In mourning, a team comes together

Photo: Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY Sports

This column originally appeared in the June 9, 2014 issue of Sportsnet magazine.

The first player she saw was Patrick Kane, and Julie Tallon was for a brief moment swept away. She couldn’t understand why the Chicago Blackhawks puck wizard had just walked into W.J. Cavill Funeral Home in Gravenhurst, Ont., turned out in a smashing suit. “My mother had a special spot for Kaner, she liked him, and when she saw Pat she went crazy,” says Dale Tallon, then the Hawks’ GM, now serving that role for the Florida Panthers, recalling one of the worst and best days of his life. “When she saw the whole team, it made her feel six-feet high. After such a traumatic experience—losing my dad—the look on her face and how she felt was more important than anything.”

It was Nov. 23, 2008, the date of the memorial service for Stan Tallon, a tough-as-nails northern Ontario hockey man with a soft underbelly; the coach who’d dig into his pockets to buy all the kids french fries halfway through a long, dark road trip.

Julie may have been mystified at how Kane and Jonathan Toews and two busloads of players, executives and trainers had shouldered their way into the service, but then she realized: They were there for her and Dale in their time of need. Teams—at least the good ones—are families, and families stick together in tough times. Check that: In tough times, they become even closer.

That theme became a moving, compelling, all-too-real subplot during these Stanley Cup playoffs as the New York Rangers stood behind stoic veteran Martin St. Louis after his mother, France St. Louis, 63, died of a heart attack three days before Mother’s Day.

What impact does a shared sense of grief have on an athlete or a hockey team? It defies analytics—you would never want the sample size to be big enough. But in St. Louis’s darkest moment, the Rangers played their most inspired hockey of the season, winning three straight to push aside the Pittsburgh Penguins after trailing 3–1, then jumping out to a 2–0 lead over the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final, taking a day between games to attend St. Louis’s mother’s funeral in his hometown of Laval, Que. The surge put the Stanley Cup in sight for a team that had been on the verge of elimination.

Tallon watched from afar, knowingly. “Sometimes you really don’t know what kind of character a team has until you have an experience like that,” he says. “Players start to believe they care for one another, and that really helps a team, I think.”

Tallon had no idea the Blackhawks would find their way to Gravenhurst to pay their respects that cold, grey November Sunday. The team was in the midst of a long road trip and had played in Toronto on Saturday night. They were supposed to charter out after the game for an off day in Chicago before heading out west to take on the three California teams. But a decision was made; the right thing was done.

They rented buses, made their way north and got there in time to see the man who drafted, acquired and signed so many of them praying over the casket where his first hockey coach rested. Did the appearance make a difference to the Blackhawks? Not long after their road trip, the team ripped off a nine-game winning streak, a run that marked their transition from a promising collection of young talent to one of the best teams in the NHL. Many of those who made it to Gravenhurst have shared two Stanley Cups since. No one knows if a team supporting their own in their darkest moments translates into winning. It’s a safer bet that failing to do so correlates with losing. Regardless, in grief as in victory, the memories are everything.

“I’ll never forget it,” Tallon says of his old team’s gesture. “There was the sorrow I had with my father, and then the way they made my mother and me feel so supported and cared for. It’s one of the greatest things that happened to me in my life.”

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