Cake pops and a Sleeman Honey Brown.
Those were the gifts Milan Lucic and his children left at his father’s Vancouver gravesite exactly one year ago.
Small but meaningful tokens of appreciation for the many things Dobro Lucic gave Milan throughout his life.
It was the latest in a series of emotional visits the family has made to visit the final resting spot of the beloved Serbian immigrant, but the first on the anniversary of his passing.
Thursday marks six years since Milan’s dad took his own life at age 59, sending one of the NHL’s toughest men into a spiral that required the help of many to work through.
“Obviously it’s a shock — it’s something you never would have expected,” the Calgary Flames winger said.
“You really don’t know how to feel or what to think when something like that happens. You’re never prepared for something like that. It’s just so easy to say, ‘screw it,’ and go down a slippery road because there are so many thoughts going through your mind. There are so many questions when something like that happens the way it does.
“There’s always the question, ‘why.’”
A longshoreman by trade, Dobro came to Canada in 1984, married Snezana and raised three boys in East Vancouver’s working-class neighbourhood of Killarney.
A loving father who threw endless support behind Milan’s unlikely hockey dreams, Dobro’s time in the military in the former Yugoslavia taught his sons to be disciplined and accountable.
“He was a great hockey dad and a great dad,” Lucic said.
“He was honest with us. He was hard on us. A lot of the reasons I am the way I am is because of him. Every morning we had to make our beds, brush our teeth, do our hair. We were in trouble if we didn’t do that or put our plate away. My wife to this day is still in awe that me and my brothers never leave the toilet seat up. We were in a family of five and my mom was the only female in the house. My dad was strict on us like that. He harped on us on every little thing and I think that was the military side of him.”
If Milan played well, Dobro would tell him so, offering up encouragement.
If not, he’d be the first to tell him he could play better.
“A big part of me believing in myself was he believed in me as well,” said Lucic, who spoke to his father after every game he played.
“He was definitely my No. 1 believer in thinking I could make it to the NHL and I think that’s why he pushed me to be my best.”
Suddenly, those post-game chats and frank assessments were gone.
The phone call informing Milan of Dobro’s passing came shortly after the Bruins missed the playoffs and while his wife Brittany was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with their second child. Two months later, he would be traded from the only NHL organization he’d ever known to the Los Angeles Kings, adding yet another layer of uncertainty in his life.
“It was an extremely hard time for Milan,” said Brittany, whose doctor wouldn’t allow her to fly to the funeral to accompany her reeling husband.
“He wears his heart on his sleeve. It was just such a dark hole. It’s like quicksand, you’re trying to dig yourself out. I don’t think he’d ever harm himself, but I think thoughts might have been there. He holds a lot more inside than people think. He talked to a lot of people, and I did too.”
Those people helped guide Lucic through uncharted waters.
“When you talk to people who have tried to help me with all this type of stuff, you realize you’ll never know why,” said Lucic, an advocate and poster boy for using all support systems available to help with mental health.
“You can go down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out why and blame this and that, but you’ll never get an answer. You kind of have to just grieve and deal with it. What I’ve learned is the important mental side of things by helping yourself with it, by not being afraid to talk about it and saying what’s on your mind. Hopefully that can help other people with it.”
Sadly, the one he would have loved to turn to the most for help and advice was the man he was grieving.
“You don’t know who to turn to for advice with hockey and all that type of stuff but my dad was good for me because he was the one guy I had on the side that wasn’t with the team and wasn’t an agent, and he could tell me I was playing well or that I needed to play a little better,” said Lucic, now able to speak openly about the most traumatic period of his life.
“You’re used to having that for three years of junior and your whole minor hockey career and your eight years [in] Boston and when I lost him, I didn’t have that to lean on anymore. It was hard to deal with.”
Lucic said he gives a lot of credit to Darryl Sutter, who was part of a tremendous network of support offered up to him and his family in L.A.
“There were moments that summer…” said Lucic when asked how close he was to going off the rails.
“The good thing was I had Brittany and she kept me focused on our kids and our family and my summer training. I’m not going to say I was perfect, but I definitely wouldn’t say I went down a bad road, but it could have easily gone that way if I didn’t have her and the kids to keep me focused.”
Nikolina was born three weeks after Dobro’s death, giving Milan yet another reason to open himself up and fight through the pain.
“We had Valentina and he had her to live on for and push for,” said Brittany, of their first-born, who delighted in receiving cake pops from Dobro.
“His dad would still want him to be the best dad he could be and make her life better. He did that and lived for her and me. Then came Nikolina and he had to go forward and be a dad, and he’s a great one. His dad kind of lived on through him.”
Like his father, when not immersed in his job, Milan comes home and is fully engaged with his kids, including two-year-old Milan Jr.
“Milan told me Dobro was such an incredible dad, and I see a lot of his dad in him,” Brittany said.
“When he’s home, he’s with the kids all the time. No matter how late he gets back from a trip, the next day he’s taking the kids to school because he wants to. He wants to listen to the Friday morning dance party with them. He takes Valentina to swimming and she let it slip, ‘Daddy takes me for chocolates after swimming.”
The league’s heavyweight champ has a soft side.
Finding the ability to heal his broken heart and move forward came with plenty of work, which included an openness that allowed him to reveal on Hockey Night in Canada months later that the death was a suicide.
“He’s definitely in a place where he’s able to talk about it,” Brittany said.
“At the time I could see how he was saying he was okay, but wasn’t, and needed that extra push each day to get through it. I just kept reminding him, ‘it’s okay to grieve and be sad and you’re allowed to have any emotion you want because it was so sudden.'
“When we got to L.A., they had every speaker under the sun. Whatever they were saying hit him close to home and it was very healing for him. He also had professional help to talk to. I feel like the NHL is pretty forward with that.”
Dobro was very much on Milan’s mind as his family gathered on the Saddledome ice Monday to celebrate his 1,000th game. As part of his healing, Milan said he embraces the notion that he knows what his father would say to him in certain situations.
“He’d be the first guy to hug me and tell me how proud he is of me to achieve this mark,” said Milan, whose father enjoyed the odd Honey Brown when watching Milan play.
“He always told me, ‘don’t make excuses.’ Even if it was a little injury he said, ‘never lay on the ice, be tough. You can tell your mind you’re not hurt and push through.’”
If only life was that simple.
If you or someone you know needs help, reach out to Crisis Services Canada from anywhere across the country at 1-833-456-4566. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate assistance.