With NHL training camps fully underway across the league and teams cracking open their exhibition schedules last weekend, the thoughts and minds of most around the hockey world are on the present and reliable sports clichés like “getting better every day.”
But you’ll forgive some across the NHL if they’re still dwelling a little bit on the past. The painful memory of Dorchester native and former Blackhawks, Panthers, Bruins and Devils winger Jimmy Hayes passing away at 31 years old last month is still too fresh. Hayes played 334 NHL games and last skated in the league in 2019, but he was gone far too soon due to a still-unconfirmed cause of death leaving behind wife Kristen, two young boys in Beau and Mac and an extended, loving hockey family that spans across the world.
Everybody was reminded of the one-month anniversary of Hayes’ passing when his baby brother Kevin spoke to the media a few days ago during an emotional Flyers press conference in Philadelphia.
"My brother was a special person. He touched a lot of lives," said Kevin Hayes while emotionally talking about his older brother Jimmy. "He really enjoyed life and really enjoyed helping others. It sucks that he's gone. It happened way too fast.
"It's going to be weird stepping on the ice for the first time knowing that my brother's not there. When I'm having bad days or bad games or not playing up to [what] all the fans want me to here, I'll just think of my brother, and hopefully he'll push me through."
It’s the ultimate loving, brotherly gesture for Hayes, as a hockey player, to dedicate the upcoming season to the big brother he always looked up to, of course. The players that came from all over the hockey map to attend the services for Hayes in Dorchester were a tribute to the hockey player, and the affable, fun-loving man inside the equipment. PK Subban was there and tweeted about his ties to the Hayes family during their youth hockey days, and David Backes traveled all the way from Anaheim to attend the services for his former Boston Bruins teammate.
Others like Patrice Bergeron had a hard time holding back crushing emotion while discussing an inexplicable loss that’s still fresh on the mind.
“My most sincere sympathies to his family, to Kristen, and Kevin and his parents and the whole Hayes family. It’s devastating,” said Bergeron, his eyes welling up as he spoke. “I was crushed to hear about that. There are so many stories. He was a gentleman, so full of life and always so happy. We lost a great one.”
Hayes touched so many lives, of course, during his hockey career, but his roots were always undeniably Massachusetts along with his familiar Boston accent and perfectly provincial sense of humor. Hayes had a wink, a laugh and a good word for everybody, and those that grew up with him are still trying to make sense of a completely senseless situation.
“Jimmy was awesome. I pretty much grew up with Kevin Hayes since we were little playing against each other and playing with each other. Jimmy was always around because they were always together. I was at Jimmy’s draft,” said Weymouth native Charlie Coyle. “I think Kevin and I were playing in a tournament somewhere close, so we went to the draft, saw him get drafted and then went and played [at the tournament].
“I got to play with him in tournaments a few times in the spring and summer. It’s all been said about him because it’s all true, how positive he was. I’ve worked out with him every day for the last however many years in the summertime, and whenever he came in the room just brightened. That was just the kind of guy he was and that’s how he’ll be remembered. He was a solid, down-to-earth guy that would talk to anyone and was always really interested in what you had to say. Just the family as a whole [is like that] and that’s why it’s such a shame to see one of their own gone way too soon. They’re such good people. But he left his mark on a lot of people and that’s how he’ll be remembered.”
It wasn’t just his former teammates that will fondly remember the gentle giant of a man, either.
It was a privilege to get to know Jimmy, the hockey player, enthusiastic community volunteer and the proud son of Dorchester, during his two seasons in Boston.
Those years weren’t always easy for him even if he did have high points like dropping a hat trick on the Ottawa Senators.
In fact, Hayes was mired in a long slump during the start of his second season in Boston and went the first 19 games of the 2016-17 season without a goal. The pressure was mounting and clearly Hayes was hearing the idle chatter about his struggles on local sports talk radio, but he finally broke through in that 20th game for a score in a 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The jubilant Hayes celebrated on the ice by tossing the proverbial monkey off his back and then had some fun good-naturedly chirping yours truly afterward.
There is a right and a wrong way to respond to adversity, and Hayes showed everything about his strong character and Massachusetts moxie in that moment. Hayes was asked later in the scrum about his scoreless stretch and couldn’t resist scoring a few more points in the round.
“It’s been a while, I think,” said Hayes, in the postgame scrum after breaking the slump. “Where’s Haggs [Joe Haggerty]? Haggs usually knows how long it’s been, so hopefully he caught that one.”
It was all done with a twinkling grin on his face and joy in his heart because that’s the way he truly lived his 31 years on this planet.
The jokes and the laughs were constant from a kid that grew up as hockey royalty in Massachusetts along with his cousins in the Fitzgerald and Tkachuk families, and those that played with him loved him for it. It’s unthinkably sad to realize that the originator of those feel-good moments is no longer with us.
But there’s zero question Jimmy Hayes is, and always will be, remembered in the stories we tell about his generosity of spirit that keep his memory vibrantly alive.