In a matter of months, Adam Parsells’ life turned upside down.
“I went from a kid who had everything to a kid who had nothing,” said Parsells, a sophomore with UW-Eau Claire hockey.
The 6-foot-5 defenseman, was on the path young elite hockey players train all their lives for. After a strong career at Wausau West and with Team Wisconsin he left home for the United States Hockey League, where he was able to play close to home with the Green Bay Gamblers.
He was set to live a lifelong dream of playing at the University of Wisconsin after the Badgers made him an offer. In June of 2015 he lived another dream when he was selected in the sixth round of the NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks.
Then 2016 came, and piece by piece the perfect picture started crumbling. It’s taken a long time for him to get back close to where he was before.
“It was a big shock to my system,” Parsells said. “I just kind of went off the deep end a little bit and had to pick myself back up.”
His hellish year began when he lost his mother, Shelly. A hardworking nurse, she fought cancer for 14 years, for pretty much as long as he could remember. Her name is tattooed in cursive on his left forearm along with the year of her birth and death.
“Breast cancer, then it went to her back,” Parsells said. “She had liver cancer. Then it went up to her brain. It just was a nightmare. But she held out as long as she could.”
After the unspeakable tragedy, Parsells’ dad, Greg, said it took some convincing to get Adam to return to his normal routine and the USHL’s Chicago Steel, which acquired his rights from Green Bay after just six games with the Gamblers. He returned to Chicago, but after the preseason, and six months after his mother’s death, Adam was traded even further from home to a Des Moines Buccaneers team where he knew no one in the locker room. There was no outlet for him to vent to.
Soon after arriving in Des Moines, he heard more bad news. Wisconsin was interested in moving in another direction.
“It was like somebody shot his dog,” Greg said.
Parsells originally committed to Mike Eaves, but the Badgers’ recruiting plans changed once he was fired after the 2016 season and replaced by Tony Granato.
“They wanted younger kids and I was a little older at the time. Decisions just have to be made,” Parsells said. “It’s just the way it is. They did it with a couple of my good friends too.”
His coach in Des Moines, Dave Allison, could tell something was wrong. Parsells went home for a few months at the start of the season, where he talked through the struggles with a counselor and the priest who lived across the street.
“It got him the help he kind of needed,” Greg said. “He needed to talk to someone other than me.”
Parsells returned to the Buccaneers, which made the playoffs that season. He took the following summer and expanded on the healing process.
Then, he started looking for a new home. He had more Division I offers, but most were out east. After his experience in the USHL, he was done traveling around the country. He wanted somewhere close to home, somewhere his dad could easily travel to to watch him play.
It came down to four schools, St. Olaf, St. Norbert, Eau Claire and UW-Stevens Point, with the latter two being the favorites. He chose the Blugolds for the tradition of winning, the campus, business school and quick drive home.
“I talked to one of my former Triple-A coaches and he said that Eau Claire is as close to a DI school as there is in DIII,” Parsells said.
Eau Claire head coach Matt Loen has made a habit out of picking up the pieces of Division I dreams. Three players on the Blugolds roster previously played DI. Others garnered interest from DI schools.
Loen said situations like Parsells’ aren’t going away anytime soon considering top programs continue to offer players in their early teens and at a high frequency.
“Wisconsin isn’t going to have a 40-player roster,” Loen said.
With a step down from DI to DIII level comes frustrations when players don’t dominate like they expect to, something Loen said he saw at points with Parsells in his first season. But there also were signs of the Adam his father remembered, too.
“I knew things were going to be good when I saw him play his first couple games with Eau Claire,” said Greg, who works as a pressman at a printing company and makes the drive to games. “He seemed like the old kid again.”
Now in his second season with the Blugolds, Parsells has found stability for the first time in years. He hadn’t played on the same team two seasons in a row since his final season of high school hockey in 2013-14. He’s on a winning team, too, as Eau Claire is 15-2-2 after Saturday’s win against St. Olaf and is ranked No. 3 in the latest USCHO poll.
Parsells hasn’t entirely given up on his professional goals, though he plans to stick around at Eau Claire for the full four years. This certainly isn’t the way he expected his life to play out, but he’s found a second home in Eau Claire that makes it all easier to deal with.
“I was on a high,” Parsells said. “I was like the man. Reality kind of hits you in the face real quick. You’re like, ‘Wow, I wouldn’t have envisioned this a couple years back.’ But that’s the way life goes. … Some kids can handle it. Some kids can’t.”