Oxford’s Norris hockey family finds hope after school tragedy

Detroit News

Dwayne Norris picked Oxford to raise his family after 11 years of playing professional hockey in Germany in 2007.

A former National Hockey League player and high-scoring Michigan State Spartan from 1988-1992, Norris said Oxford “was a safe haven” for his wife and three boys, especially when he spent three more years traveling back and forth to Germany as general manager of the Frankfurt Lions of the Deutsch Hockey League.

“It was a small, rural community that didn’t have a lot of growth at the time,” Norris said. “It was on the outskirts, kind of quiet, not the hustle and bustle of metro Detroit and it felt super safe in the community. You knew everybody.”

A native of St. John’s, Newfoundland, the capital of one of Canada’s smallest and least populated provinces, Norris said the village of Oxford (with a population of 3,586, according to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau) is “more like the home that I grew up in on the east coast.”

“I loved the area here, the lakes, the small town, being close to the border, only 45-50 minutes away,” he said. “My wife’s sister also lived in Oxford and they had three kids similar in ages so they all grew up together.”

Like other Oxford residents, Norris’ safe haven was altered forever on Nov. 30, 2021 with the Oxford High School shooting rampage less than a mile away from his home. Four students, Hana St. Juliana, 14, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, Tate Myre, 16, and Justin Shilling, 17, were killed and seven others wounded.

The shooting suspect, Ethan Crumbley, 15, faces 24 charges, including four counts of first-degree murder and his parents James and Jennifer Crumbley were each charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter.

“This tragedy has made me instantly think more about my awareness of my surroundings,” Norris said. “Stupid things like, did I always lock my doors? Back in 2007, I don’t know, were my car doors locked? I think probably not.

“Our kids were roaming a bit more free, there was a little bit more of a countryside mentality. Now we’ve got to be a little more on top of things. Why is that? Because of the type of tragedy we just experienced. It really hits home when you’re living in that community.”

Oxford’s hockey history

For a village with no rink and the closest ice surface 20-30 minutes away in Rochester, hockey still has a history in Oxford.

Oxford is home to Vaughn Custom Sports, the manufacturers of goalie equipment for NHL stars like Detroit Red Wings netminders Alex Nedeljkovic and Thomas Greiss.

Founded in 1982 by Pontiac native Mike Vaughn, he opened a manufacturing facility in Oxford in 1996 and continues to provide equipment for goalies around the world.

(During the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, Vaughn employed 20 sewers to make 36,000 hospital surgical gowns from the nylon in the goalie pads with hockey laces weaved through eyelets).

Oxford also has a high school boys hockey team, which combined with Avondale High School in Auburn Hills seven years ago. They’ve won two Oakland Athletic Association division titles since 2011, including last year’s Oxford-Avondale United team coached by former Michigan Wolverines goaltender Derek Billis.

This year’s team, which has also been paired with a third school (Notre Dame Prep in Pontiac), has resumed playing games previously scheduled with league opponents, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

“Hockey in Oxford is not one of the big sports,” Norris said. “Like any city or small town in Michigan, high school football brings a close-knit community like ours together.

“We’re one of the few high schools in the country that has an all-blue turf (football field) and the new coach Zach Line is a young local kid who made it big in the NFL (seven years with the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints from 2013-2019) and brings a lot of energy. We had just beaten Clarkston, which typically are in the semis or finals every year.”

In the 38-28 victory against No. 7-ranked Clarkston in the first round of the MHSAA playoffs this year, the Oxford Wildcats were led by Myre, a standout junior linebacker and running back who caught a touchdown pass in the game. A petition to rename the football stadium after Myre has 276,143 supporters on change.org as of Dec. 28.

“Tate is not just a hero to his fellow students at Oxford high school but a legend,” the petition reads. “His act of bravery should be remembered forever and passed down through generations. He put his life in danger to try and help the thousands of other students at Oxford High School.”

Josh Norris interview

It was the day after the Oxford shooting and Josh Norris of the Ottawa Senators was visibly shaken as he spoke with reporters ahead of the NHL game against the visiting Vancouver Canucks.

The middle son of Dwayne and Traci Norris, the 22-year-old helped lead the University of Michigan to an NCAA Frozen Four appearance in 2018, won a bronze medal (2018) and silver (2019) for the United States at the world junior championships and has emerged as the first-line center on the Senators with 31 goals in 87 career games.

When he sat down for the Zoom media call in Ottawa, Norris wore a patch with the word “Oxford” and the number “42,” a tribute to Tate Myre who wore 42 as a member of the high school football team.

“It was a tough day,” said Norris, who had an assist in the 6-2 loss against the Canucks on Dec. 1. “You never really think something like that is going to happen in your hometown. I want to send all my love, my thoughts and everything with my hometown.”

After a brief pause to compose himself, Norris continued to talk about the tiny village where he and his two brothers grew up.

“Thinking of just what some of those kids went through, the parents of those kids,” he said. “It’s really difficult. All I can do is send my thoughts and my love. I’m so proud to be from there. It’s such an unfortunate situation.”

Moments after the interview, Senators captain Brady Tkachuk said they were supporting Norris after the tragic incident in Oxford. Tkachuk and Norris were also teammates for two years with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Plymouth.

“I was actually with (Norris) when he found out,” Tkachuk said. “We’ve driven by that high school before, so we’re definitely thinking about the people involved and all the people that have been affected. It’s an important time to be there for Josh.”

During Christmas break last week when the Norris family was reunited in Oxford before the NHL gets back to action this week, Josh Norris said “people are still struggling with what happened, especially the kids in this community and in every other community.”

“There’s not a better time than now to be a leader and be the person you would want to look up to, the type of friend and human you would want to be around,” Norris said. “The world needs more people like that right now.”

Bowling Green connection

The Norris-Oxford hockey connection extends to Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Coale, 24, is a senior forward with the Bowling Green Falcons, who are 8-7-3 in the Central Collegiate Athletic Association. After four years at Ferris State University, he has five goals in 18 games this year.

Dalton, 20, will attend Bowling Green on a hockey scholarship next year. He’s a defenseman with the Lincoln Stars (13-8-1) of the United States Hockey League and has 10 goals in 23 games this year.

“Coale is our oldest son and his first instinct (after the shooting) was, ‘Holy God. How are Mr. and Mrs. Myre doing?'” Dwayne Norris said. “We’ve known the Myres for quite some time. They’re incredible people. These are our friends and they’ve got kids almost our age.

“Dalton is our youngest and played five years of baseball with Tate’s older brother Trent. He’s (Dalton) closest in age to many of the kids. He’s only been out of high school for two years so he has a lot of friends who just graduated or have older siblings.”

Coale Norris said they’re proud to represent the hockey community, which also includes 34-year-old Oxford native Nathan Gerbe, who has 63 goals in 435 career games with the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets.

“There’s not a lot of kids from Oxford so far that have gone on to play Division 1 or pro hockey,” Norris said. “People have really embraced us, checking in on how we’re doing, coming to a game or watching us on TV. We know a lot of families here and how they’ve embraced each other and been strong during these tough times.”

At Dalton Norris’ first hockey game after the shooting, against the Sioux City Musketeers on Dec. 3, the Stars observed a moment of silence for the Oxford victims. Norris, the captain and the team’s second-leading scorer, then scored a goal in a 5-1 victory.

“I think Buck exemplifies what Tate did as a hero and that stems from the family,” said Dalton Norris, who was also coached by Buck Myre in baseball. “When I first think of their family, that’s probably the first thing I think of, that Buck would do that for anyone and their family would do that for anyone … Mrs. Myre, I played with Trent and I know Ty a little bit too. That’s just the way they are.”

On the day of the shooting, Dwayne Norris said he called his neighbor across the street because their daughter was a junior in school. She had escaped and was safe but he said it soon became apparent the lives of many people were forever turned upside-down, including Buck and Sheri Myre whose son was shot and died while a deputy sheriff put Tate in a squad car and took him to the hospital.

“We waited diligently to find out what the hell had just happened,” Dwayne Norris said. “Then it began to sink in and you could instantly feel the hurt in the community. Oh my God. I can’t believe it happened in small-town Oxford. How is this possible? Right in our own backyard.”

The Myre family

At Tate Myre’s funeral at Kensington Church in Lake Orion on Dec. 8, Dwayne Norris talked to Buck Myre outside the church before the service started with about 2,000 people in attendance.

Tate was the youngest of the Myre’s three boys (Trent and Ty) and along with Norris’ three boys (Coale, Josh, Dalton), they were part of Oxford’s sports community in hockey, football, wrestling and baseball.

“Buck said the support has been awesome and the community has been great but he said the hard times are coming,” Norris said. “What about first Christmases, first birthdays, first hunting season, first snap of football, wrestling? Those are going to be so difficult.”

After Tate’s death, sports teams in Michigan and leagues in the United States paid tribute to the former football player.

The NFL named Myre the recipient of the Way to Play High School award with a $5,000 equipment grant to Oxford’s football program, Myre’s family served as honorary captains before Michigan’s 42-3 victory over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis and he was named the honorary first member of Michigan State’s 2022 recruiting class by coach Mel Tucker.

“Here you have this 16-year-old boy and you’re thinking how much of an impact could he have made in a community?” Norris said. “Sure he was a great athlete but everyone talked about his strength of character, how he treated people, doing things for the right reasons. As a parent, these are the biggest compliments you can have about raising good young men.”

Norris said it’s important to remember that “everyone in the community has been impacted and trying to find the strength to cope as best we can” after the four deaths and seven injured in the deadliest U.S. mass school shooting since 2018.

“How do you wake up tomorrow and pick up the pieces but still show strength?” Norris said. “And then still be vulnerable because it’s OK? I don’t know how you do it. You don’t have a choice. You’ve got a family, you’ve got a wife and you know you’re never going to forget.

“What’s amazing to me was what Buck did the night before the ceremony. He got together with the football and wrestling teams and asked them to think about one thing they liked about Tate, whether it was his compassion or leadership or selflessness and implement that quality just a little bit more on a daily basis. Then we wouldn’t have had the evil that we had that day.”

The next chapter

Dwayne and Traci Norris didn’t want this story to be about them, their hockey-playing sons or how the Oxford shooting has affected their family when so many more are suffering and trying to cope with the tragic incident of Nov. 30, 2021.

“The depths of the healing for us is nowhere near what these other people are going through, whether they were in the school, the kids that saw it and those that were immediately impacted by someone being killed,” Dwayne Norris said.

The Norris family did want to offer hope through the strength and courage of the Myres and the kindness and generosity of the community they’ve called home for 14 years.

“It’s easy with school shootings after some time goes by, a month, three months, six months to just move on and forget it,” Traci Norris said. “You don’t have to go out there and be an activist. I’m just talking about random acts of kindness. Keep other people in mind, the families and all the students and all the trauma they went through. Their lives will never be the same. Treat other people the way you want to be treated.”

The day after the shooting, Dwayne Norris talked to 50 student-athletes at the Total Package Hockey (TPH) Center of Excellence in West Bloomfield. He’s the director of hockey operations for “highly-motivated” college prospects from seventh grade to 11th grade. He’s also the head coach of the Oakland Grizzlies Under-16 team, which is ranked among the top 20 teams in the country.

“When I played hockey for (coach) Ron Mason in 1988, I came right from being a senior in high school in Canada to playing college,” said Norris, who is tied for seventh on MSU’s all-time leading scoring list with Rem Murray (218 points) and then played in the NHL for the Quebec Nordiques and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks from 1993-1996.

“Very few do that anymore. Kids are getting commitments at 15 or 16 years old but it can be harder and more stressful on them especially with social media now. We’re not their parents but we are their coaches and mentors and we’re here for them if there’s stresses in life that sometimes make them anxious. It’s OK to speak to us about things and it doesn’t have to be about hockey.”

Norris said he learned “life is short” when his father died of cancer at age 59 but he said “you don’t plan for 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids to be taken” so suddenly, with no warning and with so many unanswered questions.

“We take our kids for granted that they’ll be healthy and go to college or get a trade, be married and have kids and we’ll enjoy their grandkids,” Norris said. “To me, it’s clear we have to live in the now. It’s a tough world and things unfortunately happen and not on the timeline that we hoped.”

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