Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON – We all experience them.
We don't often know where they're coming, we many not even realize when they're happening.
But sooner or later, time reveals those moments that are life-altering.
From skating on rinks in small-town German not knowing where hockey could or would take him, to becoming one of his country's leading physician in the sport, Nils Antons is a testament to fate. There's no better word to describe what led Antons to the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League and eventually the University of British Columbia.
"A lot of German kids grow up with the dream of one day playing in Canada," says Antons, 38.
"The opportunity the Kamloops Blazers gave me, was a once in a lifetime chance."
For every season in the WHL, a player is entitled to a minimum of tuition, books and compulsory fees at any post-secondary institution. After his time with the Blazers, Antons attended UBC, where he studied microbiology while playing Canada West hockey with the T-Birds.
"There are so many great memories of going to school and playing at UBC," Antons says.
"Having earned a degree in university made it easy for me to negotiate contracts while playing professional hockey. I always knew that I had something to fall back on."
Antons spent four seasons in Deutsche Eishockey Liga, Germany's top pro league, before starting his second career as a trained microbiologist and physician. He regularly works as team doctor for the German Ice Hockey Federation.
"My general duties are to take care of the players," Antons explains. "If somebody gets hurt, I have to examine the player and decide what further examinations must be done and eventually what treatment should be initiated.
"The physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches and I work closely together. It is always a team effort on behalf of the medical staff to get the players in the best shape possible to perform at their best," continues Antons, whose assignments have included the IIHF U18 World Championship.
"Just being part of a team is rewarding," he says. "It is fun traveling with the team and trying to achieve a goal. It is a lot different from regular work and it is a nice change to work with young, healthy and motivated athletes."
Young. Healthy. Motivated. All could describe Antons, circa 1995 on a family vacation in Western Canada.
The 15-year-old was set to play for Germany at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and hadn't been skated all summer, so when his family's motorhome rolled through Kamloops and past the home of the Blazers, the Riverside Coliseum (now known as the Sandman Centre), he saw an opportunity to hit the ice.
The staff at the front desk told him there was no public skating, but that he might want to try the arena at nearby Mcarthur Island Park. So off to McArthur Island the motorhome went. When it got there, Antons discovered the Blazers were holding a hockey school and training camp.
"I asked one of the coaches if there was public skating. He told me that there was none, but if wanted to take part in the hockey school I could," Antons recalls.
"I told them that I did not have any equipment with me. He told me that this was no problem and that I should just show up tomorrow morning. The next day I showed up in the dressing room and Blazers had organized all the equipment for me."
Antons spent three days at the camp, making such an impression that his mother and father were asked if their son would consider playing for the Blazers in the future. The next spring, Kamloops selected the German forward in the second round of the 1996 CHL Import Draft, and a few months later Antons found himself in the Blazers' lineup.
"Playing in the WHL was a great learning experience for me," says the six-foot-three Dusseldorf native. "Before I came to Kamloops I knew very little about hockey and life in Canada. I got to learn lots not only about hockey but also about life in Canada. Playing in the WHL taught me a lot about hard work, leadership, dedication and sportsmanship."
After two seasons with the Blazers, Antons enrolled at UBC. Education had always been important to his family, and the aspiring med school student had already taken university courses during the summer.
"I really enjoyed going to university," he says. "It is one of those periods of my life during which I learned a lot and developed as a person.
"During this period I met some of my closest friends. On no other hockey team or work did I ever play (or) work with people I had so much in common with," continues Antons, who was a fixture on UBC's frontline from 1998 to 2003, and ranks among T-Birds men's hockey all-time leaders.
"We all went to school to get a degree and mostly played hockey because we really liked it. We all knew that very few of us would be able to play professional hockey after university at a high enough level to earn a good living. It was a lot of fun to interact with the other student-athletes and students."
Today, Antons regularly returns to the land where everything changed for him. Turns out it's not just his own destiny influenced by that fateful family vacation; His younger brother Jan followed him to Kamloops, where he has long worked as a trainer with the Blazers.
"I still have lots of friends in Canada who I love to visit," Antons says. "Furthermore, my brother still lives in Kamloops. After my playing days I got to enjoy a lot more spare time, which I like to spend skiing and biking. Canada is a beautiful country to do those things."
About the CW Alumni Spotlight:
Each year a new crop of Canada West student-athletes graduate and begin to make an impact in their communities as professionals. The CW Alumni Spotlight series looks to highlight the positive impact former CW student-athletes are making in communities across Western Canada and beyond.
Canada West – training leaders, building champions.