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Sydney coach overwhelmed by Vancouver peewee team’s efforts to find him a kidney donor


Plenty of Spirit

SYDNEY, N.S. — Stephen Gillis teaches his Vancouver Spirit peewee team that being a good hockey player goes beyond what they do on the ice. Now they’re stepping up for their coach.

Gillis, originally from Sydney, needs a kidney transplant. His group of 11 and 12-year-olds has created a video that’s gone viral with over 300,000 views in the hopes of finding their coach a donor.

“I’m just overwhelmed by the kindness of the kids, the team, the parents, they’re such amazing people and an amazing group,” said the 38-year-old, who’s lived in Vancouver since 2000. “Just the kindness of everybody from my past, my current life, from all walks of life, I just can’t believe it.”

It’s the first season behind the bench for Gillis with the Spirit peewee A2 rep team, but he’s coached many of the players through atom. He grew up with a love of hockey from back home and was a big fan of the Cape Breton Oilers as a kid. He still plays himself, lacing up in a Vancouver adult rec league. 

A nine-year-old Stephen Gillis is shown with Cape Breton Oilers player Shjon Podein at Centre 200 in 1990. Gillis’ love of hockey came from growing up an Oilers fan and playing the game in Cape Breton.
A nine-year-old Stephen Gillis is shown with Cape Breton Oilers player Shjon Podein at Centre 200 in 1990. Gillis’ love of hockey came from growing up an Oilers fan and playing the game in Cape Breton.

The Spirit participated in the Chevrolet Good Deeds Cup, which is a national competition where teams perform good deeds off the ice and are awarded prizes and a trophy. Gillis’ team raised $1,300 for a family in need at Christmas time. 

Shortly before the team’s good deed, Spirit assistant coach Cory Dobson contacted the Vancouver Canucks to let them know of Gillis’ story. The Canucks invited him out to attend practice for the day and to a home game against the Nashville Predators on Dec. 6. Soon after, the Spirit players learned of their coach’s need for a transplant.

Spirit captain Jordan Stewart and his mother, Janette Stoeken, came up with the idea for the team’s viral video on a drive home from team practice a few days later.

“I was super surprised that he had a serious kidney disease and he was really sick because he never let it show and he was always striving to make himself better and us better,” said 12-year-old Stewart, who plays centre with the Spirit. “We just thought it would be a nice thing to do for Stephen because he is such a great coach and a great person to us. We were thinking that it would be a good idea to try and make a video and find him a kidney.

“I’m super shocked (at the response to the video). I’m happy that people have taken charge and hopefully, someone can find him a kidney and get him back to a healthy Stephen.”

Before taking his current job producing curriculum films for the University of British Columbia’s medical program, Gillis worked as an independent filmmaker. His first project, 2010’s “This Wrestling Life,” followed the lives of professional wrestlers who competed in independent shows throughout Western Canada. He followed that with another documentary “Rise of the eSports Hero” in 2013 that delved into the world of competitive gaming.

In 2005, he learned he had Crohn’s disease, a painful form of inflammatory bowel disease. It took its toll especially while making “This Wrestling Life” and required life-saving surgery before he finished the film.

Sydney native Stephen Gillis, head coach of the Vancouver Spirit peewee A2 team, is proud of his players’ efforts in helping him find a kidney donor. Front row from left are alternate captain Isaac Cheng, captain Jordan Stewart, alternate captain Waylon Hope and alternate captain Paige Stanley. Back row from left are assistant coach Connor Aylwin and Gillis.
Sydney native Stephen Gillis, head coach of the Vancouver Spirit peewee A2 team, is proud of his players’ efforts in helping him find a kidney donor. Front row from left are alternate captain Isaac Cheng, captain Jordan Stewart, alternate captain Waylon Hope and alternate captain Paige Stanley. Back row from left are assistant coach Connor Aylwin and Gillis.

Last year, Gillis began to experience severe cramping in his hands. His condition worsened, and he ended up in the hospital in July. He was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease called IgA nephropathy (also known as Berger’s disease), which stemmed from his Crohn’s disease. At that point, he had nine per cent kidney function.


BIO

  • Stephen Gillis
  • Age: 38
  • Hometown: Sydney
  • Resides: Vancouver
  • Position: Head coach Vancouver Spirit peewee A2 
  • Job: Produces curriculum films for the University of British Columbia’s medical program

“I was in the hospital for a week and a half getting fluids and stuff. Eventually, they got it back to about 14 per cent (kidney function),” said Gillis. “I got out and it’s been declining since over time, but I’ve been just trying to do my best to take care, drink lots of water and escape dialysis for as long as possible until we get a donor lined up.”

On Monday, Gillis appeared on Vancouver CTV’s morning show and his story has been picked up by local and national media outlets in the hopes of spreading the word. He requires a living donor with the same O negative blood type and hopes to have a kidney after this season, recover over the summer and be back on the ice next fall.

“Just the team in general, I take my role very seriously with them in their life and my life,” said Gillis. “I’ve never missed a practice and I never missed a game and I intend not do.”

To be tested to be a kidney donor for Gillis, contact transplant coordinator Renee Katter at 1-855-875-5182 or email kidneydonornurse@vch.ca.

tj.colello@cbpost.com

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