It is hard for Matt Kustra, or any of his teammates on the Natick High boys’ hockey team, to remember what life was like three weeks ago, how normal everything felt.
That all changed on Jan. 4, at the stop of a heartbeat, with the sudden death of senior teammate Justin Bailey.
The Red & Blue had just finished warming up for their Bay State Conference matchup that evening against Needham. As the players returned to the locker room, a few began to wonder why Bailey, a fourth-line center, had not arrived at West Suburban Rink.
Alex Marcinkiewicz tried texting Bailey four times. There was no response.
He made a failed phone call attempt before focusing on Bailey’s younger brother, Griffin, one of his best friends. He sent a few texts.
“Oh, we knew something was wrong,’’ Marcinkiewicz said. “You could just feel it.’’
Bailey’s father, Ben, had walked into the house around 5. His wife, Nicole, was on her computer, sending e-mails. Their two youngest sons, Mason, 11, and Griffin, 15, were doing homework. Then he noticed Justin’s hockey stick. It was not taped.
‘I don’t think it’ll ever be the same or back to normal. But we’ll do the best we can to play hard.’
“I said, ‘What the hell is wrong with him? He’s going to be late for his game,’ ’’ recalled Bailey.
“So I went down to yell at him and I opened the door. The video game was playing - it was one of those race car games - and he was laying there.
“Now sometimes, he’d tease me when I’d yell at him. He’d turn slowly and go, ‘Is someone talking?’ So I started to yell at him, about being late. And he had his head back laying on the couch with the controller in his hand, so I thought he was giving me a hard time. Then I thought he was sleeping.
“So I went over to shake him and I knew: He was gone.’’ The cause of death was still unknown this week; according to Bailey, it probably will be some time before the family has a definitive answer.
Natick coach Karl Infanger received a call from Bailey a short time later. The game was canceled, along with the team’s match three nights later against Milton.
“It’s just a strange feeling,’’ Marcinkiewicz said. “And you don’t believe it at first because it doesn’t hit you: that he’s gone and will never come back.’’
But Ben Bailey suddenly realized something that would change the entire grieving process for his family.
“You only see the part of your kids that they let you see,’’ he said while watching the Red & Blue skate against Acton-Boxborough Regional at the Nashoba Valley Olympia on Monday night. “And then something like this happens, and you realize it affects a whole community.’’
The Baileys invited the entire team over to their house the day after Justin’s death, and the girls’ team the day after, followed by the boys’ team again that Saturday.
According to Ben Bailey, more than 3,000 paid their respects at his son’s wake on Jan. 9, including players representing eight high school programs from the area.
In a quick turnaround, Jumble Designs in Natick produced enough commemorative patches for the Natick High boys’ and girls’ hockey teams to wear on their jerseys. The patch is white, with Justin’s uniform number, ‘’17,’’ in red stitching and “JB’’ in bright blue.
His initials and number are splashed everywhere in the hallways in the school, and around town.
“I’ll see a 17 on a license plate and boom, reminds me of Justin right away,’’ said Kustra, a junior captain. “I’ll even see a letter J on a sign or something and it reminds me of him. I try not to think about it as much as I can, but it still does come back to me and it’s so hard not to keep it in your mind.’’
The Natick hockey players even changed their team’s motto.
“We always preach team-first,’’ said Infanger. “We bring it in after every practice and say, ‘One-two-three - team.’ But the kids have changed it to ‘family.’ The kids bring it in every game and now it’s ‘One-two-three - family.’
“Because that’s what we are. We’re a family who sticks together, cares for each other, and we’re always there for each other.’’
The grieving has not been easy, but it has been necessary.
Roughly 1,000 folks changed their Facebook profile pictures to the red-lettered No. 17. And someone started a page promoting the boys’ hockey team’s first game back, at home last Wednesday against Dedham.
Infanger had a surprise. He called Griffin Bailey, a goalie on the junior varsity, and asked him to dress for the game. If the Red & Blue seized a commanding lead, he would replace starter Derek Kwok. Natick, however, entered the game with just one win.
It was no ordinary game.
“I got halfway dressed and peeked my head out of the locker room and saw kids just surrounding the rink,’’ Kustra said. “There were just so many people there. I’ll never forget that game.’’
Natick (2-3-3 overall) led, 1-0, after one period before opening up a 4-0 cushion in the second.
Infanger said, “There was still plenty of time in the second period and they’re all looking at me - ‘Is he going in? Can we put him in?’ ’’
“That was our goal: Get Griffin in the game, no matter what,’’ Kustra said. “We were going to do our best to make that happen.’’
Finally, with an 8-0 lead and seven minutes left in the third period, Infanger gave Griffin Bailey the green light, and West Suburban Rink erupted with noise.
Dedham, limited to eight shots to that point, turned it on. Bailey made eight saves, each one prompting loud cheers from the crowd.
It did not, by any means, signal the end of the grieving process. But it reminded the Baileys how much support they have, and that they will never be alone.
“I don’t think it’ll ever be back to normal,’’ Infanger said. “There’s still a hole in everyone’s heart. There are still times when kids have to take a minute out of practice and just compose themselves. That loss is always around us. Justin’s spirit is around us.
“I don’t think it’ll ever be the same or back to normal. But we’ll do the best we can to play hard and maybe get something done this season.’’
Donations can be made to the Justin Bailey Memorial Fund, c/o Middlesex Savings Bank, 150 Commonwealth Ave., Wayland,MA01778-4831.
Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at email@example.com.