Hesthammer leaves legacy of work ethic, versatility as program's first international player

Kai Hesthammer hammers a kill past the Saskatchewan block during a match earlier this season. He will play the final home matches of his university career this weekend (Robert Antoniuk photo).
Kai Hesthammer hammers a kill past the Saskatchewan block during a match earlier this season. He will play the final home matches of his university career this weekend (Robert Antoniuk photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – From the moment he entered the MacEwan University men's volleyball program, Kai Hesthammer was destined to be remembered for breaking new ground.

He will always be known as the first international player in the program's Canada West era.

Although he modestly suggests that's the extent of the legacy that he'll leave, Hesthammer has meant a lot more to MacEwan volleyball than that.

The team's MVP the last two seasons has played a major role in growing a program from fledgling upstart to being able to compete against the best in the conference.

"He's just a pretty remarkable young man – the kind of a guy as a dad you want your son to be, to be honest," said MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski. "He's that kind of a guy. He checks all of the boxes with his work ethic and just who he is as a person. He's probably one of the most genuine people you'll ever be around.

"He's meant a lot to the team, meant a lot to me personally. He's one of our captains. His teammates really respect him."

As the Oystese, Norway native prepares for the final home matches of his university career this weekend when the Griffins welcome Trinity Western University on Friday (7:30 p.m.) and Saturday (6:30 p.m., David Atkinson Gym), he can't believe how fast the journey has gone.

"It's been a lot of fun," he said. "Even now, talking about it, I can't really believe that it's over so quickly. It definitely flew by. It's true what they say: time flies when you're having fun. I've certainly had a lot of fun."

To date, Hesthammer has the most career digs in MacEwan's Canada West history (483) and sits second in career kills with 669. If not for some injuries, including suffering an ankle roll last month that means he will finish his career in back row spot duty, he may have had more. Hesthammer returned last weekend and was in as a defensive substitute for three plays during one match against Calgary.

"I might not be on the court, still," he said of upcoming weekend play against the Spartans. "There's a real possibility I won't be the best option for the team. It's just fun to be out there with the guys whether you're on the court or the sidelines. Of course, I love playing volleyball, so I'm happy I get to maybe have a shot at playing a couple more games before I retire."

Added Poplawsk: "You never want to see an athlete's career end on the bench when they could be playing. He's really gutting it out. I appreciate that as a coach and I have a lot of respect that he's doing that to help the team out. He knows if he can come across the back and play three rotations, that can help us out."

It wasn't always that way. When Hesthammer first came to MacEwan as a transfer out of Lethbridge College, he was a right-side, which meant he didn't pass.

"Coming from the right side, he hadn't really passed much and then to become probably our most consistent passer, it shows how hard he works," said Poplawski of Hesthammer, who has played every position on the court - including middle and setter in his youth - after also serving as a full-time libero for part of last season before switching back to left side in 2018-19.

There's no greater evidence of Hesthammer's work ethic than the 2016 off-season, when he reshaped his body in order to prolong his career. An ankle injury on the first weekend of second semester during the 2015-16 season served as a wakeup call.

"When I rolled my ankle the first time here at MacEwan, I knew I needed to do something because I was pretty heavy at that point," he said. "I was 230 and the previous summer I'd been working out a lot, but eating a lot, trying to bulk up and be stronger. It was good for the strength aspect, but when you're jumping 70-80 times in a match, the weight to power ratio would be more favourable, especially with injuries, to cut down on weight.

"I was kind of worried after being in a boot for two to three months that I wouldn't be able to play if I was the same weight. I had a summer at home in Norway basically just working and working out."

He dropped 35 pounds and has maintained that unrivalled commitment to fitness ever since.

"He spent the next six months (undergoing) probably one of the most remarkable transformations I've seen from someone," said Poplawski. "Not that he was in bad shape, but he became an absolute machine. He came back after that summer just absolutely ripped.

"That summer pretty much enabled him to have a five-year career, where we really didn't think that was going to be the case originally, just with how bad his knees were."

Poplawski hopes the younger players in the program will learn from that example as the leadership torch is passed.

"I hope they're aware of it," he said. "The biggest thing is the attention to detail with his diet and workout. Not every athlete has that.

"Kai's a great example – the choices he makes with his diet and physicality is so important. I really hope it's not something that's lost on our young guys. It's something we talk about, but at the end of the day, they have to make those decisions."

Hesthammer, who already has an accounting career lined up after he graduates from MacEwan this spring, looks forward to returning to the David Atkinson Gym as a fan next season. And he hopes his teammates remember another thing about him.

"There's a lot of guys who work hard and they're guys who have bigger volleyball ambitions than I do," he said of the current Griffins. "I guess maybe the only thing that might set me apart in any way is I really try hard to remember why I'm playing. It's because I love it and enjoy playing. I remind others, as well, why we're playing the game because it's very easy to lose track of that."