PITTSBURGH – At this stage of the playoffs you’re basically in a vacuum. Any notion of the outside world is vague at best.
Except that’s not the case in the San Jose Sharks dressing room, where unfortunate reality arrived at the outset of this Stanley Cup Final with the passing of defenceman Justin Braun’s father-in-law, Tom Lysiak, on Monday.
Lysiak played more than 900 games for the Atlanta Flames and Chicago Blackhawks and had been battling leukemia. He was 63.
Braun had to be playing with a heavy heart when he suited up hours later for the series opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins. His teammates certainly felt for him.
“It’s bigger than the game,” defenceman Brent Burns said Tuesday. “You just let him know you’re there, but I don’t think you really do too much. I always think of the rink as your sanctuary away from stress and life.
“I don’t have to worry about my little guy banging his head on the wall or doing crazy s— at home.”
Perspective certainly wasn’t difficult to find a day after a 3-2 series-opening loss where the Sharks weren’t at their best.
San Jose coach Peter DeBoer indicated that Braun would leave the team to go pay his respects during the two-day break between Games 2 and 3. Otherwise, the organization is just trying to be as supportive as possible.
“It’s a tough situation,” said DeBoer. “To Justin’s credit, he was business as usual. … There’s not much you can do. You feel for him. He went out there, he battled for us under tough circumstances.
“I think we all appreciate it.”
Braun’s wife, Jessie, shared the news of her father’s passing on Twitter about seven hours before Game 1.
He logged more than 18 minutes of ice time and paid tribute to Lysiak in a conversation with a handful of reporters afterwards.
“He was great; full of life,” said Braun. “Loved to hang out with the boys, hearing about the hockey days when he played. He was just one of the guys, loved hanging out. (He) was a great husband, a great father; was great to me, welcomed me into the family.
“It was a tough day.”
What stood out to teammates was how well the 29-year-old conducted himself in the face of difficult circumstances. As captain Joe Pavelski pointed out: “He knew it wouldn’t be easy. It’s one of those areas that you’re never prepared for.”
“I’m sure he’s having a difficult time with it,” added centre Logan Couture. “That’s one of those situations where you don’t talk about it unless he comes to you and speaks about it. He came to the rink like a pro yesterday, played as hard as he could. I thought he did a great job. You feel for him, you feel for his wife and her family.”
Tributes from around the hockey world poured in as news of Lysiak’s death spread, including a delightful story shared by NBC commentator Ed Olczyk. He was big fan of the Blackhawks centre as a teenager and had a friend write a letter to him saying as much.
Not too long after, he got a signed picture back with the note: “To Eddie, hope someday we can play together. Best wishes, Tommy Lysiak.”
It wound up being prophetic.
“I thought that was like the greatest thing ever,” Olczyk told reporters on a conference call. “I still have that picture on my mantle at home. There’s not a day that I don’t see it. And then four years later I get a chance to play with a guy that I idolized, it was just incredible.”
Couture indicated that the Sharks players have heard a lot of good stories about Lysiak as well. The High Prairie, Alta., native led the Flames in scoring for five straight seasons and was a NHL all-star before retiring in 1986.
For now, Braun’s teammates are just trying to give him some space while he balances mourning with preparing for the biggest games of his life.
“I think guys let him know that we know, and we’re thinking about him, but just try to let him play his game and kind of get away from it too,” said Burns. “If he needs something, hopefully he’s comfortable talking to a guy or going to him for his problem.”