TOMS RIVER, N.J. — At the Toms River rink where Peter Nork coaches a youth hockey team, the memory of his son, Parker, is everywhere.
A wall of the Winding River Skating Center has a framed black home jersey with ‘Nork’ and a No. 1 — that was the boy’s number — emblazoned on the back, and No. 1 decals are pasted to the helmets of the Toms River Blackhawks players who used to have Parker Nork as a teammate.
A year ago, Parker, a goalie, passed away at the age of nine from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the lymphoid line of blood cells.
His father stuck with the team as coach — to help heal his family, the team and the community.
Plus, Pete wanted to be back at the rink — something he said was difficult at first, but eventually felt right.
“They were playing for him,” the 41-year-old father said. “He was supposed to be their goalie this year. They loved him, and they played their hearts out for him this season.”
In an age of iPhones and iPads, Parker Nork was an anomaly. Instead of finding comfort and entertainment in a glowing blue screen, Parker was at peace outside, playing sports.
Parker was a budding three-sport athlete, playing football and lacrosse on top of hockey. His life simply revolved around athletics. He was a throwback in that sense.
“In our house, it was either knee hockey or he was throwing a football or playing lacrosse, that’s all he ever wanted to do,” Pete said. “He played video games, but he wasn’t one of those kids who buried his nose in an iPad. He always wanted to be playing.”
Last year, Parker developed a small bump on top of his head. Pete figured the bump might be from an ill-fitting sports helmet, but his wife, Kim, 43, thought it was something more, especially when the bump didn’t go away after Parker was fitted with larger helmets.
The Norks sent their son to the doctor and they got the worst news parents can get. Their outwardly healthy boy had cancer.
“We had to go in there and tell him which was the hardest part,” Pete said. “My wife did that. She’s the strong one.”
Parker’s initial prognosis was very promising. The doctors informed the Norks that they caught the cancer early and that boded very well for their son’s recovery. Parker’s physicians immediately started treatment.
However, 22 days later, Parker’s condition took a dramatic change for the worse. Feeling cold, Parker was having a bad day, but not one that was out of the ordinary as treatment took its toll on the young boy. He was resting in bed with his mother when he decided he had to go to the bathroom, but he had trouble walking from the bed to the bathroom. Kim called for her husband for help, but by time Pete got there, Parker was unresponsive.
When the EMT’s arrived, Parker was having trouble breathing. He was immediately rushed to a local hospital in Manahawkin and then airlifted to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. By the end of the night, Parker had passed away.
“That was the real shock, there was so much promise,” Pete said. “All the doctors were saying there’s an 89% chance of a cure, and we caught it so early, everyone was so optimistic. Park, he didn’t know the extent of what was going on, but he said, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be a few months, I’ll get better and be playing hockey again.’ That’s what made it so devastating. It was so promising.”
Even one year later, doctors still don’t know exactly what happened to Parker that night, the Norks say. The exact cause for his worsened condition remains a mystery to his parents and 12-year-old sister, Payton.
It was the following June, the start of another youth hockey season, when Blackhawk head coach John Costello thought about bringing back Pete to coach.
Pete hadn’t stepped inside the rink since Parker passed away three months prior. In fact, the last time Pete had been there was the candlelight vigil that was held in the parking lot of Winding River three days after Parker’s death that was attended by coaches, players and parents.
For Costello — who like most other parents connected with the team had to have their first-ever discussion about death with their children after Parker’s passing — having Pete back coaching seemed imperative to the grieving process.
“When Pete was on the ice and in the locker room, I think it really struck a note with the kids,” Costello said. “I know for my son, knowing Coach Pete was there, it was something that the whole team really embraced from the start of the season.”
And Pete said he felt he needed to be there, even if it was tough to see the kids skating out on the ice without his son.
“I knew that Park would have wanted me to coach,” Pete said. “For me, it’s been huge, these kids keep me going. Sure, we would all love for Parker to be out there with us, but he’s not, so we keep moving on.”
Kim still has not been back to the rink. She feels it’s, understandably, too difficult to go back to the place where she made so many memories with her son. But Payton accompanies her father, and Kim feels it’s been a constructive way for them to heal.
“He personally needed to do it, he felt it was his calling to go back and coach all these kids for Parker,” Kim said. “I think it was almost his therapy to be around these kids and parents.”
With Coach Pete back, the team wanted to keep Parker with the group at all times even if he wasn’t there physically. That’s where the jersey came in. Each time the Blackhawks took the ice, Parker’s jersey hung right by the door as each player eagerly tapped their stick on his hockey sweater.
As the Blackhawks kept winning huge games, including NJYHL and EJEPL titles, Parker’s jersey was always there. In the group celebration photos where the team beams with their trophy, Costello proudly holds Parker’s jersey up for the camera.
Ten-year-old Ava Pirrello, who replaced Parker in net this season, even wore her teammate’s old goalie pads to further honor her friend.
“It helped me remember him and how I played goalie for him,” Pirrello said. “It helped me think of Parker so I would have confidence.
Anthony Pirrello, Ava’s twin brother, both children of assistant coach Bob Pirrello, added, “It made me sad, but it reminded me of him and what a good friend he was.”
The presence of Coach Pete, who Ava and Anthony call ‘Petey Bird,’ helped lift the spirits of the kids, many of whom were dealing with such emotional trauma for the first time in their lives.
“That gave us a lot of confidence,” said 11-year-old Sonny Vanesko, teammate of Parker and son of assistant coach Billy Vanesko. “I love how he got to coach us.”
The support for the Nork family spread from the Toms River youth hockey community to throughout Southern Ocean County. In addition to the vigil held at Winding River in Toms River, ceremonies were held for Parker at the Stafford Township football and lacrosse fields by the other teams that the Norks were involved with.
With all these people acting as almost an army, there was a huge desire to give back to the Nork family. Kim’s twin sister, Amy Zamuner of Huntington Beach, CA, started a GoFundMe page for the family that raised over $46,000.
“I know my wife and daughter, it’s been huge for them,” Pete said. “They love seeing all the people coming together, all the towns and teams doing tributes to Parker. It really helped them through.”
In turn, Kim wanted to do the same for the community.
She started Parker’s Army, which raises money through a golf outing and other events and donates the proceeds to student-athlete scholarships, youth recreational programs and childhood cancer research.
“I think it’s one of the best ways we can keep his name out there, tell his story and also give back to student athletes,” Peter Nork said of the charity group.
For more information on Parker’s Army, visit the website at www.parkersarmy.com.
Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, http://www.app.com