Tanner Congdon is living a dream.
"There’s no one who has more to be thankful than me this Thanksgiving," said Congdon, a 16-year-old hockey player who moved from Anchorage, Alaska, to Blue Springs to play for the Missouri Mavericks Elite AAA 16-under team.
As he walks into his new home away from home, he is greeted by the "welcoming committee," three dogs who range in size from 95 pounds to 5 pounds. By the lightning quick speed of their wagging tales, it’s easy to see that they, too, are thankful Congdon is a part of their lives.
So are their owners, Merylene Thompson and Brian Irvine, who readily "adopted" Congdon when they were approached about becoming a billet family by Mavs Elite coach Simon Watson.
"Tanner’s the son I never had," said Brian, the father of two daughters. "I’ve been a Mavericks fan since the team came here five years ago, and when they started the Elite program, Simon contacted me and Merylene about being a host family for one or two of the 16-year-old boys.
"We didn’t think we could handle two boys, but we told Simon we’d be happy to help with one boy, and we got a great young man. I’m from Canada and I’ve played hockey all my life, so we have a lot of things in common."
As Brian talks about hockey and Merylene talks about the impact Congdon has made on their lives in a very short period of time, it’s easy to see that this is one extremely happy hockey family.
"I know he’s going to be leaving in March, and I can’t even stand to think about that," she said, giving Congdon a motherly pat on the shoulder. "He’s just wonderful, never a problem. And he’s just so cute – and look at those teeth."
Congdon smiles, and says dramatically, "And they’re all real."
Congdon has become somewhat of a world traveler because of hockey. He is a native of Calvary, who moved to Vancouver when he was 5. The past five years he lived in Anchorage, Alaska, which also happens to be the hometown of Mavericks forward Tyler Currier, who has spent all season on the injured reserve list with a broken foot.
"I don’t know Tanner that well, but he’s friends with my little sister Megan, who is a sophomore in high school back in Anchorage," Currier said. "When I was 17 I moved from Anchorage to Fort Collins, Colo., to live with a billet family and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
"We still exchange birthday, Christmas cards – things like that – and I will always consider them a part of my family."
Congdon feels the same way about Merylene and Brian.
"I couldn’t have a better family," said Congdon, who is a junior at Blue Springs South High School. "They’re the best. Brian is from Canada and he played hockey so he knows what I’m all about and Merylene is just the best. She does everything she can to spoil me."
When he’s not petting the trio of family dogs, talking hockey with Brian or being spoiled by Merylene, Congdon is starring for his elite team.
"Tyler is the real deal, a great young hockey player," said Watson, a former Mavericks player who is now an elite coach and the Mavericks director of player personnel. "When we came to Independence five years ago, we had this dream of starting an elite hockey program for kids like Tyler so they could come to Eastern Jackson County from all over the country."
And now, that dream is a reality.
"I came here because we had some contacts with coaches who were familiar with the program, and it’s been a great move for me," Congdon said. "I love it here. I didn’t know anything about the Mavericks or Independence or Blue Springs, and it’s all turned out great.
"And it’s so ironic that Tyler would be a part of the Mavericks and I would be a part of the elite team. He’s older than me, so I never knew him in Anchorage, but I know his sister pretty well. Since he’s been hurt I haven’t been able to see him play, but I’ve been to a Mavericks game and had a lot of fun."
Congdon and his teammates just returned from a showcase tournament in Detroit where the team finished with a 0-4 record, but he scored five points in the four games.
"Tanner can put the puck in the back of the net, that’s for sure," Watson said, grinning. "He’s the type of player, the type of young man, we want representing our program. He came here because he wants a Division I scholarship, and the way he’s playing we all think it will happen."
Over the past few months, Congdon has played hockey in Denver, St. Louis, Springfield (Mass.), Chicago, Duluth (Minn.) and Detroit.
He rattles off the names of the cities with casual ease.
"I’m used to the travel," he said, as he talked with his host family about getting to the airport for a Thanksgiving trip to Fargo, N.D., with one of his new teammates.
"He’s so organized, he’s just like an adult," Merylene said. "I’ve never been around a more mature 16 year old."
Congdon says it comes with the territory.
"We have a picture of me back home in a diaper, holding a hockey stick," he said, grinning. "I was on skates when I was 2 and I was playing hockey when I was 3. This is just a part of my life – a great part of my life.
"I can’t imagine ever doing anything else."