SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Kathy Stastney still remembers the quizzical looks she’d get every time she brought the family’s gold Toyota Camry in for yet another oil change.
“Wow, what do you do for work?” the technicians would ask her.
“I’m a mom,” she’d answer cryptically.
“Yeah, but what do you do?” they would ask again.
“I’m a hockey mom,” she’d say finally.
With that came the knowing nods and bemused smiles.
Of course, it had to be hockey. How else could that sturdy sedan pack on 80,000 miles a year?
Long before Spencer Stastney blossomed into a standout sophomore defenseman at Notre Dame, where he doubles as a rising member of the U.S. national developmental program, he and younger brother Pierce made countless commutes to the Chicago area from the family’s home in Mequon, Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee.
Those drives started when Spencer was 10, a year after he caught the eye of coaches with the Ice Dogs program in Vernon Hills. Those round trips would take two hours or so, but the family upped the ante over the next four years as Spencer moved up to the Triple-A Chicago Mission.
That tacked an extra 40 miles each way onto the commute, which essentially doubled the car time for Kathy and her two boys, thanks to O’Hare traffic. While her husband, Hoyt, worked as an attorney, she’d pick their sons up from school around 2:20 p.m., an hour before dismissal, and get them to Chicago in time for a 5 p.m. practice.
Even as it overflowed with hockey gear and snacks, the Stastney Camry became a mobile library and study hall. If the return trip stretched past bedtime at 9 p.m., the reading materials would be put away and the boys would try to sleep.
“My kids became really good students in a car,” she said in a phone interview. “It was all schoolwork, and if you didn’t have schoolwork, it was reading. We were very fortunate that the boys didn’t get carsick.”
As Spencer climbed the youth-hockey ladder, he and a Naperville kid named Jake Pivonka became inseparable from bantam minors on up. Former Washington Capitals center Mike Pivonka was the boy’s father, and he graciously shared his hockey wisdom with Spencer, as well.
Spencer and Jake have played together since age 10, their pairing extending through USA Hockey, the Chicago Mission, Bridgedale Academy in Woodridge and now Notre Dame. Along the way, the elder Pivonka, who helped found Bridgedale, served as an assistant coach and invaluable mentor.
“Pretty much the reason why I’m here today is Mike took me under his wing alongside Jacob,” Stastney said of the 13-year NHL player who totaled 599 points in 825 career games. “He knows the game better than everyone in my family combined.”
When a 16-year-old Stastney struggled at his first U.S. developmental team scrimmage, the elder Pivonka quickly intervened to lift his spirits.
“It was Mike who gave it to him straight,” Kathy said. “He said, ‘Listen, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to pick yourself up. Let’s get moving. This is how you showcase yourself.’ Mike was just amazing. He’s been an impactful person in Spencer’s life.”
Drafted in the fifth round by the Nashville Predators in 2018, Spencer continues to see his profile grow. He has 16 points this year, sixth on a 14-12-6 team, and scored the winning goal to break a scoreless tie in the third period last Saturday at Michigan.
He spent part of his Christmas holiday in the Czech Republic, playing eight games with the U-20 team.
“It was pretty surreal,” Stastney said. “Playing there with the national program before that, U-17 and U-18, those are the real deal, but U-20 was a different experience. It just took a different mindset to succeed there and play well with the size of the tournament, the fans, the media and how professional it was.”
He has come a long way from those marathon slogs in the family Camry.
“Probably not the best traction in the snow, but we always made it,” Stastney said. “My mom was a trooper, just grinding through, especially in those winter storms. She was awesome.”
Funny story: The 2009 Camry was a lease with the usual 12,000-mile annual allotment. By the time the Stastneys realized hockey had taken over their lives, they had to buy the car rather than pay the insane overage penalty.
Kathy, now working at a real-estate management company, is still driving its replacement, a 2011 gold Camry that has taken the boys to tournaments as far away as Toronto. Its odometer is somewhere north of 300,000 miles.
“Looking back on it, the boys have said sometimes, ‘Oh, my God, Ma, that was ridiculous!’ ” Kathy said. “I never know if they’re teasing me now, but I don’t remember one day getting out of the car once I pulled into the garage where Spencer didn’t say, ‘Thank you, Mom.’ Not one single day.”