Washington Capitals goalie Jose Theodore copes with the pain of his infant son's death

José Theodore instructs fourth-grader Daniel Barnes on the finer points of being a goalie at King Elementary School in the District.
José Theodore instructs fourth-grader Daniel Barnes on the finer points of being a goalie at King Elementary School in the District. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

José Theodore had managed to keep his personal tragedy as far from the ice as possible. The Washington Capitals goalie didn't want to make his teammates uncomfortable, and the rink was a place where, for three hours a day, he could go to escape.

But last week, Theodore sat on the bench at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, took a deep breath and, through tears, gave the first interview about his 2-month-old son Chace, who died in August from respiratory complications related to a premature birth.

"Obviously, it's a tough story for anybody," he said. "It's not something people are comfortable talking about. People say to me, 'I can't imagine.' To be honest, they can't imagine. They can try to imagine. But until you are there, you can't put yourself in those people's shoes."

Theodore is an intensely private man, having become wary of the media from his years playing in Montreal, where a hockey player's every move on and off the ice is possible tabloid fodder. But he agreed to discuss his son's death in an effort to publicize the charity, Saves for Kids, that he founded in November. Proceeds benefit the neonatal intensive care unit at Children's National Medical Center, the place Theodore and his wife, Stephanie Cloutier, spent so much time during their son's 54-day life.

"There's not a day" he doesn't think about it, Theodore said. "I can remember sometimes, it could be a 2-2 game, and you start thinking about your son, or you start thinking about different stuff. Or you could be getting dressed [in pads] and trying to get focused and you get carried away thinking."

"Christmas was much tougher," he added, his quivering voice trailing off. "It's as simple as seeing kids around. You could be in the game and you see a dad in the stands with his son and you think about it. It's about being strong enough to get focused right away so you don't . . ."

As he's so often done during times of tumult in his life, Theodore has persevered on the ice, pushing aside the pain.

"You don't accept it," he said. "But you have to find a way to live with those thoughts."

A mysterious condition

Chace, the couple's second child, was born on June 22, about five weeks early. They knew there was a chance that their son would arrive prematurely. What they did not know was that he would born with a mysterious neuromuscular condition, which to this day has not been diagnosed.

"It's . . . I don't know how to say it in English. But it affected all his body," said Theodore, who grew up in a suburb of Montreal. "The lungs weren't strong enough for him to breathe on his own. So he was on a ventilator."

Summer had been when Theodore planned to work himself into the best shape of his career in an effort to win back his starting job with the Capitals, a job he lost when he was replaced by rookie Semyon Varlamov one game into the playoffs last spring. Instead, he and Stephanie spent almost every waking hour at Children's in Northwest D.C., a 20-minute drive from their Arlington home.

The Theodores would spend hours, sometimes days, in the state-of-the-art neonatal intensive care unit, where premature babies, some small enough to be cradled in an adult's hand, lie in miniature cribs. The rooms are dimly lit, the nurses speak in hushed tones, the melodic pulsation of a ventilator can sometimes be the only sound.

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