Ty Ulmer: Making the Biggest Save of His Life


What’s wrong with the picture above?

No, Pekka Rinne did not decide to ditch his Reebok pads in favor of Bauer ones and practice a little garage ball hockey.

The answer is more complex than just a kid from Idaho getting his hockey fix by strapping on leg pads to let his brother pepper him with shots.

Ty Ulmer (the 17-year old pictured above) only has one leg.

His story will flat out inspire you.

Idaho by way of Oklahoma, Japan, and Alaska

Growing up in a military family isn’t easy.  In fact, for most kids, having to move constantly takes its toll.  For Ty Ulmer, he’s known nothing else.  Born on Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Ulmer spent four years in the States before he, and his family, had to relocate half-way across the world to Misawa, Japan.

“It was a great place to live, and grow up as a kid.  Being open to the different life style of the Japanese people and their culture, it was a great learning experience.  As a family, we took many vacations back to the US to visit family over the summer.  We did this almost every year after my dad came back from deployments,” Ulmer said.

In 2006, after just seven years in Japan, Ulmer’s family was relocated back to Alaska.  After buying a house, Ty stayed a mere 2 and a half weeks in the “Last Frontier” before his father was stationed in Mountain Home, Idaho.

“Being in the military, you move where they tell you to.  And we had received orders to Mountain Home, Idaho, which was the start of a great journey,” Ty began.  “As we drove down the ALCAN Highway through Canada, we never imagined what Mountain Home would be like.  Going from the Islands of Japan, where the hills and flatlands were green and full of life, to Alaska and Canada, where the mountains were covered in snow, and the flatlands were covered in thousands of trees, we soon realized Mountain Home was the complete opposite of both.  Driving into the base, we thought we took a wrong turn. There wasn’t a tree for miles.  No water, no green, just open desert and hot sun.  It was quite the change from what I was used to.  To answer your question: No, it wasn’t really hard to move as a kid, I thought it was normal for kids my age.”

Things were going swimmingly for the Ulmer’s.  They finally had a place to stay and call home.  Then things took an unexpected turn for the worst.

The Bad News

For Ty Ulmer, September 11th, 2008 will always be a day he will never forget for a very different reason.

Riding bikes in the summer is a staple for kids everywhere.  More often than not, injuries are bound to occur.  However, injuring yourself the way Ty did likely saved his life.

“I sort of wrecked my bike.  And by ‘sort of’, I mean I hit the front brake when I was going too fast, and almost flipped.  My foot slipped and my shin was mangled by the pedal.  I thought it was only a cut/bruise.  I only had a small bump afterwards.  It was sore and I started to limp.  As the days went on, it got bigger and bigger, and I limped more and more.”

Ty receives his chemo treatment for osteosarcoma.
Ty receives his chemo treatment for osteosarcoma.

Ulmer continued, “So almost two months went by and I could barely walk.  We showed up to the doctor’s office and I got an X-ray.  We were told to go home so the doctor could review it.  Shortly after, he called my mom and scheduled me for an MRI.  After the MRI, we went back to the doctors office.  My mom asked ‘Well, what do you think it is?’

“And he turned and looked at us and said ‘It looks like bone cancer.'”

Ty recounts, “It felt like I had just fallen out of a plane.”

Ulmer was 13-years old when he got his diagnosis.  He remembers everything about that day.

“My mom started crying the second the words left the doctor’s mouth, but she restrained from shedding a tear until we got home.  She kept asking me if I was okay, checking to see if I was alright just trying to keep me calm even though she was freaking out.  We drove home and she told me to go inside and that she’d be right behind me.  So I went inside, feeling sick to my stomach.  I just laid on the couch.

“She called my dad at work, and said ‘Come home, now!’  He immediately rushed home a few minutes after the call.  My mom walked in, asked me if I needed anything, which I didn’t, and she sat at her computer desk.  She researched every known thing about osteosarcoma and everything that went along with cancer treatment.  Everything from potential cures to home remedies.  My dad got home, didn’t even change out of his military uniform and sat next to my mom on the computer.  I swear they were there for hours.”

To Amputate, Or Not To Amputate: That Is The Question

Cancer.  It’s the word every person loathes to hear.  To some it’s a death sentence.  Others take it head-on and battle tooth and nail to not let it make them a statistic.  Ty Ulmer falls into the latter category.
Osteosarcoma is a malignant bone cancer that is commonly found in the shin/thigh area of teenagers.  It happens to be the most common form of bone cancer in adolescent children.
“The first thought that popped into my head was: I’m gonna be bald!  Clearly, as a kid, I didn’t know how to handle it, nor did I know what to do.  Of course I was scared, I mean, who wouldn’t be?”
But after the initial shock of the diagnosis, Ty and his family needed to look into treatment options.  Ulmer knew he would need to deal with chemotherapy for a bit, but amputation was unavoidable.
For osteosarcoma that develops in the leg, there are essentially only 5 options:
  1. Limb Salvage – Remove the section of bone with the tumor on it, and replace it with another bone from a cadaver
  2. Limb Sparing –  Same as limb salvage, but replace the bone with a metal rod
  3. Above-knee Amputation – amputation, above the knee
  4. Through-knee Amputation – Amputate the leg, by separating the joints holding the knee together
  5. Rotationplasty – Remove the knee, amputate the ankle, rotate the ankle, and re-attach it as the knee

“I had made the choice of amputation on my own,” said Ty.  “I weighed the pros and cons of each option.  I took the time to evaluate what each surgery meant and read how people dealt with the after effects.  Oddly enough, amputation through the knee, had the least amount of problems, and the surgery was only about an hour long, where as limb salvage was closer to 6.  So for me, the choice was clear.”

Healing Through Hockey

There isn’t much in terms of hockey going on in Idaho.  In fact, Ty was never big into hockey growing up.  It was only after his diagnosis and amputation that he gained an interest in the game that’s stuck with him ever since.

“My dad had always been into hockey since he was little.  So when I was in the hospital for treatment, a few of the players for the local ECHL team, The Idaho Steelheads, came to visit some of the kids while they were in the hospital.  I happened to be one of those kids.  We didn’t know about the team until that day, but we sure didn’t forget about them. Shortly thereafter, we attended a home game for the Steelheads against the Alaska Aces.  As we attended more and more Steelheads games, I became more and more aware of how the game of hockey worked, and increasingly supported the team,” Ulmer mentioned.

Since that time, the Steelheads have been there for the Ulmer’s enjoyment year in and year out.  Moreover, Ty and his family frequent countless events held by the Steelheads.

“We were able to attend pre-season meet-and-greets to get to know some of the players on their level, down in the locker room, with the smell of sweat and gear in the air…it was great!  I didn’t think much of it, being that I was shy, and didn’t really go and start a conversation with any of the players, so I sort of stood by as everyone started talking with each other.  I think when we first got involved with the team, we didn’t know very much about the organization.  But the more games we attended, the more integral to us they had become.  Keeping up with home and away games, standings, trades and signings.  They became much a part of our life.  We ended up taking friends to games, as they hadn’t heard of the team.  I think after our first season of going to 20 plus games, we actually got to know some of the players outside of the rink, becoming friends with them, and for me, it has been a great experience.”

At the events, Ty ended up meeting a goalie that influenced him to start playing.

Biggest Inspiration – No Pun Intended

Tyler Beskorowany was a high draft pick for the Dallas Stars in 2008.  Since then, he’s bounced back and forth between the AHL and ECHL with the Idaho Steelheads.  The 6’5″ goalie is the main reason Ty decided to give goaltending the green light.

As Ulmer explains, “He was just a down to earth kind of guy, for being so young and talented, it kind of made me think that anything is possible.  For a guy who is 6’5” and could move as fast has he did, and was as talented as he was, I don’t know…I’m amazed.  When I first met him, he brought out this kid in me; talked to me like I was a friend, not a fan.  He made me feel like I’d known him for a while.  I guess I wanted to be like him, that’s why I wanted to play goal.”

Beskorowany reciprocated the comments by saying, “I’m just happy I was able to impact a person by being who I am and by my ability to play hockey.  Ty and I have become quite close.  We chat on social networks, and when I see him around the rink and other events it isn’t just another fan coming to the game, it’s a friend who brightens my day whether we are winning or losing, whether I’m in a bad mood or good mood.  I always have time to chat and hang out with Ty and other people I’ve met along my journey.”

The bond between goalie and fan was solidified a few years back when Ulmer found a keepsake belonging to Beskorowany.

Ulmer started, “We had volunteered to clean the apartments that the players stay in through out the season, and upon doing so, I found a puck in one of the rooms.  On the puck were the words “Grand Rapids Griffins Hockey Club” along side the teams logo.  Knowing that the Griffins were in the AHL, I went through the list of players that had been called up from Idaho to Texas that year.  Beskorowany had been one of those players.  So I contacted him through social media and came to find out, it was his puck from his first AHL win which happened in Grand Rapids.  I told him that I’d keep it till next season and I would give it to him in person in exchange for his autograph on his jersey that we had bought after the season was over.

Ulmer poses with Beskorowany after he finally gets his jersey signed.
Ulmer poses with Beskorowany after he got his jersey signed.

The next season comes and Tyler doesn’t play in Idaho. Not one game.  He had been called up to the AHL, playing for the Texas Stars and played the whole season with them.  Another season I kept his puck, and another season of an un-autographed jersey.  Following the lockout this season, we were really looking forward to the start of the Steelheads season. Being season ticket holders, we can attend every home game.  At the start of this season, I attended another meet and greet, and finally Tyler was there.  I gave him his puck along with a ‘congratulations’ – in a joking manner.  He was very grateful, and just a couple games into the season, was the first post-game autograph session, and Tyler signed the jersey, with what seemed like a big sigh of relief.  I look forward to seeing Tyler in many more successful seasons, be it in the ECHL with Idaho, or in the AHL with Texas, or hopefully with Dallas of the NHL.”

And since then, the relationship has been as strong as ever.

“It was an amazing gesture!  You know not every kid who sees a puck would go through that trouble to get it back to me.  That puck means a lot to me and for him to do this was just amazing,” Beskorowany stated appreciatively.

Impossibly Possible

Most people with through-knee amputation would cash in their chips before even considering trying to start playing a position as difficult as goalie.

But Ty Ulmer isn’t “most people”.

Countless times he’s strapped on the leg pads and stood between the pipes in his driveway or in his garage doing his damndest to make acrobatic saves like the NHL’s best.  Sadly, he has yet to be able to make his way onto the ice in his goalie gear.

Regardless, that hasn’t deterred him from learning to ice skate for the prospective opportunity to man the net on the ice in the near future.  February 26, 2011 was a momentous day for Ty.  It was the first time he strapped a skate to his prosthetic leg and hit the ice.  It did come with a few hiccups though…

Ty putting on his prosthetic skate in the locker room.
Ty putting on his prosthetic skate in the locker room.

“It is quite difficult, I’m not going to sugar coat it,” said Ulmer.  “I would say it is maybe just a little harder then your average person, though for me, that is no excuse.  It is the only way I know how to skate, and have ever skated – minus skating once or twice in Japan at age 9.  I push myself to be as good as the other skaters out on the ice, even though I may be at a disadvantage.  It is only fair that I fight as hard as anyone else trying to play hockey, and that they treat me no different.”

The hardest part about skating for Ulmer is, “the control, no doubt.  Though I’ve never skated any other way, I’m sure it is easier to skate being able to control both of your ankles and really get a feel for the ice.  This is one of the things I will have to overcome.”

If he can overcome cancer, skating on the ice will be a walk in the park.

Though the main reason he hasn’t been able to suit up in net is because he lacks a knee pad that will hold around his leg and give him enough protection from injuring himself, helping to balance out the height of his prosthetic versus his real leg.  But good news is right around the corner.

Maltese Sports, a protective equipment company based out of Washington Township, NJ, is providing Ulmer with fully customized knee pads.

Owned by Phil Maltese, he took it upon himself and his company to personally help Ty when he needed it most.

“I am alerted to certain threads and posts and this was one of them.  I thought his unique situation might result in some unique issues for him,” said Maltese.  “All serious knee pads employ plastic (hard parts).  They may protect from puck, but cause their own issue, like a sore from rubbing.  Our gel product is so “hard part”-free that he should have something like that.  Since we customize protective equipment, making one pad for Ty’s leg was a non-issue.”

Now it is only a matter of getting the right leg pads that fit properly.  When that day comes, Ty will be waiting in the locker room, smile across his face, ready to test out his new equipment on a fresh sheet of frozen ice.

Wise Beyond His Years

“I look at life much differently than I used to,” stated Ulmer.  “Going through something like cancer treatment will do that to a person.  I live my day-to-day life like everyone else should…day by day.  Take every day with a grain of salt and what happens, happens.”

So you’re probably wondering how Ty is doing up to this point in his life.  Well…so far so good!

“Everything has been going smoothly.  My recent set of post-treatment scans were all clear.  No sign of recurrence in the disease.  I am now, currently, 4 years cancer free,” the upbeat 17-year old said.

The reason he is still cancer free is because he never stopped pressing on against the uphill battle.

“I didn’t give up because I wasn’t just fighting for myself.  I was fighting for my family and friends.  I was fighting for all the kids who had also battled cancer alongside me, and for those who lost their battle, as well.  I’ll never give up on anything that will not give up on me.”

We all look up to superstars, celebrities, musicians, athletes, the whole gamut.  Ty’s role models and support group are the ones who have been by his side through the cancer, the amputation, the chemo, the good news, the bad news, and just about everything else he’s experienced.

“My Dad for having been in the Air Force for 21 years, numerous deployments, missing countless things like birthdays, holidays and milestones in our family, and yet still keeping a positive attitude and making me feel loved.  I am amazed by his courage and I am honored to call him my father.

My Mom for understanding the choices I’ve made, supporting me in those choices, putting up with me, and always being there for me after it all.  For staying strong when my Dad was deployed, and keeping me in good spirits.  I am amazed by her strength and I am very thankful that she is my mother.

My Brother for being the role model he has been throughout my life, always being someone to look up to, for moving back home when he heard I was diagnosed, and helping me with going through all that I have. Always being able to cheer me up if I was feeling depressed.

I couldn’t be happier with the family I have, as they are my true role models.”

There are many people in similar situations as Ty Ulmer, who never get the opportunity he’s been given.  He’s able to play the game that has brought him so much joy.  He’s been given a second chance – of which he never takes for granted.  He’s been supported by friends and family members unconditionally.  He’s experienced things in 17 years of life that people wish they never experience at all.  And still, he remains a humble kid from Meridian, Idaho.

“I decided to play [hockey] because I have a passion for the sport that not everyone has.  I’d enjoy nothing more than to play in goal on any team – beer league or higher.  You don’t have to pay me to play, I just love the game.  I want to play because it’s something that not everyone can do, and I want to show that even the difficult things in life are worth the fight,” Ulmer stressed.

In terms of sport, his goal is quite simple: “to be able to play hockey, and teach others to play hockey (be it kids, teens, adults, or disabled).”

His message to the kid’s in the same position as he once was: “As cliché as it might sound, just don’t give up and keep your head up.  You are lucky enough to have your life, where as not everyone else is.  Life is a gift that you have been given, a gift that isn’t returnable, it is yours to keep, so live it as best as you can, and keep your spirits up.”

The kid has been through it all.  He’s visited the depths of hell and came out clean on the other side.  Cancer carved away at his body like a freshly cut pair of skates against a perfect sheet of ice.  Each slice left an indelible mark on his character, fortitude, and and will power.  Be that as it may, there is only one key point to take out of this piece.

Ty concluded, “Anything, no matter how hard it might be, is possible.  It might take a while to get there, and it might not be the easiest thing in the world, but in the end, it is worth it.”


Camp Rainbow Gold – Ty Ulmer (Bone Cancer Survivor) from TDG+Motion on Vimeo.