy scratch or going down to Wheeling.
He also knows what it's like to make the most of an opportunity. Last season Grant appeared in just four games for the Penguins. This year he is the team's highest-scoring defenseman (29 points).
"Last year, we both knew that we just needed a chance and we always believed in ourselves," Grant said. "We had to make the most of it."
DeSantis spoke to Grant often during the summer and asked him about living in Newfoundland if he signed with St. John's.
"I know a lot about the area and told him he would enjoy it there," Grant said. "Living there would get his mind off things a little bit."
One thing Grant isn't familiar with is how DeSantis balances the concern for his mother with the demands of pro hockey. He supported DeSantis in his decision to play this season and is glad to see his friend have the best year of his career.
"I'm sure there's a little piece of him doing this for his mother, and that makes it even more special," Grant said. "I can't even imagine how much this weighs on his mind. This is a profession that we love, but at the end of the day the most important thing is at home. Your family comes first."