By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; D01
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.
Some days, Chace would show signs of improvement. It was on those days that Theodore would perk up, allow himself to smile and, perhaps, start to believe his son had turned a corner.
"Every time he was doing something better, you started looking forward," he said. "For me and Stephanie, we always thought he would.
"He tried the best he could, but . . ." Theodore said, his eyes welling up again. "Every day, I thought he was going to be fine."
Appointments with specialists have continued during the season. On a trip in November, Theodore left the team for a day so that he could be with Stephanie for an appointment with a noted geneticist in Arlington. The couple's daughter, Romy, who turns 4 in March, also suffered from complications due to a premature birth.
"We love kids and we want a big family," he said. "But what we went through was really hard. So we want to put the odds on our side. Right now, we're trying to find answers."
In a setting as tight as an NHL dressing room, where teammates often know one another's deepest secrets, Theodore has kept his emotions to himself.
"I can understand the peaks and valleys he's had in the season," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Goaltending is a mental game. But he's so private and he's refused to make any excuses. It's something he's battling through on a daily basis."Continuing the fight
Within days of Chace's death, Theodore knew he wanted to set up a foundation to honor his son's short life and do something for the hospital, which had become a second home over the summer.
"You almost become a family over there because we're all fighting for the same thing," he said. "Parents are going through such a tough time . . . and the nurses and doctors, it's not easy for them, either, when things aren't going well."
With the help of the Capitals, Theodore created Saves for Kids. At the end of the season, he will make a donation based on the number of his saves, wins and shutouts.
Elizabeth Wodatch, the Capitals' director of community relations, said the Theodores considered naming the charity after their son. But after much consternation, they decided against it.
"I didn't only want to focus on the name of my son," Theodore said. "That was a little too hard."
Even though the charity is being handled by the Capitals, Wodatch said Theodore wants to present the check, in person, to the hospital at season's end.
"We were there every day for two months, all day," Theodore said. "The nurses start to get attached to the babies. And just to see [that] they were doing the best they could . . . they were trying to support us the best they could."A safe haven on the ice
Chace died on Aug. 14. The Capitals opened training camp on Sept. 13. That didn't leave Theodore much time to prepare for what figured to be a critical season for a goalie who was about to turn 33.
After grieving privately, he began working out in the gym and taking part in informal practices with his teammates. His release, he said, took the form of pouring himself into his work.
"I was so angry and frustrated and sad and everything you can imagine," Theodore said. "I was just going on the ice, wanting to practice so hard to make up for lost time."
Boudreau named Theodore his No. 1 goalie entering training camp, and the veteran solidified his status by holding off a challenge from Varlamov.
"Pro athletes have to be wired in such a way that they have the highest level of concentration and focus and are better able to deal with distractions," said Joel Fish, a sports psychologist who has worked with professional athletes. "Oftentimes, they have a unique personality, in addition to a unique skill set, to be able to deal with stress and pressure.
"The ice often becomes a sanctuary for the player," Fish added. "A safe haven, if you will."
But after starting 11 of the Capitals' first 17 games, "reality," as Theodore called it, caught up to him. He allowed three goals on five shots before being pulled in a 5-4 win over the Islanders. One game later, he yielded five goals in a loss in New Jersey.
After that defeat, a downcast Theodore told reporters that he needed to regain his focus. He took a brief leave of absence to accompany Stephanie to a doctor's appointment three days later. He did not play for the next six games.
Theodore returned to the net Nov. 30 and beat Carolina, 3-2. Since that game, Theodore has won 15 contests, including matching a franchise record for consecutive wins with 10 straight.
Despite his success on the ice, Theodore's struggle to come to terms with his son's death hasn't gotten any easier.
"I don't like the word 'easier,' " he said. "It's more like you deal with it."