British Columbia

Peewee coach 'blown away' by team's video appeal to find him new kidney

Teaching compassion to the kids on his peewee team has unexpectedly come to benefit Stephen Gillis. Last year he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease — and now the team has made a video to help their beloved coach find a donor.

'It's the most touching thing anyone has ever done for me,' says Stephen Gillis

Stephen Gillis enrolled his PeeWee team in the Chevrolet Good Deeds Cup to teach them to contribute to their communities. (Stephen Gillis)

Hockey team manager Lindsay Kelly's first memory of coach Stephen Gillis is from tryouts at an East Vancouver skating rink three years ago. 

While the kids streamed in, Gillis, 38, greeted and thanked every single one of them for coming. 

"Stephen's in my top five of excellent humans," Kelly said. "He is honest and fair and kind. He cares deeply about making better people — not just coaching hockey, but coaching the kids to be good humans."

Luckily for Gillis, teaching compassion to the kids on his peewee team has unexpectedly come to benefit him as well.

Stephen Gillis has been coaching hockey for about three years. He hopes a new kidney will allow him to continue to do so. (Stephen Gillis)

Last year, he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease — a byproduct of a decade-long battle with life-threatening Crohn's disease. Despite his condition, he hasn't missed a single hockey practice.

But what will likely be a six-year wait for a kidney means his condition will get worse, and he won't be able to coach and play hockey. 

So the team decided to make a video to help their beloved coach find a kidney donor with the same blood type, O negative.

As of Sunday evening, the video has been viewed nearly 300,000 times on Instagram and Twitter. 

Gillis says he's been overwhelmed by the support. He describes himself as a private person who has mostly kept his health struggles to himself.

"It's the most touching thing anyone has ever done for me and they're just so kind," Gillis said, crying.

"I'm just blown away."

Creating great players — and people

Gillis's love for hockey goes back to when he grew up in Sydney, N.S., where he says there wasn't much else to do but hit the streets with a puck and a stick for hours on end. 

After high school he moved to Vancouver to pursue his other passion — filmmaking. For years he worked gruelling hours in the film industry, until five years ago when he took a job producing films for the University of British Columbia's medicine program.

Stephen Gillis, pictured on the left at age 11, says he has been a lifelong hockey fan. (Stephen Gillis)

The more reasonable work hours meant he could return to playing hockey. Three years ago, he started another lifelong dream: coaching.

"I don't have kids so it's the most rewarding thing next to having them," he said. 

"They're really, really great kids and great players and I think they're just going to become the leaders of tomorrow and that's our job as coaches, as adults — to lead the way and teach them what's right."

Health problems worsen

Gillis says his battle with Crohn's disease began when he was 25. Over the years he's undergone several surgeries and nearly lost his life on more than one occasion. 

Last year, he began to notice his hands and muscles cramping while he played hockey. Some nights he was in agonizing pain. In July, he ended up in hospital.

Stephen Gillis (second from the right) with the leadership team of the PeeWee hockey team he coaches. Gillis has been diagnosed with a rare kidney disease. (Janette Stoeken)

Doctors diagnosed him with IgA nephrotathy, a rare kidney disease that is a product of his struggles with Crohn's. 

"They said basically my attitude and my aggressive nature is likely the only reason I'm not dead," he said.

Gillis was put on the list for a kidney donor. But because of his young age and the relatively early stage of his condition, it's likely to be a few years before he gets a donor. 

Teaching good deeds

Meanwhile, Gillis enrolled his team in the Chevrolet Good Deeds Cup, which encourages young players to contribute to their communities.

The team raised money for a family in need for Christmas. But when team captain Jordan Stewart and his mother Janette Stoeken found out about Gillis's condition, they realized he too was in need of a good deed. 

Stephen Gillis coaching PeeWee hockey on Trout Lake. Gillis says coaching has been the closest thing for him to having kids. (Stephen Gillis)

So the team put together the video, with some help from Gillis, and posted it online.

If the search for a donor is successful, Gillis says he hopes to get the surgery after the hockey season ends, so he can heal over the summer and be back on the ice by September. 

"My hope is that I can get it done so I can just go back to doing what I'm supposed to — be with the kids."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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