Antigo hockey star credits faith for helping him succeed

By Lisa Haefs | For The Compass | June 14, 2017

ANTIGO — Over his 32 years, including a decade as a professional hockey player, Joe Piskula has learned valuable life lessons. And he has the scars to prove it.

Piskula, a graduate of All Saints School in Antigo, was honored as Antigo High School’s Alumnus of the Year in ceremonies May 28. He used his time at the podium to tell the 181 seniors, families and friends about his changing role on and off the ice since his graduation ceremony from the same venue 15 years ago.

Joe Piskula (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)

“I have evolved from a young player to a leader and mentor to young people,” Piskula said. “Not as a coach, but as a peer, as a friend and, over time, like a brother.”

Piskula stressed that being aware of oneself and others, is key.

“I was not always so aware,” he said, relating a story from his days on the ice in the National Hockey League when he misread tensions building between two opposing players. When he came to his teammate’s defense after a particular vicious cross-check, he got drawn into the fight instead, and took a hit to the face that left his nose broken, along with a “unibrow and a row of stitches.”

He was called into the coach’s office, not for a dressing down, but some advice.

“He said, ‘Joe, you know why you’re a good leader?’ It’s sure not because you’re a good fighter,” Piskula recalled to laughter.

Instead, the coach told him it was because of his awareness of others, both on and off the ice, and how to meet their needs.

“Learn the awareness of others,” Piskula said. “And I hope you don’t leave with a physical scar like mine.”

Piskula, the son of Cindy and Bob Piskula,  started playing hockey just at age 3 and was a standout from an early age.

But also from an early age, he developed a reputation for helping others, developed and enhanced as a member of St. John Parish and student at All Saints School, which he attended from third through eighth grade.

“Growing up Catholic, it just really instilled good values into me,” Piskula said. “A lot of the reasons I’m getting recognized now is because of those values.”

Piskula said those early values guided him through the professional ranks, where he regularly participates with his teammates in various Christian athlete programs.

Starting in 2007, just five years after high school graduation, he established the Joe Piskula Hockey School, an affordable, week-long camp that gives many northwoods youngsters an opportunity to practice and play hockey in the summertime. This year’s camp will kick off in a few weeks.

“We want to get as many Antigo kids on the ice as we can,” Piskula said, explaining that summer rink time is fairly rare.

In 2016, while he was a member of the American Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls, Piskula started Hockey 4 Hope, a brain cancer awareness event in San Diego.

He created the event to help raise money for Dom Hilger, one of his former Antigo hockey coaches now battling brain cancer. It has funded research and development at City of Hope in San Diego and University of Wisconsin-Madison Neuroscience Department.

“I continue to be part of the Antigo hockey family,” he said. “I would love to do more of those sort of things in the future.”

After a standout high school career, Piskula was recruited by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was a player on the 2006 NCAA national championship team. He was honored with the 2006 Otto Breitenbach Award for Most Improved Player at the school.

He played his first NHL game in 2007 with the Los Angeles Kings and received the 2016 American Hockey League Man of the Year Award with the San Diego Gulls.

Piskula said time and time again during his high school, college and professional career, he has returned to the values he learned at All Saints and St. John’s: Be a good person and a good leader, help your teammates and be aware of other people.

“I still pray,” he said. “It has helped me to be a captain and be a leader.”

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