Rinks to rings: Tech’s Baltus, L’Esperance balance student-athlete duties, marriage
HOUGHTON — There is a stereotypical image of the male college athlete. You know the one. He plays in the big game, and then goes out to the bars and gets the girls. It exists in the movies and circulates throughout the rumor mill; true or not, it’s out there.
Then there’s Joel L’Esperance and Brent Baltus.
They play in the big games and then go home to their wives for the rest of the evening. Not the life you’d think of for a college kid, and certainly not for a college athlete. But for the two of them, it’s the perfect life nonetheless.
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Liana L’Esperance has 150 hockey tickets saved up, one for every game that she’s watched her husband, Michigan Tech forward Joel L’Esperance, play in.
Anywhere Tech goes, Liana goes too — at least she tries. She drives hours just to watch Joel play two games over a weekend, and then, turns the car around to be back on Monday for work.
“She’s always been my biggest fan,” Joel said.
At 21 and 22, neither imagined they would be married at this point in their lives, but after dating for four years, and knowing each other for eight, it was time.
Liana and Joel, who got married in August, are both the first of their friends to tie the knot, but Joel isn’t the only Husky with a wife. Senior captain Brent Baltus and longtime-girlfriend, Liz, had their wedding in August as well.
Baltus knows he is somewhat of an anomaly in the college sports scene, but with Tech, there is a precedent, and when he told his teammates, no one was surprised.
“I think a lot of them expected it,” he said. “It seems like our team has had a lot of players who had gotten engaged and then married right after their senior year.”
But like Liana and Joel, neither Liz nor Brent saw this coming. After all, most people don’t dream of balancing school, hockey and married life at the same time. But as unexpected as it was for Brent, it was exactly the opposite for his best friend.
Prior to Brent leaving for Tech, he had a conversation with a childhood friend in Nanaimo, British Columbia.
“I never imagined this,” Brent said. “But before I came here, my best friend back home made a bet with me. He said, ‘you are going to go to Michigan, you are going to meet somebody, you’re going to get married and you’ll stay there.'”
And a week into school, he met Liz, checking part one of the bet off the list.
The two both lived in Hillside and started hanging out as a group with their friends. Things progressed from there, and it wasn’t long before the two were going on breakfast dates to Soumis, and mooching cars off their friends so they could go to the movies — neither Liz nor Brent owned a vehicle.
Brent gravitated toward Liz’s quick wit and compassionate personality, and they clicked right away, similar enough to get along, with enough differences to keep things interesting. Both love the outdoors, so they spend lots of their free time hiking and camping, but when you move past hobbies and venture into personalities, that is where things get different.
Brent prefers to keep to himself, while Liz is outgoing.
“She is definitely way more social,” he said. “I’m a little bit more of an introvert, but we go anywhere and she is everyone’s best friend. She knows everyone. We are very different in that sense, but I think it is good.”
Joel and Liana fit together in a similar way. She’s outgoing; he’s quiet. She’s friendly; he’s shy. She wants to get out and adventure; he’s more of a homebody. But their differences are what brought them together in the first place.
When Liana was in eighth grade, she traveled from her home in Minnesota to Brighton, Michigan for a wedding. When it was over, her friend took her to a get together with some people who had also attended the wedding. That get together was at Joel’s house, and Liana gravitated to him quickly. Liana was outgoing even then, but being the eighth-grade girl that she was, she was curious about Joel’s quiet, mysterious personality. And from the start, the interest was mutual.
“I just remember from the first day her ability to make me laugh,” Joel said. “She was always able to put a smile on my face, and that got me hooked.”
Hockey helped them connect as well. Liana’s dad played at St. Cloud State and coached in Minnesota, so she grew up in a rink. It was only fitting that her future husband belonged on the ice.
Now, they don’t spend much time talking about hockey, unless it pertains to their future.
“We talk about it in the sense of what is it going to entail for us going forward,” Liana said. “But, any of the actual statistics, I don’t really know and I think it is better for him not to talk about it with me when he comes home.”
One of the keys to balancing hockey and married life is leaving the former at the rink.
For Liz and Brent, that has never been an issue.
“She didn’t know the first thing about hockey when we met,” Brent said laughing. “She has gotten better over the years. She knows the rules now for sure, and she can watch a game and know what is going on. She loves to come to the games and support me, but when we get home at night, I don’t think she is overly excited to sit on the couch and watch a hockey game.”
And that is just fine with Brent. Because as the years go on, he is becoming better and better at separating life and hockey. Something, he doesn’t think younger players are always capable of doing. But for him, it is essential.
“I think that is part of maturing,” he said. “You can start to leave hockey at the rink a little bit more because you realize how fortunate you are for different things you have. Once I leave and I walk through the door, my dog is jumping on me and Liz is waiting for me outside. There are a lot of good things outside of hockey as well.”
With the good things come challenges, too.
Hockey can be all-consuming, and Tech’s academics aren’t exactly easy — combine the two and there is little time for much else.
Plus, long road trips to places like Alaska are too far for even die-hard fan Liana to travel. That can mean weeks apart.
Challenging, yes, but those challenges are nothing new. For as long as Liana and Liz have known them, Brent and Joel have been playing hockey. If anything, time has just made them better at balancing their busy schedules.
“Now that we are married I don’t think my life or her life changed at all,” Brent said. “It can be difficult at times finding time to spend together when I have a full course schedule and hockey, but we’ve had that problem for four years now so we find ways to make the most of our time when we do have time.”
When they first got married, back in August, that was harder. Hockey season was about to begin, and Liz was working as a nurse in Marquette. But now, she has relocated to Houghton, working in the Intensive Care Unit.
Besides, distance, hockey and school are nothing compared to the challenge Brent faced when he decided to propose to Liz.
The two went to visit his family for Christmas, and Brent planned on proposing to her on the beach. He used Christmas as an excuse to plan everything perfectly. Whenever Liz would ask where he was going, Brent could always say, ‘shopping for gifts’ or ‘wrapping presents.’
Liz fell for it, but when it came to picking out a ring, she wasn’t much help.
“I had no idea he was going to propose,” she said with a smile. “He told me a while before to look at rings and I thought he was just joking, so I went through some website and put like a million rings in a shopping cart. I did not see it coming.”
“I was trying for so long to figure out what kind of ring she would like,” Brent said. “I asked her to show me some she liked a while before, and it seemed like she showed me probably 30 different rings and all 30 of them were completely different. There was no trend whatsoever.”
But eventually, he went to a local shop and found a handcrafted ring. When Brent saw it, he said he knew right away it was perfect for Liz.
Just like Liz is perfect for him, and Liana is perfect for Joel.
Still, from the outside, it can be difficult to understand why four college-aged kids would want to settle down so soon. And because of that, Joel and Brent both admit that they were the butt of plenty of locker room jokes. But now, their teammates have gotten used to the idea.
Besides, they’ll take the jokes and the challenges in exchange for coming home to their favorite person after a long day at the rink. And Joel and Brent will take that over living out a college athlete stereotype any day.