As a hockey dad, Joe Hutzal felt for the Edmonton Oilers back on Dec. 6 as they prepared to clash with the Los Angeles Kings.
Hutzal’s son Jacob and the rest of the Stony Plain Atom 2 Predators had the honour of standing on the Edmonton bench during the pre-game warm-up.
‘”In a way, I felt like the kids were slightly intruding on the players’ regular routine,” Hutzal says. “They were getting into game mode.”
Undeterred, a minor-league journeyman named Colby Cave – wearing No. 12 for the Oilers – leaned over the boards and took time to chat with the enraptured Predators. Hutzal snapped a photo of a moment his son, and his teammates, will never forget.
Talk of Colby Cave’s exemplary character is not overstated. Here he was going out of his way to make the experience memorable by talking to my boy and his teammates during pre game. He didn’t have to do it, but he wanted to. His wife and family can be proud. <a href=”https://t.co/EQdudnXv2k”>pic.twitter.com/EQdudnXv2k</a>
Cave died on Saturday at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. He was 25.
The Edmonton Oilers forward underwent emergency surgery on Tuesday to remove a colloid cyst that caused bleeding on the brain.
The picture of Cave and the Stony Plain Predators is just one illuminating snapshot of a young man known as much for his character as his hockey prowess.
“To see a guy – a call-up running out of chances to stick in the league – going out of his way to talk with them struck a chord with me,” Hutzal says. “There would have been so many other things on his mind, but he felt it was important to spend some time with the kids regardless of his status on the team.”
The hockey world – already stunned by the sudden shutdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic – hoped and prayed for a better outcome when news broke last week that Cave was in a medically-induced coma.
The former Swift Current Broncos captain never woke up.
His wife Emily wrote a heartbreaking post Saturday on Instagram: “You are and always will be my person, my hero, the greatest thing to ever happen to me.
And then: “I never dreamed of being a widow before our first wedding anniversary.”
Outpouring of grief from NHL players
Fellow players, fans and complete strangers – many of them stuck at home in hopes of reducing the spread of COVID-19 – also turned to social media to pay tribute and grieve.
“Just doesn’t make any sense,” Oilers captain Connor McDavid wrote on Instagram. “Heavy, heavy heart today as I try to wrap my head around this.
“You were an amazing person and always brought so much energy and positivity into the room and in people’s lives.
Cave grew up on Al and Jennifer Cave’s cattle farm outside of Battleford, Sask. Undrafted, he kept chasing his NHL dream against the odds upon graduation from junior.
“This has hit our community very hard,” says Ryan Switzer, manager of digital media for the Swift Current Broncos. “Swift Current is a small town, and the players are such celebrities during their time here. It’s the whole Friday Night Lights thing. And Colby was such a good player.
Cave logged three seasons with AHL Providence before finally cracking the Boston Bruins lineup in 2018-19. He scored his first NHL goal in style on a feed from David Pastrnak against Montreal Canadiens superstar Carey Price.
Cave collected one goal in 11 games this season with Edmonton — a highlight-reel marker on Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. He registered 11 goals and 23 points in 44 games this season with the Bakersfield Condors, of the AHL.
He skate. He deke. He tuck. He Caveman. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsGoOilers?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#LetsGoOilers</a> <a href=”https://t.co/zgGOu9XNKm”>pic.twitter.com/zgGOu9XNKm</a>
“If he was sent to the American Hockey League or if he was a healthy scratch, he just dug in, went to work and supported his teammates,” says Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland. “And when he was in our lineup, he did everything he could to help the team win. He practised hard and was a true professional.
“He was a very well-liked and well-respected player in the locker-room.”
Cave was liked inside his own locker-room and respected in much wider circles. Last October, while playing for Bakersfield, Cave knocked out 20-year-old Calgary Flames prospect Martin Popisil in a lopsided fight.
The next day, Popisil shared a text he received from his rival.
“Hey buddy, it’s Cave from the other side, just wanted to reach out and hope you’re ok buddy,” Cave wrote. “You’re a tough kid, and I respect a guy that stands up for himself. Hope you have a quick recovery buddy.”
It’s no wonder Cave was so highly regarded. And beloved.
“I don’t understand any of it,” former Oilers forward Sam Gagner wrote on Twitter. “What I do know is that Colby will be deeply missed.”
I don’t understand any of it. What I do know is that Colby will be deeply missed. A great person with a great attitude who brought a smile to the rink every day. Deepest condolences to his family. I am so sorry for your loss. Rest In Peace Caver.