Casey's heart, humor and hockey remembered
Moose captainís life on and off the ice leaves friends and family with a trove of stories.
Jackson Hole Moose Hockey captain Joe Casey, right, celebrates with teammates after he scored last November. PRICE CHAMBERS / NEWS&GUIDE FILEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Miller N. Resor, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
February 13, 2013
Over and over last week, family and friends of Joe Casey, the Jackson Hole Moose Hockey captain who died suddenly Feb. 4, gathered to grieve for, remember and celebrate a man whose happiness was infectious, energy endless and stories prolific.
Perhaps most telling about Casey was that in every encounter during the past week, in every memory and in every story, the same themes surfaced.
Casey’s toughness, hard work and hockey skills were mentioned repeatedly, but his leadership, big heart and charisma were spoken of just as often.
In story after story, mourners eased their sorrow by remembering Casey’s sense of humor and unbelievable stories.
They all wondered how they would ever fill the enormous hole left by his absence.
Bryce Wallnutt met Casey in peewee hockey in Colorado Springs, Colo. Wallnutt’s first memory of his friend was Casey arriving at hockey practice with a nail lodged in his head, the result of a rumble with his older brother Travis.
“Joe wasn’t fazed,” Wallnutt said. “He was ready to play.”
Wallnutt initially was one of the younger players on the team. He was always impressed by Casey’s natural leadership and by how he was always extremely supportive of Wallnutt and many of the other younger players.
For years to come, Wallnutt would play on the same teams as Casey.
While playing for Palmer High School they won the 1992 Colorado State Championship together. Wallnutt remembers Casey scoring the winning goal of a semifinal game in triple overtime at the state tournament. Always a crowd pleaser, Casey leaped on top of the boards as the bleachers erupted.
The next year, Casey went to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a boarding school in Minnesota that was in the process of building an elite hockey program. Wallnutt followed him there the next year.
Years later, Moose teammates would doubt Casey’s claim that, while he was visiting Shattuck as an alumnus, players like Sydney Crosby and Jonathan Toews — two NHL all-stars — would tell him they had heard stories about him. Wallnutt confirmed that Casey was indeed a formative player in the Shattuck-St. Mary’s program.
After a postgraduate year at the Minnesota school, Casey headed to Denver University alongside Wallnutt. Casey had been recruited but not offered a scholarship.
“He was a really hard worker,” Wallnutt said. “We weren’t the most skilled guys, but we both played really hard. It wasn’t easy going from being the best player to being a blue-collar player, but I never saw Joe complain.”
George Gwozdecky, head coach of the Denver University Pioneers hockey team for the past 18 years, said Casey was “a unique guy in the sense that he was self-made.
“He was a nonscholarship player,” Gwozdecky said. “There was no guarantee he was going to play … but there wasn’t a single day I could say Joe Casey did not show up.”
By his senior year, Gwozdecky said, Casey was a leader on the team.
“He endeared himself to his teammates because of his intensity and his emotion,” he said. “He was a Pioneer through and through.”
In his final year, Casey was named most inspirational and most improved player on the Pioneers hockey team.
“The guy really was a legend,” Wallnutt said. “Some big guys think they are better than everybody else. Not Joe.”
Wallnutt still cannot believe Joe died in his bed. It reminds him for the first time since he returned from military service in Iraq, he said, how “precious our time on Earth is.”
Casey, a fishing and hunting guide as well as a skilled handyman who most recently worked for his friends at Two Ocean Builders, was constantly returning from a fishing trip or a hunt.
At the house he moved into on the Moose-Wilson Road this winter, he transformed a couple of ponds into skating rinks, building a “Zamboni” from a sit-on-top lawn mower and a modified mop handle.
Casey moved to Jackson Hole after Denver University on the promise of a job, a place to live and a team to play for.
Bob Carruth, then and now the manager of the indoor ice rink at the base of Snow King, recruited Casey to play for a fledgling hockey team known as the Moose.
When Casey arrived, Carruth took him to Moose player T.J. Thomas’ house, where a number of guys on the hockey team were living in 2000.
“Howie [Carruth] pretty much dropped him off at our place and told us to make him feel like part of the team,” Thomas said. “That took about an hour.”
A ball of fun
Thomas remembers Casey as “a ball of fun in the locker room” and confidence-inspiring on the ice.
“Whenever he was on the ice, I felt like we were going to win,” he said.
Casey tallied 297 goals in his 13 years with the Moose, and, judging by his average 2-to-1 assist-to-goal ratio, he likely had more than 1,000 points.
“He was a great captain and a great player,” said Aaron Ackley, a former Moose captain who also grew up in Colorado. “He made the Moose a better team the day he got there. He brought the energy level up 100 percent and made us better players.”
Casey was known for rallying the Moose between the second and third periods with phrases like “Twenty minutes for the rest of our lives, boys” and “It’s time to stop pointing fingers and start pointing thumbs.” The seriousness of his tone varied, depending on the situation in the game.
In his final season, Casey had already scored three game-winning goals in one of the Moose’s finest starts in many years.
Casey was born in Bismarck, N.D., in 1975. He learned to skate four years later while his parents were living in Omaha, Neb. A couple of years after that, the family moved to Colorado Springs.
Shortly after Casey started at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, he started spending summers with the family of Matt Hovey, his best friend at his new school. To this day it isn’t clear to Mikey Hovey — Matt’s younger brother, who moved to Jackson largely by way of Casey’s introduction — why Casey started living with their family in Vail, Colo.
“He had been working full-time jobs since he was 13,” the younger Hovey said. “He was already supporting himself. I think when my parents realized this, my dad offered him a job at his lumber yard for the summer, and one summer turned into two until it was every summer.”
Even to Casey’s closest friends, his childhood remains somewhat of a mystery. Most of the time that was easy to overlook, because he was smiling and joking about everything but his deepest roots. Occasionally, though, he would talk about his foster brothers with the utmost pride, and a small window into his past would open.
Mikey Hovey and two of his three (four including Casey) brothers spoke at Sunday night’s memorial.
The brothers struggled through tears as they spoke of their fifth brother’s bravery, humor, strength and manners.
Hovey said that at a time of hardship for his own family, Casey became an older brother, a role model and an idol and has never ceased to be all those things.
“I never understood what I did for him,” Hovey said, “but my mom always said Joe was God’s gift to me and I was God’s gift to Joe.”
Hovey visited Casey in Jackson Hole several times, and after a try at city life in San Francisco, he called Casey to see if it would be all right if he moved to the valley.
“He absolutely loved Jackson,” Hovey said. “He had such a passion for being outside. He wanted to experience all the beautiful things this place had to offer, and he loved to share wilderness with people. He loved to be a teacher.”
Generous with knowledge
Casey shared his immense knowledge of hockey with rookie after rookie. He also helped coach the women’s hockey team and joined a coed recreational hockey squad to share his skill with novice players.
From the night Casey’s death was discovered, the ice rink became a fitting mausoleum for the beloved community member.
A determination of the cause of death is awaiting lab reports. All that is known is that after playing a hockey game Feb. 1, Casey told teammates he felt sick. On Feb. 4, a close friend stopped by Casey’s home after he did not show up for work and found him in his bed with his hands on his chest.
Friends, family and teammates are struggling to understand how a man so full of life could leave their world so unexpectedly.
Where will they find a guy who will spray on a farmer’s tan for a laugh, ride a bull for a challenge or wear a suit several sizes too small with a smile? A guy who will tell the same story 50 times, and the story somehow always gets better? A friend who will tell stories so unbelievable that in fact friends don’t believe them, only to have him wave a picture as proof in their faces?
The truth is they may not.
Casey leaves behind a legacy that will be hard to match. He will undoubtedly live on as an inspiration in communities around the country.
The Joe Casey Memorial Fund has been set up in his honor. Money collected by the nonprofit will be used to grow hockey in Jackson.
Those who wish to make a donation can send checks to P.O. Box 10965, Jackson, WY 83002.