As a first-year junior hockey player that laced up skates exactly once in a two-year span directly following his graduation from Owatonna High School in 2017, Carter Broton’s journey to becoming a future college athlete could best be described as unconventional, at least superficially.
Dig a little deeper, though, and adjectives become a bit more difficult to grasp.
When attempting to define the path that led him back to his hometown, back to organized hockey, and back to realistic aspirations of continuing his playing career at the next level, words like inspiring, incredible, heartwarming and, yes, painful would all be accurate, but only if used in conjunction. Because Broton’s story is all of those things.
“I’ve definitely been through a lot in the last six months, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s been a whirlwind.”
Keeping a promise
The impetus for Broton to give organized hockey one final shot stretches far beyond anything obvious or self-serving. Sure, there was a small piece of him that wanted to prove he could actually pull it off, but that alone wouldn’t have carried him to the point he ultimately reached. Heck, it probably wouldn’t have been enough to get him through his first full practice with the Steele County Blades that left him exhausted beyond anything he’d ever experienced.
His primary motive, and the spark that reignited his passion for the game, stems from an enduring relationship with an extraordinary human being. Her name is Haven Broton, and she is Carter’s youngest sister.
The same youngest sister that spent her entire life courageously battling a severe form of Cystic Fibrosis. The same youngest sister that spent her only year of high school often unable to attend classes because her condition made it impossible to even leave the house. The same youngest sister that underwent a perilous transplant surgery and spent months recovering in two different states.
The same youngest sister that passed away on Wednesday, December 18, 2019 at the age of 17 surrounded by her loving family.
Naturally, the loss rocked Broton to his core. He knew Haven’s long-term prognosis wasn’t great, but that hardly, if at all, cushioned the blow. He lost more than a sibling that day, he lost a friend.
“Well, it definitely gives you perspective on everything and you find out quickly what actually motivates you when you lose someone so close,” Carter said. “It really does inspire you to take advantage of life and make the best of things.”
The immediate pain of Haven’s passing left Broton questioning whether he wanted to continue playing for the Blades after signing with the Tier III Junior Hockey program based in Owatonna.
But he didn’t quit. That’s not what Haven would have wanted.
In the final few months before she passed, Carter recalls talking with Haven about the prospect of giving hockey another chance. The original conversation was casual and lighthearted, but it planted a seed. The subject was breached a couple more times in the early winter months and Carter started giving the concept some serious consideration before arriving at the conclusion that he really had nothing to lose.
Plus, it was pretty much now or never.
“I was only eligible to play juniors until I was 21,” Carter said. “So I texted (Steele County head coach) Nick Adamek and basically told him I still had the desire to play and he said ‘why don’t you come in tomorrow?’”
Within 48 hours of his first contact with Adamek, Carter was on the ice practicing with the team. He quickly realized that getting back in the game was much like riding a bike, only this initial trek felt like it was entirely uphill and against the wind at 12,000 feet.
“I am pretty sure I threw up after the first day of practice,” Carter said. “It was the first day back for the team after a loss and the coaches made them work and let’s just say it didn’t go too well. But I was playing in a game four days later and that’s not something I’ll ever forget.”
Carter saw his first game-action in late-November and was with the team for a couple weeks before that fateful December day. It was during this time that Carter found himself reflecting on the many conversations he had with his sister and felt profoundly obligated to stand by the commitment he had made to the team. To the community.
“She was the one that gave me motivation and desire to even give it a shot,” Broton said. “As tough as it was, she would have wanted me to keep playing.”
Healing through hockey
Aside from the desire to keep a promise, Broton quickly discovered that simply being at the rink was a therapeutic experience. Even if it was just for a couple hours, he didn’t have to focus on the pain of his loss when he was on the ice. He didn’t have to force himself to dodge the constant flow of difficult emotions that came at him in devastating waves.
Suddenly, Carter needed hockey now more than ever.
“Being out there helped take my mind off everything that was going on and gave me a release,” he said. “It was 100 percent therapy. For sure.”
Carter — whose oldest sister, Lyric, suffers from a less-severe form of Cystic Fibrosis and attends college at Arizona State University — also said the Blades’ organization went above and beyond when it came to welcoming him back after stepping away to be with his family in the immediate aftermath of Haven’s passing.
“I have to give lots of credit to being on the team,” Carter said. “When she did pass away, they made it easy to get through everything. I’m super grateful to have been a part of the Blades.”
A change in plans
Despite the unconventional path and somewhat underdog nature of his story, Broton’s long-term aspirations always centered around playing hockey after high school.
Almost exactly three years prior to joining the Blades’ as a mid-season acquisition, he was ringing up goals and dishing out assists for the Huskies as an all-conference senior forward in the winter of 2016-17. According to the Minnesota Hockey Hub, he led the team in goals with 18 and finished second in total points with 30 during his final season at OHS.
Broton’s original plan was to take the “traditional” route after graduation that would first include two years of juniors before signing with a four-year college or university as a 20-year-old freshman. It’s a path taken by the majority of players on every NCAA hockey roster and Broton took the initial steps in this process while at OHS.
“I guess another crazy part about this whole this is my plan all along during junior and senior years — and all my high school counselors knew this — was to play juniors for a couple years,” Broton said. “I definitely wanted to play hockey and it was a device to get me to college. It was a passion and I wanted to keep going.”
But as he would soon discover and subsequently learn to accept, life doesn’t always pan out the way people expect. Broton said he didn’t get into the school he originally planned on attending in the fall of 2017, and that was it. He was fed up with organized hockey and was going to attend South Dakota State University and focus solely on his education.
“I was basically like ‘screw it, I’m done with hockey,’” Broton said.
And he meant it.
In the first year after graduating high school, Broton said he put on skates exactly once during an alumni game in Owatonna, and that would be the final time he played hockey, at any level, for the next 10 months.
Coming home for Haven
It was during Broton’s one-and-only semester at SDSU that Haven’s health situation progressed to the point where she became a candidate for an risky operation that would include replacing both her lungs via transplant. The surgery is so delicate, the closest medical facility that even offers the procedure at the pediatric level is more than 500 miles from Owatonna at the Children’s Hospital of St. Louis.
But the family was running out of options. And time.
With her parents accepting the considerable risks and logistical challenges associated with moving to Missouri for an extended period of time, Haven eventually underwent the operation in January of 2018 and ultimately spent the better part of six months living in St. Louis. In April of 2018, she was cleared to return to Minnesota and continue treatment at Mayo Clinic. At this point, Carter had already moved back to southern Minnesota in order to be closer to his family and was living just 45 miles west of Owatonna in Mankato and working for Malo Roofing.
In the ensuing months, the bulk of Carter’s free time was spent at home supporting Haven in a number of capacities. Often this meant simply being a big brother. He would spend hours by her side, talking about everything from hockey to her passion for WWE wrestling and the Minnesota Twins.
“I just wanted to be there for her as much as I could,” said Carter.
But just when things appeared to be trending in the right direction, Haven contracted a relatively serious infection in her lungs and, according to Carter, endured a “steep decline.” The family’s GoFundMe page explained that Haven also experienced some major stomach problems, which directly impacted how much food she could consume and, in turn, sapped much of her already-low energy reserves.
“Sleeping beauty is trying to overcome a nasty lung infection and some eating/stomach issues,” the family stated on the fundraiser’s page on March 3, 2019. “Her lung functions are low but with some hard work we hope she can regain the loss...This girl is a warrior.”
When the infection finally ran its course, Haven continued treatment at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester. From there, the final handful of months before she passed were spent at home under constant supervision.
“She was at Mayo Clinic for majority of her last year,” Carter said of Haven’s final stages of medical care. “Eventually, she was able to have everything at home with nurses and it was convenient because at that point she obviously needed a lot more attention. Also, our mom is a nurse, so that helped a lot.”
In an emotionally-impactful final message credited to the page’s organizer, Dan Broton, it was noted that Haven’s lung function progressively decreased and diminished to just 13%, which is drastically below any normal level.
“Anxiety, tensions, hurt, scared, and a million other feelings can’t describe how we all deal here inside these walls. Obviously through various medications we keep her comfortable and do her feeds and other cares on a rigorous time schedule,” the message described on Nov. 24, 2019.
Twenty-four days later, she was gone.
Finding perspective through pain
Emerging from a haze of overwhelming grief, Broton said his play on the ice may have actually benefited from his newfound perspective, noting the glaring difference in his approach compared to when he was in high school. Back then, the pressure to distinguish himself in front of potential college scouts was often on his mind.
But that was the old Carter Broton. By the time he reached the Blades, he was two-plus years older and his priorities had altered in a profound way. Yes, he was grappling with the loss of a loved one, but when the puck dropped, he was free.
“It felt different,” Broton said of his experience with the Blades. “I played without the pressure of even thinking I would have an opportunity to play hockey in college, because that was never my mindset when I first joined the team.”
Appearing in a little more than half of Steele County’s 44 games, Broton finished with 12 points on five goals and seven assists at left wing, netting one game-winning point along the way.
“It really felt like I was given a second chance,” Broton said. “I was super thankful for the opportunity and wanted to take advantage.”
Broton continued to improve in all facets of the game in the final couple months of the season. He may not have been skating at the level he once did during his peak season with the Huskies in 2016-17, but was trending in that direction and displaying flashes of raw potential that elevated his stock among Division III college scouts from throughout the Midwest.
That’s when the emails, texts and personal messages started rolling in.
According to Broton, roughly 10 colleges reached out to him with Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wis. standing out for several reasons. Not only was he impressed by the university’s picturesque campus — located in a city roughly the size of Mankato on the south end of the state’s largest inland body of water (Lake Winnebago) — but was intrigued by the fact that the men’s hockey program offered both a fully-sanctioned NCAA Division III team and well-structured club program that competes in the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association.
“It was super surprising and crazy getting contacted by all these schools,” Broton said. “I knew (Marian) was a respected D-III program and located on a huge lake in Wisconsin, and you can’t beat that. I also had some familiarity because one of my former high school coaches went there and coach Adamek actually committed there when he was a junior in high school. It’s smaller school in a good location and a great tradition of hockey.”
Broton, who committed to Marian this past March, was recruited play for the school’s NCAA team, but is open to the prospect of spending time at the club level if it proves a better fit.
“For me, its a bit of a unique situation,” Broton said. “I talked to both coaches and they feel I’m still a raw product and the plan is to play on NCAA team, but I have a good relationship with the club coach as well and either program would be good with me.”
Regardless of which squad he ultimately lands on when he arrives on campus, the simple fact that Carter Broton will be playing college hockey in the winter of 2020-21 is an extraordinary triumph. Marian University won’t be the final stop on his journey, either, but it will certainly stand out as one of the highlights along the way, no matter where his path eventually guides him.
“If you would have told me two years ago that I would be playing junior hockey, I would have said that sounds about right,” Broton said. “But if you would have told me that I would have started at one college, not skated for two years and eventually committed to another college in Wisconsin, I would have called you crazy. It is rewarding that everything I have been through has finally paid off.”
“It feels good to be playing hockey again.”