MSU freshman’s legacy lives on in hockey arena plan and foundation

Dec 22, 2016

NORTHVILLE, Mich.— Before every Detroit Catholic Central hockey game, two best friends, and teammates, went through pre-game rituals together. Mitchel Kiefer and Sheldon Wasik kicked a soccer ball and threw around a Frisbee to make their nerves go away.

This routine was no different before the 2016 Division 1 state championship game, where Catholic Central went on to defeat Brighton, 3-0, for the title.

“The second that final buzzer rang was just pure happiness,” said Wasik, now a freshman at Michigan State. “It’s hard to even think of a time Mitchel had a bigger smile on his face, arguably bigger than his first disc golf ace. That will forever hold a special place in my heart.”  

Nearly seven months later, the unthinkable happened. On Sept. 19, Kiefer died in a car crash on I-96. He was a MSU freshman, studying neuroscience, who was returning to campus after a weekend home. Kiefer was driving back to East Lansing, when he was rear-ended by someone who appears to have been a distracted driver. His car went across the median into oncoming traffic, and then was hit by a truck. Kiefer died at the scene.

His death plunged the Kiefer family into shock, disbelief and grief.  His father, Steve, had the presence of mind to plan for the outpouring of support from the community to memorialize Kiefer.

“I had to think about something that impacted Mitchel, and with my job as a purchasing executive, I have a lot of suppliers and I didn’t want 20,000 suppliers to send flowers,” Steve said. “I thought it would be better if they sent the money to a good cause, so I contacted Catholic Central because that was so good and important to Mitchel. They agreed to set up a scholarship fund in Mitchel’s name.”

So far, the Mitchel Kiefer Foundation has raised over $130,000. The fund is aimed to assist students who want to attend Catholic Central, but may not be able afford the exclusive all-boys private school in Novi.

One day, Steve was sitting at Kiefer’s grave and thought about more ways to honor him.

“Mitchel would do something bigger than a CC scholarship, or something bigger than some donations, he would dream of something big,” Steve said. “Right then, the ice rink just hit me, build an ice rink in his name and memory and just make it happen.”

Catholic Central plays its home games at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth. The other sports offered by the school have on-campus facilities, such gymnasiums, tennis courts, baseball fields, and a turf stadium for football, lacrosse, soccer, and track.

Adding an ice rink, on campus, would add to the school’s facilities and community. Catholic Central Athletic Director Aaron Babicz thinks the school needs their own ice arena.

“Obviously it would be a great way to pay homage to Mitch,” Babicz said. “But, being that we are a tuition-based school, it helps us get more kids on campus and I think it would really help our enrollment.”

Babicz isn’t the only one that wants an ice rink on campus at Catholic Central.

“I think everyone is on board,” Babicz said. “I think we see it as a way to help the Kiefer’s heal a little bit. In a situation like that, if this is one way to help them heal and leave a legacy for Mitchel, then we are all in.”

Catholic Central needs the city of Novi to approve, inspect, and zone the new complex.

“A couple boards are going to have to approve this project,” Novi Mayor Bob Gatt said. “The planning commission will have to approve it, the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) will have to approve it, and I believe the City Council will have to approve the whole site plan. I am very confident that everybody in the city of Novi is going to go along with this.”

There is roughly 100 acres of land owned by Catholic Central, by 12 Mile and Napier Road, on the northwest side of the property. There is a little pond and wetlands where they have to work around.

“Mr. Kiefer and CC have been advised by myself and the city manager that it would be prudent of them to talk to the neighbors,” Gatt said. “Catholic Central adjoins a neighborhood not too far away and that neighborhood would be the people looking up at a dome that is higher than normal and could block their view. It would be important to get the neighbors on board and Mr. Kiefer understood that 100 percent.”

The city owns Novi Ice Arena, which is has two rinks. The facility is rented out and many teams play there, providing its operating funds. Catholic Central will have to be self-sustaining to pay for its new rink.

“I want to make sure we can raise enough money. That’s the only thing I want to get a little more clarity on before we start going hard at raising money,” Steve said. “Our initial estimate is it will probably cost around $10 million to build the ice arena we want. It will also probably cost around $1 million a year to operate it because the heating and cooling costs are extremely expensive.”

Gatt is on board with this project to memorialize Kiefer.  

Mitchel's grave.
Credit Griffin Wasik

“I want to be there when they cut the ribbon, I want to be one of the guys that cuts the ribbon,” Gatt said.

On Nov. 23, the Catholic Central hockey team had its home opener against Brother Rice. That night, there was a special tribute to honor Kiefer.

Brandon Kaleniecki, Kiefer’s hockey coach at Catholic Central, told the Kiefer family he wouldn’t let anyone wear his No. 30 jersey. The hockey team also put memorial patches on every jersey.

The Kiefer family walked out to center ice, where they received special No. 30 pucks honoring him and participated in a ceremonial puck drop. After the puck drop, they announced the starting lineups.

“It was tough, I cried the entire time,” Kiefer’s mom, Paula, said. “It was really nice, he was the honorary goalie. It was a really nice tribute to him.”

One thing that hasn’t changed since the tragedy on Sept. 19 is Kiefer’s group of friends and family posting memories on Facebook.

Ceremonial puck drop with the Kiefer family.
Credit Paula Kiefer

“I love seeing pictures and stories when I open Facebook,” Paula said. “Of course it makes me sad, but I would rather people still remember him than just forget everything. It’s upsetting to me, and I start crying, but it’s a good thing. It touches my heart seeing people post pictures.”

Kiefer was intelligent, a strong athlete, and loved by many, He was just starting his young adult life at MSU, with his best friend at his side.

“Mitchel truly was one of the best friends anyone could ask for,” Wasik said. “The world wasn’t too big for him, but he was too big for the world. Mitchel will truly be missed forever by everyone.”