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Off the ice and on the path

Russ Mehrhof
Russ Mehrhof
photography by Jennifer Laura

"But He (God) said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." 2 Corinthians12:8

Another amazing trip to the Detroit Red Wings training camp in Traverse City, MI brought deep reflection and moments of spiritual awakening. However, the greatest stories this year happened away from the ice. Today's column is an introduction to the most moving moment of our trip, and that was a reunion with Russ Mehrhoff. We met Russ last year, and it was very easy to see why everyone around him seems to love this kind man. His smile and personality are enough to make most people lighten their mood. However, this year, something was very different. Russ still had the same kind disposition, but had lost an amazing 70 pounds in the past 12 months! Upon complimenting him on such an incredible feat, I came to learn about a man who God had saved from many things, including a deadly car collision, and who was given a chance at a new life.

For 10 years before his life-changing accident, Russ described himself in one word, "workaholic". There were three things that kept him going: money, money, and money. Russ was the manager of a flooring store in Elk Rapids, MI. For most of the year, he ran the operation himself. Russ found himself working 60 or more hours a week, and still finding time to work out and play and coach hockey. He was a defenseman who had no issues in taking out his stress on the ice. Russ can look back now and realize that he was looking for financial security. As one boy in a family of 8, the desire to be completely independent was very strong. That drive took him a long way, until about 5 and a half years ago.

On a snowy morning in Traverse City, Russ was making his way slowly up 31 when he noticed a serious traffic slow-down because of black ice. Russ attempted to pull over to help someone who had rolled their vehicle, but then noticed they were managing on their own. It was when Russ looked back up that he noticed the Jeep speeding toward him, out of control. He did not even have enough time to express his surprise when the crash happened. In a moment of divine grace, it turned out that 2 off-duty EMTs where stuck in that same traffic jam and were able to come and assist Russ until an ambulance could arrive. That was one of the first signs that Russ was safely in God's hands.

Russ could remember, vividly, being wheeled into the hospital. He knew he was covered with blood, and remembers a statement that his father made. "You shouldn't get hurt like this unless you're on the ice..." It was a glimpse into the shock and sudden awakening that everyone was soon going to feel. No one knew it yet, but Russ would never again lace up skates and play the game that he loved. More than that, he would immediately go from working 60+ hours a week to being laid up on disability. Everything that meant safety and security was stripped away in a matter of seconds. The damage from the crash can be seen in the slide show of pictures generously provided by Russ himself. The car he was in had no airbags, and the steering wheel made a bruise in his torso. Pictures of the car show how close the impact was.

It is now 12 surgeries later, the last being July 10th of this year. The road to healing was frought with turns, one of which took Russ to Minnesota where he entered the Mayo clinic. As grace would have it, one of the most qualified physicians to help Russ with his knee was right back in Traverse City, where he returned. During the period directly after the crash, Russ says it was like being in the eye of a tornado. Where there was chaos all around, Russ felt the peace of a God that he did not quite know, but who had certainly spared his life. 18 months later, that would all change. During the period directly after the crash, it stood out to Russ that while he was in the hospital a local Pastor would come in just to pray with him and talk to him. Russ was not a member of the church, but still this kind and blessed man gave Russ exactly what he needed, time. During that 18 month period after the crash, Russ began attending church. It was one night where Russ felt like he truly needed a sign, and he got it. That night, the pastor preached, "God does his best work through us when we are weak and vulnerable." That struck a chord and Russ went forward to give his life to Christ. Russ found the eternal security in that moment that 10 years of endless working could not provide. Everything came together in a place where Russ said that he truly bears no ill will toward any of the pain, including the other driver involved. In all the pain, Russ never doubts that God is using all of this for a greater glory.

There is another twist on Russ's recovery. Russ is a recovering addict. During the most painful part of his recovery, he had to carefully monitor what was given to him in order to be able to stay clean. His thoughts on this are, "Better to live a life of pain and sleeplessness than to be without my faculties. It is a gift from God to stay clean in my mind, heart and conscience." Russ counts his pain, to a degree, as a blessing.

And so here it is, 5 and a half years and 12 surgeries later. Russ has lost 70 pounds through diet and exercise. And now, he is looking ahead. Russ is now attending college and working toward a degree in Social Work. He wants to spend his life helping others, especially young people. Russ attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings as a 16 year clean and sober veteran to help those who are starting on the path to a clean life. He knows that going back to school is challenging, but looks forward to sharing all the ways that God has helped him persevere when we meet again in 12 months, back at the rink.

With all of this, it is difficult to think of a fitting way to end this story. Russ smiled and gave the perfect ending. On Memorial Day, 2005, the same year as the crash, Russ was pulled over. He was given a ticket for not wearing his seat belt. At the time, he felt that the officer was just trying to annoy him, but going forward he wore his seatbelt every day. The people that helped to save Russ's life attribute his seatbelt as the reason that the crash wasn't fatal. After the crash, Russ found the officer's name who gave him the ticket and called him. Russ insisted that they meet in person. He thanked that officer in person, telling him that his life was saved because the officer was doing his job. It seems that God had his hand on Russ all the way through this. Russ knows that God didn't cause that crash, but that in His mercy, all things worked together so that God's strength could be seen in Russ's weakness.

Many thanks to Russ for his willingness to testify that, even in our darkest moments we are in God's hand. His sincere hope is that it does not take a car crash for anyone to slow down enough to see the path that God has prepared for them. Be blessed as you read this. May it bring light to any current darkness. As for Russ, the smile on his face says it all. He is on the right path, even if he is off the ice. He can still enjoy the game from a distance, and will be cheering on the Wings as they make another run this year. Be blessed, each of you, who took time to stop by today. Tune in again next week for another inspirational tale from Hockeytown North as we visited with Jiri Fischer. Until then, God bless and keep reading.

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