CALGARY – With a simple flick of the wrist, Dougie Hamilton demonstrated his ability to change the complexion of an afternoon.
The highlights showed him doing it for his Carolina Hurricanes with a power-play goal here two Saturdays ago. What people didn’t see was the impact he had long before the puck dropped on his latest return to Calgary.
During warmup, the 26-year-old defenceman spotted a familiar trio in the stands. Sending a puck over the glass to the youngster in their midst, he brought smiles to the group as he has so many times before.
"It makes me happy," smiled nine-year-old Brynn Roelofsen as her beaming parents, Patrick and Lesley, looked on.
Wearing Hamilton’s No. 27 Flames jerseys and massive smiles, they carried a “Welcome Back Dougie” sign made in purple to honour the family member no longer here to share the love.
It has been two years since eight-year-old Thea lost her battle with a bone cancer called Ewing sarcoma. What they first thought were growing pains in her leg turned into a parent’s worst nightmare.
But it was in the midst of her valiant 18-month fight for her life, Thea hooked up with the unlikeliest of teammates.
"We were visiting the Alberta Children’s Hospital at Halloween and I was dressed as Princess Leia," smiled the six-foot-six Hamilton of his first encounter with a radiant little girl who would soon thereafter have a big impact on his life.
"I remember seeing her and she was just so infectious and so smart and smiley and so intelligent for her age. She came to the game and went on the ice and I saw her and remembered her and she remembered me, and it built from there."
Given the award-winning work the Calgary Flames Foundation has done over the years, it’s not uncommon for such visits to pull at the heartstrings of players generous with their time.
What is unique is what followed.
"Dougie would visit her at the Children’s Hospital or the Rotary Flames House and at the end they would come to the house and spend time with her to lift her spirits," said Patrick.
"Him and (Hamilton’s brother) Freddie would come over and play board games with Thea. As human beings they went so far above and beyond for Thea when she was sick. There’s a side of those guys you would never see."
Throughout her chemotherapy and endless doctor visits, Hamilton and Thea exchanged daily snapchats, providing a distraction from the realities she faced.
"She asked for a phone and gave me a list of eight reasons why she needed a cell phone," said Lesley.
"Eight years old was young for a phone but she took pictures and she and Dougie would Snapchat what they were having for lunch. Even Dougie would say, ‘She was like my best friend.’ It was so special for her.
"I don’t even know if we really knew how special he was to her."
Or how special she was to him.
"They came to their school – he and Freddy – for an assembly to say hi to the kids, and they stuck around after and played floor hockey with the kids at their school," said Patrick, still amazed by the gesture.
"Thea got up on the mic and said, ‘I’ve got a little surprise for you guys – I brought you a couple professional hockey players,’" added Lesley.
"The kids were so excited. The Flames didn’t know about it. It was just us communicating with them."
Perhaps the most memorable day for mom and dad was the double date Freddie and Dougie took the girls on.
"They went to the movies to see the Lego Batman movie – just the four of them," beamed Patrick, as Brynn chipped in with how exciting it was that they pulled them out of school for it.
"Amazing. Dougie gave her an escape from the monotony of sitting and doing chemotherapy and being in a hospital bed. He gave her the relief of forgetting where she was.
"His family is so grounded. He comes from a family of athletes and Olympians and I think they not only happen to be really good at sports but they’re better human beings. I think that was really instilled in them from their parents."
Hamilton fondly recalled the hours he and Thea spent playing games with Disney characters, smiling and laughing.
Thea passed away in November 2017, but not before spending some of the final days of her life with Hamilton.
"I was with her when she was pretty much on her deathbed and that was maybe one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through in my life," said Hamilton.
"It hit me hard for a while. I think for me going through that and being friends with her was a big learning experience for me and kind of helped me with perspective in life. Just trying to be a good person and realizing how good everything is in our lives.
"I’ll always cherish those moments together. The family is awesome and she is so fun and positive to be around, she made you happy. I wish Thea was still here. It’s still surreal she’s gone. But I think she’s still here with us and with me."
One of the most beautiful parts of the relationship is that Thea’s death is not where this story ends.
Proving just how genuine his love was for the courageous little girl, her younger sister and parents, Hamilton has stayed in touch with the Roelofsens.
"It’s obviously a little different now, being so far away," said Hamilton, who was traded in June 2018 by the Flames to Carolina, where he continues to flourish.
"I talk to them a lot on text and stuff. It’s cool to be able to keep in contract with them. Whenever I can Snapchat Brynn it puts a smile on my face.
"I can’t imagine how hard it is for them and what they’re going through. I think about them a lot and I think about Thea a lot. It always puts stuff into perspective, and realize how lucky we are."
The NHL’s annual Hockey Fights Cancer games have held special meaning for Hamilton, who writes Thea’s name on his stick every time.
"There have been a couple times in those games where I’ve scored, and so I feel like she’s helping out in some ways," smiled Hamilton, the NHL’s top-scoring defencemen over the last two years.
"I did that in Calgary last year too – it was a little thing to support her. I’m going to keep doing it for her family now and keep remembering her. I’m just super sad, but it’s nice to still be friends with them and have a relationship."
Brynn lights up when asked about the hero in her and her sister’s life.
"We always say, ‘We’re cheering for the Flames and Dougie,’" she said, well aware
Freddie has retired from hockey.
"Not his team, just Dougie."
Hamilton’s second period goal in a 4-0 win over Calgary put even more smiles on their faces in a day full of warmth.
"I saw them in the warmup and during the game too – I smiled at Brynn and she smiled at me back ¬– that was cool," said the towering, 229-pound softie.
"They’re just such great people. I’m glad I have a relationship with them. The foundation here is unbelievable – it was so easy for us to be able to do stuff here. I have so much respect for what they do. They made it fun for us."
So moved by Hamilton’s heart and the support they received from the Flames and local community, the Roelofsens were moved to pay it forward.
"We built a playground (at the girls’ school, Eugene Coste) this summer in memory of Thea and gave back to the community," said Patrick.
"We fundraised for it and won the ($50,000) Hitmen community grant for it. The Flames have been phenomenal. We stay in touch and help them out when we can because they were so good to us."
Beautiful, just like the support Thea received.
"We wish there were more opportunities for us to relay how great an impact (the Hamiltons) have not just on the hockey community but on the greater community," she said.
"We’re fans. He created fans of people who knew Thea but didn’t like hockey, but now they like hockey and watch hockey and love Dougie. It’s that human element that we don’t always see… and we still see it now."