For the last 30 years, two things were certain to happen most Sunday nights at the Janesville Ice Arena.
First, big Joe Almburg was going to be on the ice looking to score a goal with a wicked slap shot. Second, he was going to do it with a smile.
Those things are no longer certainties. Almburg of Delavan died Dec. 18 after a two-months-long battle with COVID-19. He was 57.
Among the people who knew him best, Almburg’s welcoming smile and love of hockey will continue to be cherished.
Emily Van Der Haegen met Almburg in 2010 through a mutual friend. What started as a strong friendship grew into the love of a lifetime, she said.
“Joe was my very best friend. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, and I’m really going to miss that,” she said.
Almburg had a goofy nature, Van Der Haegen said as she recalled their failed garden attempt last summer and the nights they spent sipping wine and dancing around the fire pit.
One of Almburg’s biggest joys away from the rink was his family, she said. Almburg had two children—Joselyn and Andrew—but he also treated Blaine, Anna and Scotty—Van Der Haegen’s children—as his own. His granddaughter, Cora, also brought him joy.
Almburg grew up in Illinois and moved to Wisconsin to attend UW-Whitewater. He stayed in Wisconsin after graduating and most recently worked as a salesman at Univar Solutions.
He also worked as an auctioneer and was a member of the Delavan Yacht Club, Delavan Hunt Club and Delavan Assembly Park. Whether the activity was golf, snowmobiling, boating, hockey or something else, Almburg was always on the move.
Almburg went golfing the morning of Oct. 11, a Sunday. He ran a high fever Monday and was tested for COVID-19 on Tuesday. The positive result came Thursday.
“Friday I took him in for a chest X-ray just because we couldn’t break the fever, and he was just miserable,” Van Der Haegen said. “I couldn’t go in; I had to wait in the parking lot. He went in on the 16th (of October), and he never came back out.”
Almburg was admitted to Aurora Lakeland Medical Center and was put on a ventilator Oct. 28. Three days later, he was flown to St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, where he was put on an ECMO machine, which pumped and oxygenated blood outside his body so his lungs could recover. But he made no progress, and his organs began to fail.
“We really, really, really thought he’d come out of this. Never did we think it would take him away,” Van Der Haegen said. “I kept telling the doctors, ‘He’s going to be that miracle guy that you didn’t think was going to come through and he did.’ But he didn’t, and it’s so sad to me.”
“He just had a heart of gold,” she said. “He was so much fun, and his laugh and his smile were just so contagious. He would do anything for anyone, always.”
Almburg’s longtime hockey teammates agreed, calling him a gentle giant with an immense passion for the game.
“He was on the go all the time, but hockey was first in everything that he did, except for his family,” Rick Mussey said.
Mussey played twice a week with Almburg for the last 20 years, give or take a few weeks when the league was on break.
Almburg was all set to play in the 50 and older national tournament in Florida this summer with Mussey and others, including Kevin Wellhausen and John MacDougall. Wellhausen has known Almburg since he was 19, and MacDougall met him in college.
“He was a guy that always had a smile on his face. He was happy, enjoyed life. He was just one of those guys everybody liked and everybody wanted to be around,” said MacDougall, who played against Almburg and his talented teams in Janesville in the 1990s.
Wellhausen said he and his brother were playing in a hockey game at the Janesville Ice Arena about 30 years ago when his brother blocked a shot by Almburg, who was on the other team.
His brother returned to the bench with a welt.
“And I ended up telling my brother, I said, ‘That Joe Almburg, we’ve got to get him on our team.’ ... And from the time I was 19 and he was 25, Joe was my right wing for the next 31 years,” Wellhausen said.
When a 34-year-old Wellhausen lost his first wife to cancer 16 years ago, Almburg was the one who got him through it.
“Part of my therapy during that time was going Sunday nights to play hockey, and Joe was a huge part of getting me over that hump in understanding what I went through,” Wellhausen said. “He was the guy that would always make sure you were going to be OK.”
When Wellhausen’s daughter played hockey for the Wisconsin Badgers, Almburg frequently went to watch her.
“That’s the kind of guy he was,” Wellhausen said. “It was never a selfish thing for Joe. Whether it was as a player, as a fan or as a friend, it was always about the other person, and that is to a T who Joe was. He cared more about people around him than he did himself many times.”
Mussey said it will be hard to play without one of his favorite people next to him.
“He was always the guy smiling in the locker room, always the welcoming guy. Always,” Mussey said. “It was hard for some people to see that in him, of course, because they said he’s a bull in a china shop sometimes, and he played hard. ... But he was always so welcoming. And that smile every time you walk in the locker room ... that’s what I’m going to remember the most is his smile.
“That’s definitely gonna leave a hole in my game.”