Transferring to Quinnipiac may have been the best thing Bellmore’s K.J. Tiefenwerth ever did — in more ways than one.
First and foremost, it may have saved his life. It also got him to the finals of the Frozen Four, the NCAA national hockey championship.
Tiefenwerth is a right wing for Quinnipiac, the top-ranked college hockey team in the nation. The Bobcats will play North Dakota for the NCAA crown Saturday night in Tampa. Quinnipiac got there by holding off Boston College, 3-2, on Thursday.
Tiefenwerth, who has two goals and three assists in six postseason games, has taken a long, arduous path to the national semifinals.
The junior, who has attended an Islanders minicamp and scored a goal against Harvard at Madison Square Garden in January, had open-heart surgery after his freshman year playing at UMass to remove a tumor on a valve of his heart.
The tumor was discovered by an echocardiogram in a physical exam prompted by his transfer to Quinnipiac; the echocardiogram was his option.
“If I had not, if I was in a rush or something, I easily could have walked out that door and never found it,” he said.
On June 18, 2013 — five days after he was diagnosed — Tiefenwerth had surgery at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore.
The road back was demanding. He said he went into surgery in the best shape of his life and came out the worst. He needed a walker to move around. He could barely make it up and down the stairs.
Tiefenwerth was naturally met with obstacles while rebuilding strength. At times he’d feel short of breath, and he’d be tired. But he never used his surgery as a reason to slow down.
“I didn’t want to give myself an excuse for being tired or having shortness of breath,” he said. “I didn’t want to give myself an excuse to not perform at the highest level.”
He was allowed to redshirt at Quinnipiac, which he said he was thankful for because it allowed him to be part of the team even when he was rehabbing.
Now, Tiefenwerth is a key contributor on a Bobcats team in its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
“Nothing’s surprising or out of the blue,” he said of the team’s success during a 32-3-7 season. “We prepared for this. It was definitely one of our main goals in the beginning of the year at that first practice.”
The Bobcats last lost a game March 12 against Cornell in the East Coast Athletic Conference quarterfinals. Since then, they’ve outscored opponents 24-8.
Tiefenwerth’s hockey career was once in doubt. Open-heart surgery certainly threw a wrench in his plans to play right away at Quinnipiac, but he has relished the opportunities given to him by the university.
Now, he’s on the verge of college hockey’s greatest achievement. And he’s not thinking of the road behind him. Just of the one ahead.
“Once that puck drops,” Tiefenwerth said. “I’m not thinking about anything but trying to win.”
NCAA championship game
North Dakota vs. Quinnipiac
ESPN2, 8 p.m.