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Through grief, former WC East hockey star Michael Eland remembered as hero off the ice

WEST GOSHEN >> Among many other things, Michael Eland always left a positive impression.

Whether it was the last time representing the West Chester East Hockey Club, his ministry work in the jungles of Bolivia, or the final time he met with the youth pastor at his local church.

(PHOTO PROVIDED)

The powerful stories of how Eland touched so many during his 19 years are plentiful. And now, suddenly and shockingly, they have added meaning in the aftermath of his tragic death.

“I didn’t believe it at first. I never thought something like this could happen – especially to Mike,” said his former classmate and teammate Dylan McLaughlin.

A standout defenseman at East, Eland was a team captain during his senior season in 2016-17. He then gave up hockey and enrolled at Virginia Tech. His major: biological sciences.

Following his freshman year, Eland was contemplating some big changes. According to Brett Derr, the Youth Pastor at Christ Community Church, Eland wanted to return to hockey, and he wanted to heed an inner calling to renew his interest in the ministry. The two had lunch on July 10th to discuss it all.

DFM FILE

“It was the first time I’d seen him this summer,” Derr recalled. “It was the best conversation I’ve ever had with him. I was really blown away by the strides he’s made in his life and his maturity.

“He was really set on turning over the new page and going after God with all of his might. I obviously didn’t know that it was going to be our last conversation.”

Eland was home for the summer in West Goshen and he had recently started a summer job as a grounds staffer at a local country club. The following weekend, Eland got into his Mazda MZ3 and drove to Ocean City, Md., to visit a friend. He left late Sunday night in order to get to work at the crack of dawn.

In the early morning hours of Monday, around 3:30 a.m., while driving north on Route 202 near the Concord Mall, Eland’s vehicle left the roadway, went through a fence, hit a tree and burst into flames, according to Delaware State Police.

“From what I understand, he fell asleep at the wheel,” said Eric Wolf, the West Chester East hockey coach.

A passerby attempted to extricate Eland from the car, but the heat was too intense. He was later pronounced dead at the scene by medics.

A few hours later, word of the fatal accident began spreading like wildfire, especially among the tight-knitted local hockey community headquartered at Ice Line Quad Rinks in West Goshen.

“You always have to be cautious,” McLaughlin sighed. “No one was expecting Mike to go this young.

“At any point in time, your life can flash by in an instant. You have to always live life to your fullest, and do all you can in the time you have.”

A CELEBRATION OF LIFE

West Chester East announced a public memorial in Eland’s honor scheduled for Friday evening at the school’s gymnasium. Organizers of Michael Eland’s ‘Celebration of Life’ are expecting a very large crowd.

“It is probably going to be staggering. And it will be the same case at his (public visitation) on Saturday (1 p.m., Christ Community Church),” Wolf predicted.

“I work at Ice Line and the guys are there four or five nights a week. It makes the hockey community a tight-knit one. That’s why we are seeing (West Chester) Henderson, (West Chester) Rustin, Downingtown East all reaching out to (West Chester) East right now.

“Pretty much every kid that plays high school hockey also plays for a club team. They could be going at each other’s throats on a Friday night and be teammates the next day. I’ve always said that hockey and family are both six-letter words, and they are pretty much the same thing.”

West Chester Area School District Superintendent, James Scanlon, even issued a statement of condolence.

“Mike’s personality was larger than life, but his heart was even bigger,” Derr said. “His love for people and God was undeniable.”

According to Derr, the Eland family – father Stephen, mother Lynda, and daughters Lauren and Kristin – began attending Christ Community Church long before he arrived in 2012.

“Michael’s family is very strong with their faith and I’m sure that’s part of what’s getting them through right now,” Wolf added. “They have three families: their church, their immediate family and their hockey family.”

The Eland’s are, indeed, a hockey family. Stephen has been the president of the West Chester East Ice Hockey Club for several years, and Kristin is a current member of the East girls’ ice hockey team.

“Their second home is Ice Line,” Wolf said. “They are very invested and dedicated.”

LEAVING A LASTING IMPRESSION ON THE ICE

Wolf just finished his third season as the head coach at West Chester East, and his first at the helm of West Chester University’s club team. The most memorable of his high school tenure was the final game of the 2016-17 season, which just happened to be the championship game of the Flyers Cup A Division.

The annual high school tournament held by the Philadelphia Flyers pitted crosstown rival East against Rustin. It went four overtimes before Rustin prevailed, 3-2, in the longest contest in cup history dating back to 1980.

“We lost, but a lot of people said it was one of the greatest high school games they’d ever seen,” Wolf acknowledged. “Michael was amazing in that game. And with the ice time he logged in four overtimes, he was completely exhausted.

“I always thought I’d remember it for the four OTs, but now I will always remember that game as the last time I saw Mike play hockey.”

Eland was named to the all-tournament team. It was the culmination of a hockey career that started in elementary school and later included a coveted spot on the Philadelphia Junior Flyers.

“You make that team, you are considered one of the best 18-year olds in the area,” Wolf pointed out. “But he was also very grounded.”

Playing defense is not the most glamorous position in hockey, but Eland was a workhorse for East. He routinely logged more minutes than anybody, and was known as a defenseman who could move the puck, was a very good skater and team leader.

“He was a big body, always making big hits and picking everyone up on the bench,” said McLaughlin, who followed Eland as team captain last season for the Vikings. “Mike was always staying positive.”

Wolf added: “He was one of the top two or three players on our team. He was always receptive to coaching. He was great with the younger guys and took that role his senior year and ran with it. And a lot of it was by example.

“Once he was over the boards and onto the ice, he was high intensity, high motor and did not want to be denied – a true competitor.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN A FARAWAY LAND

According to Wolf, Eland was always a rock-solid kid. He was a soft-spoken, lead-by-example kind of hockey player. With his friends, of course, he was much more gregarious.

“The way he carried himself – he was the type of guy you wanted your son to be,” he said.

“Mike always had a wry smile on his face – almost like he knew something you didn’t.”

In the summer of 2015, Eland and a few other peers joined Derr for the first of two mission trips to South America with International Tribal Ministries to serve poor and unreached children in remote parts of the Amazon jungle.

“That’s where I saw first-hand that Michael had a heart of gold,” Derr said. “We served in some really difficult places in the jungle and he loved those kids. They were hanging all over him. They would cry when he would leave.”

Two years later, the group made a return trip to the same region of Bolivia, and the reception was overwhelming – especially for Eland.

“He built such strong relationships in just a short time, that when we went back in 2017, he was the main person those kids remembered,” Derr explained.

“Those kids didn’t know English, but they were able to say ‘Michael’ as soon as they saw him. It was a really cool thing.”

That type of rewarding experience made a big impression on Eland. A year later, he sat in a local restaurant with Derr and was talking through his plan for the upcoming academic year: he would transfer to Liberty, a Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., to pursue a career in ministry work and give college hockey a shot.

“His mind was basically made up that he would transfer to Liberty,” Derr said. “In fact, he was at the gym last week getting into hockey shape, and expressed that he wanted to go into ministry.”

A GUT-PUNCH YOU DON’T GET UP FROM

On that terrible morning earlier this week, Wolf took a call from McLaughlin – which in itself was unusual for a coach used to getting nothing but texts from his players.

“He was just sobbing and I had a hard time understanding what he was saying. But if an 18-year-old boy is crying, you know it’s serious,” he said.

Standing in the front yard of his Media home, Wolf discovered the horrible news.

“I felt all of the blood run out of me,” he said. “It was a gut-punch you don’t get up from.”

Later that day, like many others, Wolf went to the Eland household on Westerly Way to lend support. As he shared a hug with Michael’s father, Stephen leaned in with a quiet message.

“Stephen knows I have a 16-year-old son, Cameron, who plays hockey at Penncrest,” Wolf recalled. “He whispered in my ear: ‘Just go home and hug Cam.’

“I got home that night and did exactly that.”

Similarly, Derr has made the short trek to the Eland home four or five times in the last few days. And each time, the scene was the same.

“Every time I rolled up to their cul-de-sac, there are cars all the way down the street. It’s been pretty remarkable seeing people just rally around the Elands,” Derr said.

In an attempt to help Eland’s friends, classmates, teammates and competitors wrap their mind around such a tragic loss, Derr has spoken to many teenagers since Monday. And over and over, he is hearing an overriding theme: how much his peers looked up to Eland.

“I’ve always looked up to Michael ever since we started playing hockey in elementary school together,” said McLaughlin, who hails from Exton and recently graduated from high school. “He taught me how to be a good captain.

“He was the best in everything. He’s had a big impact on a lot of people’s lives. He was a leader on the ice and in the real world.”

Derr first met Eland when he was in middle school. The two became close, especially after the trips to Bolivia. And even though a big part of his calling is to speak with and mentor youngsters, Derr admits that getting through the upcoming memorials is going to be difficult.

“I am probably going to handle it just as well as anybody else, I guess,” Derr said. “It’s been heartbreaking. You really can’t prepare for something like this. It doesn’t seem like real life. We are all going to try to lean into God, and each other, for strength.

“But there is hope attached to it too. His parents have been rock-solid even though they are completely heart-broken. You wouldn’t expect them to be in this type of situation.

“We all have confidence based on our faith that we will see Michael again someday. That gives hope in a seemingly hopeless time.”

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