EDMONTON — It is so patently unfair, so abjectly heartbreaking whenever somebody this promising – and of such strong character — dies at such a young age.
Whether or not Colby Cave was a National Hockey League player — first a Boston Bruin and then an Edmonton Oiler — a farm kid from Saskatchewan ranching country, or Emily’s husband, it defines tragic that a 27-year-old widow was tasked with delivering a eulogy for her husband on Saturday, a man to whom she was married for less than a year when he was taken away.
“We planned our whole lives, all the while thinking we were guaranteed all this time,” she said, before instructing all who were watching online and the 20 people in attendance at Rogers Place:
“Hug your husband or your wife. Tell them that you love them … take the pictures and the videos. Cherish every little moment.”
Colby Alexander Cave was born on Boxing Day, 1994, raised “in a little old, leaky mobile home,” said his mother Jenn Cave, on the yard of the family farm near Battleford, Saskatchewan. A typical prairie farm kid, he grew up surrounded by family, with eight cousins on one side and 10 on the other, all living and farming close by.
He grew up on The Lion King and hockey, his grieving mother said. “He ate his breakfast with his hockey helmet on, and cried when he had to take it off.”
Suddenly, unexpectedly, on Tuesday, April 7, 2020, with the NHL settling into its coronavirus pause, news broke that Cave was in distress.
“Colby Cave is fighting for his life at a Toronto hospital, a 25-year-old National Hockey League player who has always been the picture of health suddenly in intensive care and in a medically induced coma,” we wrote that day.
There was no accident. It had nothing to do with COVID-19.
“What do you say? What are the words for this? It’s unbelievable,” said Cave’s Saskatchewan-based agent, Jason Davidson.
It was a brain bleed that struck in the night, while he and Emily were quarantining at her parents’ home in Barrie. Cave never recovered.
It will be a year on Sunday that Cave passed in the ICU at Toronto’s Sunnybrook hospital, Emily kept at a cruel distance due to Covid restrictions. It was as sad a story as one could ever hear.
Emily had hoped to hold a large funeral for her husband, but as time passed and the COVID-19 restrictions failed to lift, she decided on an online memorial instead.
NHL Veteran David Backes, a mentor to Cave when the two played in Boston, appeared via video to tell the story of Cave’s first NHL goal, when he filled on the top line for an injured Patrice Bergeron one night in Montreal.
“It was during this game he was showing how he could excel in a new and expanded role. During an offensive possession he got free and scored his first goal in the NHL (on Carey Price),” Backes said. “It was pure joy as he huddled with teammates and soaked in the glory of his first NHL goal.
“He came back to the bench,” recalled Backes. “Sharing his joy is burnt in my memory.”
Patrick Russell, a teammate of Cave’s in both Edmonton and AHL Bakersfield, spoke on behalf of the Oilers players, who watched the memorial online from their hotel rooms in Calgary, where Edmonton was scheduled to play Saturday night.
“It’s hard to say Colby’s name without a smile on your face,” said Russell. “Always smiling, hard-working, and most importantly, just a deep care for other human beings.
“If Colby was here today he’d want us to look at our loved ones, hug them, and tell them how much we loved them. If we all could be a little bit more like Colby, the world would be a better place.”
Off the ice, the Oilers and Emily have established a program called Colby’s Kids, a community program with an emphasis on mental health initiatives via CASA Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health. The fund will provide access to sports for underprivileged children. In Bakersfield, where Cave played 44 games last season, the Condors display a “CC 26” emblem at centre ice and behind the bench, paying homage with Cave’s initials and the number he wore while in the AHL.
“We have his jersey and picture hanging right in our dressing room, which is a reminder every time those guys go in the ice,” Oilers head coach Dave Tippett said. “They see he’s there. Our players had the ultimate respect for him. They still do.”
They played Cooper Marody’s lovely piece Saturday, Agape, a song written by his Bakersfield teammate in honour of Cave, while family members spoke of a typical Canadian kid who just happened to grow up into an NHL player.
“The guy who crushed Baba’s chocolate chip cookies and could rip you so fast around a dance floor you didn’t know what was happening,” his sister Taylor said. “The pain of losing him is an emptiness within me that will never heal.”
Emily, the very picture of despair, bravely navigated her way through a tearful eulogy.
“I’m so proud of who you were, Colb,” she concluded. “And I’ll live the rest of my life trying to make you just as proud.”