Life After Hockey

Present-focused Deeth centers ND’s past-to-future line

Kevin Deeth
Kevin Deeth tallied the first NCAA championship goal in Notre Dame hockey history. A decade later, he is a pivotal playmaker in scoring new scholarships. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Theoretically, Kevin Deeth can walk past Touchdown Jesus or the Golden Dome at will.

He can soak in the spectacle of Division I athletics from any one of the 20 Fighting Irish teams. He can do so in an admiring, reflective role that he rarely could in a prior Notre Dame life. And he can still serve the South Bend area in ways resembling and beyond what he previously had time for.

That is unless he is traveling on business for the university. In those instances, he gets to gaze out to captivating Midwestern skylines from the high-rise offices of blue-blooded benefactors. Sometimes he visits their homes for a wider eye-opening glimpse of what he considers an exemplary Notre Dame alumni life.

At 30, the former Fighting Irish hockey pivot is tapping into his background while enjoying slivers of his original long-term plan. As Notre Dame’s director of development, his core focus is procuring essential resources for students in their own early steps. Accomplished alumni are his go-to partners in playmaking, and their down-to-earth selflessness frequently shows in the scholarships they strike up.

Deeth’s is a vital, rewarding assignment at an illustrious institution, to be sure. Although he admits it is far from the career he envisioned when he was a student.

“Any time anybody thinks of what they’re going to do after their career, whether it’s hockey or otherwise, they never think about returning to where they currently are,” he said in a phone chat with Pucks and Recreation.

“Everyone has aspirations of going to big cities, so that was kind of my thought process.”

Kellie and Kevin Deeth

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Deeth)

As opposed to the five-plus years he has logged back in Indiana with various Notre Dame departments. Since 2012, Deeth has held three titles at the school, ascending to his third this past February. He had previously focused on the Midwest as an associate regional director, an office he assumed in November of 2015.

His primary purpose is anchoring the financial pipeline from alumni to students. He knows the value of the system firsthand, having studied business on a full scholarship, graduating in 2010.

Now he is the secondary setup man in the scholarship scoring troika. He takes the students’ case to fellow alums who share the desire to give back to their alma mater. Upon absorbing his pass, they relay the funds a promising attendee needs to get the proverbial puck on their blade.

By Deeth’s estimate, since he started playing his current role in that dynamic, the university has created between 15 and 20 new scholarships.

“These are students that are certainly capable and able from an academic rigors standpoint, but maybe don’t have the socioeconomic means to attend a place like Notre Dame,” he said. “We’re able to make that happen.

“And I think the neatest part of my job is that I get to connect these students with their benefactors and see an organic relationship grow.”

For someone with 30 years of Earthly existence, Deeth sometimes sounds like he has three decades of professional seasoning. That mix of maturity and youth reflects his fit as the go-between for the aspiring and accomplished.

“We always talk about time, talent and treasure in my field. He’s really checked the box on all three.” – Kevin Deeth on a recent Notre Dame benefactor and ex-Fortune 500 CEO

He is grounded in the here and now, but can still see himself in each party he works with. The units he catalyzes are almost like a meeting of the three stages from Me, Myself & I.

In many cases, all three constituents of the benefactor-development director-scholar line have had the same humble beginnings. That is what gratifies the precocious director the most. Well, either that or the gratitude he sees in his two new linemates, who securely bookend a continuing tradition.

“To see how appreciative the students are,” Deeth said, “and more importantly, the benefactors; how good it makes them feel to make this opportunity happen that they were probably also provided.”

In one of his latest campaigns, Deeth enlisted the aid of a CEO who had sold his Fortune 500 company. The man’s stature seemed lightyears away from when he, like Deeth before him, laid out his launching pad in college. He could only procure his business savvy in South Bend with the financial assistance of an “angel benefactor.”

Now an ex-CEO, the alumnus in question is working directly with less privileged Notre Damers from his home area. He does not merely drop the money and run. He sticks around to mentor the up-and-coming CEOs, lending an authentic impression of where his success stems from.

“We always talk about time, talent and treasure in my field,” said Deeth. “He’s really checked the box on all three.”

Deeth’s partners “may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but these people are no different than you and I. They’re humble. They’re gracious. They’ve obviously done well financially, but that’s played such a small part in their life. I’m so humbled that I’m able to help them support causes that they are passionate about.”

Kevin Deeth Stavanger Oilers

(Photo by Andrew Halseid-Budd/Getty Images)

Oil’s well that ends well
To date, every year Notre Dame has grown its scholarship scope with Deeth has been a championship campaign the Stavanger Oilers have savored without him.

After spending his first professional season with the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies, Deeth sought exhilarating European excursions. He moved to Norway to join the Oilers in the country’s top circuit, GET-ligaen.

Stavanger stocked a few jutting aspects of Deeth’s then-recent history and his future aims. It trails only Oslo and Bergen among Norway’s largest metropolitan areas. Its spiritual roots stem from a 12th-century Catholic cathedral marking the city’s accepted point of inception.

And the Oilers were just coming off their first postseason crown in 2010. They were looking to regain the glory when Deeth joined them for the 2011-12 campaign.

“Just an unbelievable organization, beautiful city, great hockey,” he said. “(I) had intended to have a long career over there.”

For the greats, the glue guys and the straight-up ironmen, age 40 is the unofficial threshold to the exceptional career length athletes crave. Being 24 at that time, Deeth could have shot to stay and skate in Stavanger for 16 years.

Instead, his tenure there lasted all of 16 games. Recurrent concussions, a menace that has ravaged so many plans for puck prosperity, got the better of him.

Despite missing the majority of the season, Deeth’s 19 points were still good for 10th on Stavanger’s scoring chart. Based on that performance, he could have juggled torches and tried the long road back to playing shape. He could have recovered and tried belatedly joining in a string of what are now six straight GET-ligaen titles.

But following sage medical advice, he returned stateside to start putting his degree to early use. His feet borderline foreign with no blades on the bottom, he put one in the newly opened door with an investment banking stint in Chicago.

Going from Norway’s third-largest metropolis to America’s, he traded one breed of new-world odyssey for another. In the summer of 2012, he and his eventual wife, Kelley Jeske, returned to her native South Bend.

Kevin Deeth

Kevin Deeth’s career fell off the ice earlier than he planned. But he fell with relative grace and landed in a leadership capacity remarkably early in his new vocation. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Jeske had graduated from the neighboring Saint Mary’s College in 2010. Back in town three years later, she and Deeth were wed in the summer of 2013. In between, Deeth had revisited his own former haunts and tapped into his skating prowess by helping youth hockey programs.

Three subsequent years of connecting Notre Dame and its ice facilities with the surrounding community effectively yielded his current campus vocation.

“It was kind of a blessing in disguise,” he said of the Stavanger-to-South Bend sequence. “I sort of had a reality check.”

Those who have read his track record may gape incredulously at Deeth’s claim “I wasn’t a very good hockey player.” He met the epitome of elite company at every level, but showed he could hang with them through a respectable output. Then again, he knows where every level’s filter pried him from the otherworldly spotlight magnets.

Born in Gig Harbor, Wash., Deeth followed the footsteps and dreams of his brother, Brian, a defenseman two years older. Both boys were relatively undersized for their respective positions. (Brian’s Elite Prospects profile lists him as 5-foot-11, 184 pounds; Kevin’s at 5-foot-7, 154 pounds.) But they reached the top level of the Cyclopean prep-school travel program at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn.

As a senior bound for Northeastern University, the elder Deeth won a 2003 USA Hockey national title. His teammates included Sidney Crosby, Jack Johnson and Drew Stafford.

Two years later, the younger Deeth partook in his own crowning campaign in his own senior season. He would be one of 14 players on that 2004-05 team to reach the Division I college ranks.

Of Deeth’s SSM championship teammates, six were chosen in an NHL Draft, including 2006 first-rounders Jonathan Toews and Kyle Okposo. But only Toews, Okposo and Taylor Chorney have seen meaningful action in The Show.

Deeth took a gap year with Green Bay in the USHL before the Irish were ready to take him on. He led the 2006-07 Gamblers with 34 assists, and placed second on their point chart with 54 points.

Outstanding figures when you consider 22 of the 28 players to see action on that team went on to play Division I. But only two NHL draftees emerged in defensemen Eric Gryba and Justin Braun. Two other blueliners in Stu Bickel and Mike Sislo have logged a little action in the ultimate circuit as well.

“In professional hockey, you’re always looking to get to the next level. In high school, you’re looking for that college scholarship. Once you get the college scholarship, you want to get drafted. If you get drafted, you want to work your way up from the East Coast League to the American League. Sometimes I think it’s easy to lose sight of your personal development.” – Kevin Deeth

At Notre Dame, Deeth helped the program to its first Frozen Four appearance in 2008. His goal in that year’s 4-1 national championship loss to Boston College remains the only Fighting Irish tally on that platform.

As his final formal on-ice campus act in 2010, Deeth centered the top line with freshman Kyle Palmieri on his right flank. Palmieri, along with fellow 2009-10 Fighting Irish skaters Ian Cole and Riley Sheahan, has been an NHL staple for five-plus seasons.

Deeth did not necessarily see the same glamorous trajectory for himself by the time he joined Stavanger. But the way fate salted his ice has informed his approach to the site of his own last five years. Even if the majority of his stride is metaphorical now, he cautions against skating out of one’s skin.

“In professional hockey, you’re always looking to get to the next level,” he said. “In high school, you’re looking for that college scholarship. Once you get the college scholarship, you want to get drafted. If you get drafted, you want to work your way up from the East Coast League to the American League.

“Sometimes I think it’s easy to lose sight of your personal development. Are you checking all the boxes and doing all the right things in your current state and using the resources that are currently available to you?”

He continued, “I think that’s really applicable to any vocation or any career path in that you’re always looking for the next thing. I don’t think you’re ever doing what you’re currently doing to your full potential. So I’ve just been real focused on opportunities that will come as they may. Focusing on the current ones, trying to prioritize that.”

A common cliché across sports speak — “the task at hand” — has remained a professional mantra for Deeth. It is his best explanation for falling off the ice with relative grace and entering a leadership capacity shortly before exiting his 20s.

The way he articulates his philosophy, though, one might think he is at the threshold of 50. In reality, he is taking hard-earned lessons and maybe ingesting a little humble pie on his generation’s behalf.

“I think I just try to focus on what’s imminent in my current work,” he said. “Too often, especially with millennials, they’re always looking for the next thing, where the grass is a little bit greener. I think I’m trying to buck that trend a little bit and just focus on the present, and I think people appreciate that and I happened to be rewarded for doing that.”

Kevin Deeth Notre Dame

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

‘I never thought I’d be back here…glad I am’
South Bend barely boasts a six-figure population. A 2016 report in the South Bend Tribune highlighted a tally of 101,516 townspeople.

At 80,795 seats, Notre Dame Stadium could accommodate more than three quarters of the city. That ratio is self-explanatory, since the likes of Rockne and Rudy borderline mythologized the venue’s main tenant.

The stadium has yet to host a hockey game, as some other gridiron cathedrals already have. If and when it does, Deeth will almost surely be on hand. And he may even be watching some student-skaters benefit directly from his deferred gratification.

Deeth’s time in a Fighting Irish uniform was too soon for him to even play at Compton Family Ice Arena. The Joyce Center’s replacement hockey facility opened while he was in Stavanger.

But as an employee who chain-links the extended Notre Dame community, Deeth gets his own perks on game day. He regularly rewards donors by taking in the football action with them, view of Touchdown Jesus, the Golden Dome and all.

Even after going to school with its predecessors, Deeth openly marvels at the football players’ formidable physiques. He has not stopped doing so after five years back in the community.

He may never be able to stop, especially given his general assessments of his seasoned linemates. When a resident or extended community member enters Notre Dame Stadium, its megalodon mouth will remind them that no one is bigger than the university.

But esteemed alumni and other donors are likewise grounded in their skyscraping offices and tidy, hospitable homes. Yet another phenomenon for an awestruck Deeth to admire.

“These people don’t flaunt or boast about their success,” he said. “It’s all about helping others, and that’s kind of a pinch-me moment that I get every day when I get to meet these people.”

And then there are the inspiring scenes he gets from visiting the campus’ less lionized athletic grounds. Having had his fill of the hockey atmosphere at the Joyce Center, he seeks the rest of his spectator-sport fix elsewhere. He will frequent the soccer teams in the fall, basketball in the winter and lacrosse (which he also played in prep school) come spring.

“These people don’t flaunt or boast about their success. It’s all about helping others, and that’s kind of a pinch-me moment that I get every day when I get to meet these people.” – Kevin Deeth

“When I got to some of these other sporting events, women’s soccer is a great example,” he said. “(I have) such an appreciation for these high-level athletes that are performing at an unbelievable competitive level and the way that they’re able to do some of the things that I certainly could never do.

“It’s interesting for me to see that, and it’s why I make a point to go to an event like women’s soccer.”

Odds are a smattering of those student-athletes scored scholarships in the same fashion he did. He may have even had a secondary assist in some of them.

Monetary off-ice assists did not wait for Deeth’s second South Bend stint to become an integral aspect of his repertoire. Besides wearing an “A” on his jersey as a senior, he was the Irish icers’ de facto community service captain.

That year, he anchored the team’s Wounded Warrior fundraiser, for which a game-worn jersey auction accumulated $41,604. For that, the CCHA named him its humanitarian of the year, and he earned consideration for the nation’s equivalent accolade.

“It’s got a real familial feel,” Deeth said of his alma mater-turned-employer. “Tight-knit community, very focused on mission service, greater good. So while athletics and academics played a part of my life here, being involved in charitable endeavors and service opportunities, those things that I was exposed to as a student-athlete, I think I’ve carried on to things I’m involved in now.”

In his current capacity, more so than before, “you really get a sense of the overarching community,” he said. “And we’re in the greater South Bend community, so you get a sense of the university. But you really have a hand in the community, what your kids are involved in and what your friends are involved in.”

The here-and-how hyper-focused Deeth still has time before the “your kids” part of his statement applies to him. His only child is a one-year-old daughter. Then again, she will eventually have activities to join in around her mother’s native and father’s adopted town.

It does not have the same prestige as Chicago or the same mystique as Stavanger. But for Deeth, this is the place to nail the present-day pegs, build on history and feed aspirations.

“I never thought I’d be back here,” he said, then concluded, “I’m glad I am.”

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Al Daniel

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