SOUTH BOSTON, MA — In New England, the love of hockey is passed on from generation.
Entire families often watch and play the game together and revel in their larger hockey families at the local rink or arena.
Those relationships can last for forever and make the highs of life seem that much higher and, as in the case of the BC High hockey team, comfort in times of sadness.
Last season, Drew Whelan and Stephen DeForge, two members of the high school Eagles, whose families revel in their love of hockey and of the Boston Bruins, lost their fathers.
However, in the wake of those twin tragedies, growing up in the game and memories of good times at the rink or supplied by the Black & Gold provided the boys a respite from the sorrow and a starting point to move beyond the grief.
"With all that happened, I was getting a ton of support from my teammates," said Whelan on Thursday, following a surprise drop in by Boston Bruins Assistant Coaches Doug Jarvis and Geoff Ward, as well as Bruins and Boston College alum Tom Songin, to BC High's practice at Murphy Rink in South Boston.
"They all ended up coming and taking the bus, missing a day of school to come to the wake and funeral," explained Whelan of his BC High teammates. "When one of my friend’s dads died, a couple of months later — Stevie — we were all there for him. I was there for him just like he was there for me."
"With the passing of my father, and one of my good friend’s [Drew's] father, hockey has been a good cope for it," agreed DeForge. "Everyday we’re staying busy, and it doesn’t give us time to dwell on it.
"We’re also a big family here, so we’re spending time with each other, we have each others' backs, and it feels good."
Their coach, John Flaherty, said hockey was integral to the boys ability to cope with the losses.
"We’re coming up on the anniversary of one of their father’s passing," said Flaherty. "We went through a lot last year with those guys losing two fathers.
"It’s a sad, sad experience for one person to go through. Now you have two do it, and it was really difficult, but it was great to see how our team responded, and rallied around their teammates.
"I truly think it brought us closer together, and we really are the family that we are today," he said.
This season, the Boston Bruins continue to embrace their own larger hockey family throughout the New England area and Jarvis and Ward's presence in South Boston brought back good memories for both Whelan and DeForge.
"When I first found out about this, I was just thinking about how he’s looking down laughing," said Whelan of his father and their shared love of the Bruins. "We had the season tickets…we had the 10-game package before that for four or five years, and ever since I can remember, I’ve been going to games.
"Definitely a season ago [when the Bruins won the Cup] it was good for all of us to spend it together, and have some happiness," added DeForge of his own family. "Seeing them making a run to the Cup and finally winning it.
"If [my dad] was here today, he would cherish this day, for me to be able to skate with some coaches."
Flaherty appreciated the practice, as well, and was thrilled for his players (and his own son) to have the opportunity to meet and learn from the Bruins staff.
"To see that the Bruins share those same values, it means a lot," said the BC High bench boss. "It means a lot to me as a father and as a Bruins fan, and it also means a lot to every one of those kids in that locker room to see that the Bruins went out of their way to not only recognize what the Whelans and the DeForges went through, not only recognize and support the Whelans and the DeForges have for the Bruins, but to recognize that it’s a kid’s game, and they go out here and have some fun with kids today."
For their part, Jarvis, Ward and Songin downplayed their efforts, but acknowledged how important the greater hockey family had been to them in their lives.
"They were so supportive of us [as fans], and it’s nice to give back and do some support for some kids that deserve it," said Songin, a longtime B's scout who is a mainstay at Bruins youth hockey events. "We really enjoyed it today."
And, of course, the B's staff enjoyed seeing the obvious skill of the always top-ranked BC High hockey team as they worked through Flaherty's practice.
"They certainly can skate out there, a lot of quick, good skaters," said Jarvis after the practice, where he could be seen tutoring the boys between drills. "It was enjoyable to be here, and see them in practice.
"They all look like they’re anxious to learn, and they all look like they enjoy themselves."
Drew's mom Debbie watched the skate from the boards and was thrilled to be able to see her son be tutored by the B's coaches and staff.
"It’s very special, because the Bruins were very important to my husband," she said prior to the practice. "If he wasn’t at the game, he was watching on TV.
"He loved the Bruins...[and Drew loved] going to the games with dad."
Ward said that's exactly why, as a hockey dad himself, events like Thursday's are important to him and the rest of the Bruins staff.
"The one thing about hockey is that it’s a game that’s passed on from father to son. It’s always been that way," he said. "But the nice thing about being on a team is a team is resilient. If things aren’t going so well, you can really rely on your team and lean on your team to get you through some stuff. I’m sure that these guys have done it.
"When I watch them out here today, you can’t see any of that [sadness]. It’s all about the love of the game, and it’s all about getting ready for games, and getting prepared, and all the things that hockey brings out—the good things that hockey brings out. None of the sad parts of any of this is apparent.
"I think that’s a testament to the strength and character of the kids, and the strength and character of the game," said Ward, before adding, "It’s funny; when you give yourself the game of hockey, good things will come back to you."
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