EDMONTON — It’s easy to be a great guy on the way up.
When you’re walking into a palatial National Hockey League dressing room, your American League hockey bag slung over your shoulder and a few sticks in your other hand, everyone has a big smile for the Leon Draisaitls and Connor McDavids waiting for them in The Show.
It’s different when you’re returning to the minors in Bakersfield, and the same guys you left behind less than a week ago are still there. The way Colby Cave did, time after time, after time.
“By my count it had to have been five or six times where he got sent back down to us,” said Bakersfield Condors captain Keegan Lowe, whose experience spans seven AHL seasons. “It’s no secret, sometimes guys in his shoes think they don’t belong with players in the AHL.
“But he would walk into the room with that ear-to-ear smile on his face every time, just happy to be back with the boys. To do what he could do to get back up there and get another shot again.”
Cave, a 25-year-old Edmonton Oiler, died Saturday morning after being placed in a medically induced coma on Tuesday.
Married less than a year ago to his wife Emily, Cave failed to wake up Tuesday morning at the Barrie, Ont., home of Emily’s parents. The young couple was quarantining there after making the trip up from Bakersfield, Calif.
Cave was rushed to hospital in Barrie, then airlifted to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto where doctors removed a colloid cyst that was causing pressure on his brain. As concern mounted over brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation, on her Instagram account Emily Cave pleaded for her husband to “wake up.”
“We need a miracle. Please pray for my husband and best friend,” she posted.
“You just prayed for a miracle,” said Mark Lamb, who coached Cave for four years with the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League. “He’s just a good ol’ farm boy from Saskatchewan. We used to laugh about how hockey was a way we could get out of work on the farm. I saw a lot in him of what I went through growing up.
“It just breaks my heart. You go through a lot in life, but when I heard this… It just tears at your heart.”
Nicknamed “The Caveman” by teammates, he was an undrafted free agent who grew up on Al and Jennifer Cave’s cattle farm outside Battleford, Sask., who found his way to the Boston Bruins rookie camp. After three AHL seasons, his NHL debut came on a line with former Broncos junior teammate Jake DeBrusk in a 2–1 shootout victory over Winnipeg. Cave was returned to the AHL following the game, a trend that would repeat itself throughout his young career.
“It’s hard to be that player — you’re spending a lot of time away from your wife,” said Oilers teammate Matt Benning. “You can play a really good game, then get sent down because a player gets healthy. It’s tough to keep a good attitude, but Colby always did.
“We were drafted to (WHL) Kootenay together — he was the first-rounder, I was the second-rounder. We were in Boston together, and then here,” said Benning. “He was always crackin’ jokes, chirpin’ everyone who’s not from Saskatchewan. Just a solid, solid human.”
Typically, players of Cave’s ilk — who have to scratch and claw for each of the 67 NHL games he played — find time to enjoy the little things in the game more. Where many of today’s players quickly retire to the many areas of the dressing room that are off limits to media, Cave was that player who would tape a stick in his dressing room stall, lingering to kibitz with reporters or whomever visited the Oilers room.
He drank in the entire NHL experience, perhaps because it was for him so fleeting. On the ice, Cave was busy trying to replicate in the NHL the route he had taken to WHL success, where he was twice named the Broncos MVP and captained the team.
“He started out on the fourth line with a great attitude, and he was a good player. Then he turned into a checker. Then he got really good at faceoffs,” remembered Lamb. “Then he just turned into the best player. At the end (of his WHL career) he was probably the best two-way player in the league.”
In Edmonton, Cave was the opposite of so many high draft picks who have walked right into the NHL. He was patiently grooming his game as a trusty fourth-line centre, that support player every good team seems to have one of, from Craig MacTavish, to Manny Malhotra, to Guy Carbonneau, to John Madden.
He wasn’t quite there yet, but Cave was making his way.
“As a coach, you look down the bench, and you’re looking for people who are just going to give you everything they have. He was one of those guys,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett, a fellow Saskatchewan native. “He’s a Saskatchewan boy, living his dream as a professional hockey player, that he had to will and work himself into. Nobody gave him anything.
“He had a beautiful, young wife… You’re livin’ the dream that he’d worked so hard for. That’s what makes it so sad, that it ended too early.”
It was Lowe who pointed to a tweet on Saturday of Cave’s first goal, when he was a rookie with the Bruins. The video shows pure joy, the elation of a kid who’d just realized a dream, snapping one past Carey Price at the hallowed Centre Bell.
“You see that massive smile and excitement, as anyone would feel with their first NHL goal,” Lowe said. “But, anytime anybody scored a goal, it was that exact same face, that exact same excitement. He was just a teammate who was genuinely happy for anyone’s success, not just his own. That’s not something people are just noticing now — it’s something we’ve always noticed about him.”
Lowe, whose first-born is due in a couple of months, is only a couple of years older than Cave. He spoke of Emily, kids and family, all the things they talked about as the miles passed on those AHL highways.
“Down in the American League you spend a lot of time on the bus, just chattin’ about whatever,” Lowe said. “They had plans for the rest of their lives, just like anyone at that stage in their lives. Just thinking about all those things you never get to experience… There are no words to express that.
“I can’t imagine how Emily, and his parents Al and Jennifer are feeling. I just hope they know that the thoughts of the whole hockey world — the Oilers and Condors organizations — are with them.”