New Trier goalie returns to crease after open-heart surgery

One week after winning the state championship with New Trier, Preston Watt worried he might never be able to play hockey again.

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New Trier sophomore goalie Preston Watt hoists the state championship trophy above his head after he blanked Loyola Academy last spring.

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Preston Watt stood in the crease — the same one Corey Crawford and many other great NHL goalies have been in — and soaked in every moment.

It didn’t feel real.

He looked up at the United Center scoreboard hanging above center ice and saw there were only five seconds left in the state championship game. He tapped each goal post before dropping into position for the final faceoff.

What happened next is kind of a blur to Watt. The final horn sounded. Green and black gloves, helmets and sticks flew through the air.

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New Trier celebrates after it beat Loyola Academy for the state title last March.

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Teammates tackled Watt, New Trier’s star sophomore goalie, who blanked second-seeded Loyola for the state title.

It was the greatest moment of Watt’s hockey career.

“Oh, my God, it was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Watt said of the game last March, speeding up his words in excitement. “The horns, the lights, the huge crowd. Just everything was absolutely amazing.”

But one week after he paraded around the United Center ice with the state championship trophy over his head like the Stanley Cup, Watt worried he might never be able to play hockey again.

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Watt has been a fighter since the day he was born. His father, Rodney, recalled the harrowing first few weeks of his son’s life.

After having him home for just seven days, Preston became extremely ill. His organs started shutting down, and doctors hadn’t a clue as to why.

Rodney drove like a maniac to Lurie Children’s Hospital hoping to find answers.

“They put him on life support, put him on a ventilator,” Rodney said. “And they basically said to us, ‘We don’t know if he’s going to live or not. But he’s got a severe heart defect, and we have to try to fix it.’ ”

Preston was born with Shone’s syndrome, which meant he had multiple defects of the left side of his heart. The condition is so rare that it accounts for only 0.6 percent of all congenital heart diseases, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

After three days on a ventilator, Preston was able to undergo life-saving surgery.

Like any parents, all Rodney and Sue wanted was for him to be able to live a normal life. They didn’t tell him much about his heart defect because they didn’t want him to use it as an excuse.

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Rodney, Preston, Sue, sister Roxanne (15) and brother Dylan (10) pose for a family photo at a New Year’s Eve party.

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Preston played almost every sport as a kid. His father described him as an athletically talented kid, but he often struggled to keep up with his peers. Running up and down the soccer field or basketball court left him struggling for air because of his heart defect.

But that never stopped him from trying.

Preston fell in love with hockey when he was 10. It turns out goalie was an ideal position for him.

Two years after Watt started playing hockey, he felt sick while traveling home from a Triple-A hockey tournament in Dallas. After a few tests, a team of doctors realized Preston needed surgery.

“They were like, ‘He can’t do anything,’ ” Rodney said. “We want him to just go home and sit on the couch, we have to clear the surgeon’s schedule and get a stent placed in the aorta where the original surgery was and there’s a restriction in the blood flow.”

There are no books or podcasts that can prepare a parent to have that difficult conversation with their child. Rodney recalled trying to mentally and emotionally prepare for the questions Preston, who was 12, might ask.

Am I going to be OK? What’s going to happen? Am I going to die?

But Preston’s only question for his parents was: “When am I going to be able to play hockey again?”

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After the state championship, Watt underwent testing by his cardiologist. The results weren’t good. So they ran them again just to be sure.

His surgeon, Dr. Carl Backer, who performed Preston’s first heart surgery 17 years ago, sat Preston and his parents down and explained that there had been a growth in tissue in his heart and if they didn’t remove it, the blockage could cause sudden cardiac death.

At this point, Preston already had undergone two stent surgeries and more than a half-dozen angiogram angioplasties. But he never had open-heart surgery.

“Do we have to have the surgery?” Preston asked, though he knew the answer.

Preston underwent the procedure Aug. 15. One day later, he was up and walking.

His New Trier teammates and coach visited him after surgery. They weren’t surprised by how positive he was about the situation.

That’s just the type of kid Preston is.

The goal was to have him back in net by January. But Preston was back on the ice in a month, and he played his first game in October.

“I’m like, ‘Are you playing today?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ ” teammate Simon Chong said. “You see him, and he still has a giant scar across his entire chest. It’s massive and it’s purple and it’s gross, but he’s playing with it. It looks cool, and he’s playing.”

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Preston Watt returned to the ice just two months after open-heart surgery this fall.

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Said Preston: “It was a pretty emotional experience being on the ice because before surgery, they said, ‘We don’t know if you’ll be able to play hockey after this.’

“And so coming out of surgery, after rehab and take some time and be able to step on the ice and play . . . I don’t really know how to put it into words.”

New Trier Green is 42-4-1 this season and pegged to repeat as state champions. And Preston is ready to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Truth be told, Preston doesn’t know what the future holds. But he’s just trying to soak in the moment.

“Preston, he’s never satisfied,” Chong said. “He keeps pushing, he doesn’t give up, he wants more out of himself and out of everyone. He’s an inspiration for us.”

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