Colby Cave was one of the best hockey players in the world.
He wasn’t a superstar scorer like Connor McDavid. But Cave played 67 games in the NHL, and that number alone proves it.
He was a cattle rancher’s son from North Battleford, Saskatchewan, who battled for every inch of the ice, every chance he got. Because life can be cruel, he ran out of chances.
Cave died Saturday, four days after emergency surgery to remove a colloid cyst that caused a brain bleed. He never woke up from a medically induced coma. He was 25.
Those he leaves behind include his wife, Emily, whom he married last summer; parents Allan and Jennifer; and a younger sister, Taylor.
In parts of three seasons with Bruins and Oilers, he scored four goals with five assists for 9 points in the toughest league on the planet, where everyone is one of the best and the margins are slim between long careers and short stays.
He was “earnest and hard working,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in one of many tributes that poured in Saturday, his career “inspiringly emblematic of the best of our game.”
Bruins president Cam Neely said Cave, a square-jawed, red-haired, sturdy center who wore No. 26, will “always will be a Bruin.” General manager Don Sweeney praised Cave’s “Patrice Bergeron-like characteristics, on and off the ice.” Bergeron remembered him as “genuine, respectful, and always full of life.” Jake DeBrusk, teammates with Cave on the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos, called his former junior captain an “amazing person, player, and friend.”
Twice passed over in the NHL Draft, Cave signed with the Bruins in 2015. He became a critical piece of the team, and not because he scored 40 goals a year. His role was a “AAAA” player, able to fill holes in the varsity lineup and set a hard-working example for newcomers. Every organization needs people like Cave.
Boston waived him in January 2019. He was quickly picked up by Edmonton, where he played 44 games the last season and a half, spending some time with their AHL affiliate in Bakersfield, Calif.
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who on Saturday remembered Cave as “a solid player, beloved teammate, but more importantly a truly special person,” said on the day he was waived it was bittersweet.
“I’ve got a fondness for him,” Cassidy said then. “I had him down in Providence, too, and I’ve always got a fondness for the guys that pay their dues in the American League. Now he gets an opportunity somewhere else. It’s a loss for the Bruins organization because he’s an asset, but it’s a great day for the person."
Cave’s first NHL goal came in Montreal, on Dec. 17, 2018. Subbing for an injured Bergeron, he finished a pretty high-low passing play, David Pastrnak to Charlie McAvoy to Cave in the slot. Grinning in the dressing room afterward, his comments were all about the team, all about the win. He was pleased to learn a teammate grabbed the puck.
“It’ll go in the trophy case, that’s for sure,” he said.
Cave’s only goal last year was an impressive one. Recently called up, Cave was on the ice against Sidney Crosby’s line, in a scoreless game in Pittsburgh. He took a pass out of the Oilers’ zone, burst around defenseman Marcus Pettersson, cut across the crease, and scored on Matt Murray.
During his summers as a pro, Cave returned to his parents’ ranch to help with chores and train locally. Last August, he shifted his training to Foxborough, with veteran NHLers such as Charlie Coyle, Chris Wagner, and Kevin Hayes.
“It’s a big year for my career,” he said after playing in a pickup game Aug. 14. “I think for me and my wife, obviously we want to be playing in Edmonton. We don’t want to be up and down, bouncing around, not knowing where we’re going to be. Come into this year, have a good year, and hopefully get some security. It’s a big year.”
Cave enjoyed his new start in hockey-crazed Edmonton, which was about a four-hour drive from North Battleford. He fondly recalled his wedding ceremony, held at a vineyard in Southern Ontario. He and his wife, a mental health advocate, had plans to make a difference in that field.
They were off to a great start. In 2018, she helped organize an event with TSN commentator Michael Landsberg in Cave’s hometown, which struggled with suicide (including that of former NHLer Wade Belak). She shared her story at the event. In the summers, the couple would visit the Battlefords Trade and Education Centre, where his late grandfather, Don Amos, was general manager. They would bring donuts.
"He knows he's not just a hockey player," Emily said in 2018, speaking to the Globe about her then-fiance. "He's so grounded and humble."
In Foxborough last August, Cave was hard at work improving his game, fighting for space on the Oilers' roster, earning every inch of progress. He was eager to learn from McDavid, the young Oilers captain. He lauded him for carrying the weight of the franchise, in a city that revolves around hockey, while being the best player in the world.
“And he’s so young,” he said. “He’s only going to get better.”
We thought the same about Colby Cave.