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Father's Day In The NHL

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Imagine a man who just completed a wildly successful year back at work after taking a year off due to a brutal injury. He had one chance and one year to prove himself, and he did just that. Though his company wasn't successful, he was a bright spot for the guys this year. During the year, his wife told him that she was pregnant with their first child, news that made his comeback that much more special. As he put the wraps on the year and headed off for some rest and relaxation, his employer gave him some great news - he'd been nominated for a man-of-the-year award at work. It really was shaping up to be the best year of his life. His child came into this world on May 5th, and the couple named her Lila. She was beautiful, the culmination of everything that he'd dreamt of, worked for... lived for. At that moment, his world was, for lack of a more descriptive word, perfect.

Five days later, his world came crashing down -- Lila passed away.

In a flash, his world was thrown upside down. Far from being perfect, it was now the opposite. A day before, he was filled with joy for a variety of reasons, but now there was pain. Condolences and well-wishes poured in from his colleagues and those who read of Lila's death in the papers.

This is father's day for Kurtis Foster. His day is one of remembrance. His off-season is going to be filled with workouts to stay in shape, on-ice drills to stay sharp, contract negotiations with a new team and maybe a Masterton Award. Through it all, he's going to have to battle constant thoughts of the daughter that he'll never get to know and find a way to focus on the task at hand, else he risks losing everything he's worked so hard to recover.

If you don't think thoughts of Lila weighs heavily on Kurtis Foster during his daily routine, ask Jose Theodore. Theodore lost his infant son Chace in August after Chace was born prematurely in June. The baby boy fought bravely for fifty-four days before giving in to a mysterious and unknown disease. Theodore spent every day in the Children's National Medical Center neonatal intensive care unit with Chace, trying to will him through his battle. Tarik El-Bashir asked Theodore if a day goes by without him thinking about Chace:

"There's not a day. I can remember sometimes, it could be a 2-2 game, and you start thinking about your son, or you start thinking about different stuff. Or you could be getting dressed [in pads] and trying to get focused and you get carried away thinking. Christmas was much tougher. It's as simple as seeing kids around. You could be in the game and you see a dad in the stands with his son and you think about it. It's about being strong enough to get focused right away so you don't...You don't accept it, but you have to find a way to live with those thoughts."

Most people have to live with the thoughts and get on with their daily lives. Theodore had to get on with his daily life, which consisted of training for a professional sport and playing a professional sport where 220 lb men charge at him at 25 miles per hour, unleashing shots that travel in excess of 90 miles per hour. He needed to maintain a level of concentration to allow him to play at the highest levels, and he struggled to do so. But Theodore battled back to establish himself as an NHL-level goaltender again, something many doubted could ever happen as recently as the end of last season. In the midst of this, Theodore established a charitable organization, Saves for Kids, that will benefit the Children's National Medical Center's neonatal unit and help other parents that will one day be in the same position that the Theodore family was in for two long months.

Two men - two young men - will struggle with the deaths of their children on this day and every day going forward. But age doesn't make it easier. Brian Burke, General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, knows this well. Burke lost his son Brendan to a car crash in a snowstorm in Indiana on February 5th. Brendan was just 21 years old.

Brian was especially proud of his son because just months earlier, he had come out and told the world he was gay. That he came out was not news - it happens thousands of times each year on this continent. That he came out while being part of a major college athletics program is news. The strength that Brendan showed in coming out is something that should make any father, actually, every father proud and Brian was no exception:

...this takes guts, and I admire Brendan greatly, and happily march arm in arm with him on this.

So when Brendan passed away just months after showing Brian exactly the man he'd developed into, it was a crushing loss for the Burkes and the hockey world as a whole. Brian promised that he would march with Brendan in the Toronto Pride Parade on July 4th, and has decided to keep his promise to Brendan, even after his passing. Like Theodore and Foster, Burke is still trying to cope with Brendan's passing. Three months after Brendan's death, Brian was the keynote speaker at an event designed to bring attention to, a website designed to help gay children to cope with and feel safe from bullying:

Halfway through his speech yesterday, Mr. Burke braced himself to say some words about Brendan.

"I probably won’t be able to do this..." he began. His eyes welled up. He turned from the microphone, unable to continue.

The talking heads always say events like these put things into perspective. That these events will put athletics or our own trivial problems in the proper place. But they never do. We are all self-interested beings, skipping from one circumstance to the next, stopping only when something affects us personally. We note what's happened, send along our condolences and wait for the next piece of life to overtake us. But on a day like this, it's worthwhile to look back at things like these, to understand the events that shape men, to understand the depth of the human experience and hopefully take something meaningful from that time of reflection: the perseverance of a man to continue the daily grind so that he doesn't lose all that he's worked so hard for; the drive of a father to make sure that others don't suffer through a child's death from an unanswered cause; the pride of a leader in his son and the resolve to take his message to others so that they won't experience fear.

Father's Day is a celebration of all things Dad. But for three NHL men, Father's Day is going to be a day of distant stares, followed by hard swallows that snap them back to reality. Reverent silence and speechless but meaningful glances will take the place of smiles and cute greeting cards for these Dads. Each of them will be thankful for the time that they had before their loss, and most of us should be thankful that we don't have to bear their burden and feel their pain. So let us celebrate those that have gone before us, those that are still with us, and those who are yet to come.