ST. LOUIS – Zach Sanford wouldn’t be here without his dad.
Now, Zach Sanford is here without his dad.
Between long shifts at Angelica’s Restaurant in Middleton, Mass., and short shifts at his own recreational hockey games, Michael Sanford raised Zach to be a Boston Bruins fan in a family overrun with them.
Because he wanted a more flexible schedule, one that would allow him to attend more of young Zach’s minor hockey games and practices, Michael started his own furniture repair business and began coaching Zach’s teams, extolling the virtues of hard work.
If Zach or any of his mates had a shot of making it, Michael would say, they’d better grind.
The grind paid off, first with a ride to Boston College, then a draft to Washington — but Michael never could make it in the building for any of Zach’s NHL games.
Zach did bring Michael on the St. Louis fathers’ trip last season, but the winger had a dislocated shoulder and never dressed. The highlight was watching Michael acting like a little kid meeting the Blues coaches and execs.
On the bubble at this fall’s training camp, Zach awoke to 10 missed phone calls from his sister, Melanie. Michael had suffered a heart attack in his sleep. He’d been rushed to the hospital and wasn’t awake. He couldn’t speak to Zach, and by the time Zach returned from the day’s practice, Michael had passed.
Zach never got to say goodbye.
“You know how it’s always hard to remember your dreams?” Zach wrote for NHL.com in October.
“I never remember any of mine, but the day after my dad died, I had a dream that I remember very well. It was just me and dad, driving in his car listening to his old rock ’n’ roll music. Nothing major, but it was just him and me, and he was happy. It was almost like he was telling me that he’s resting easy and he’s happy where he is now.”
Where Michael is now, Zach is certain, is way up high, cheering as his son makes beautiful, blue-collar plays in the most critical hockey of St. Louis Blues’ 52-year history.
Like Zach’s nifty blind, backhanded pass from behind the Bruins’ net in Game 5 to set up Ryan O’Reilly for the crowd-hushing opening goal. The one made under duress, with Charlie McAvoy charging toward him from his left and Zdeno Chara from his right. The one Zach deftly slipped through two sets of legs, his own and McAvoy’s, and onto O’Reilly’s tape.
“He’s got outstanding vision,” says O’Reilly, whose own game has accelerated to a Conn Smythe–chatter level since Sanford was promoted to his and David Perron’s line. “We all kind of complement each other well.”
Do you believe in fate?
How about dreams? Because, in real life, stars don’t align like this, do they?
If everything went smoothly, coach Craig Berube probably never would’ve inserted Sanford into the Stanley Cup Final.
But once Oskar Sundqvist earned himself a one-game suspension for boarding Boston’s Matt Grzelcyk to the point of concussion in Game 2, he deemed the lifelong Bruins fanatic the best option and slotted him on to the fourth line for Game 3.
“You get one chance, you need to take it. He really took his chance in Game 3 and has been playing great ever since,” Sundqvist says. “Feels like when he came into the series, he’s been really good every shift. I’m sure he’s just gonna keep going.”
Sanford played so well, worked so hard, he was promoted to O’Reilly’s second line for the next two games, even with Sundqvist back. Now the 24-year-old has a three-game point streak — not to mention a few gif-worthy hits — in the Cup Final.
Zach Sanford lays a big hit on Charlie McAvoy pic.twitter.com/vAIzihYFjt
— Here's Your Replay (@HeresYourReplay) June 4, 2019
“The importance of staying ready is huge, and a lot of it, that’s on him working hard,” Berube says. “He’s jumped in there, and he’s been great. Looks strong, fresh, skating well. It’s good on him and good on our staff.”
Thursday marked Sanford’s first-ever game at TD Garden, the local barn where his boyhood heroes wowed, where so many of his friends and family members’ allegiance still laid until, oh, about yesterday. His mother Cindy’s included.
“It’s a little weird playing against your team growing up. I was even talking to my mom. She was at the games in Boston, and she caught herself cheering for the Bruins here and there and had to fix that. It’s pretty crazy how things work out like that,” says Sanford.
He fondly recalls picking out a Brian Rolston stick from the pro shop as a kid and running a victory lap around the neighbourhood with his buddies in 2011.
“I just grew up watching every one of their games with my dad. Our family’s big fans — but obviously not anymore.
“It’s time for us to get our own banner too.”
Zach doesn’t believe it’s an accident that he’s enjoying the best stretch of hockey of his life on this stage, against this opponent. He’s quick to credit his veteran linemates and the tightness of a dressing room filled with more feel-good stories than flashy superstars.
“But I think my dad is definitely watching over and helping out a little bit, and I think he will continue to stay right there,” Zach says. “I think about him every day… Every day. Every game. Every practice.
“It’s been a little different not having him, but I know he’s watching, and he’s definitely pretty psyched up there.”