So Druce’s new job as a first-time head coach with the Cobourg Cougars, marking his return to hockey after more than a decade away? His team’s 16-2 start in the Ontario Junior Hockey League? His arrival before a season that will end with Cobourg hosting Canada’s Junior A championship?
“Things like this happen,” Druce said this week, referring to his past. “Right place, right time.”
If anyone deserved another happy coincidence, it was Druce, 12 years after heartbreaking news had led him to leave the sport. The former winger had been working as a hockey analyst in Canada when his then-15-year-old daughter Courtney — just a toddler waking up in the middle of the night during his famous Caps streak — was diagnosed with leukemia. With Courtney and her family members in and out of hospitals, Druce could no longer maintain a hockey lifestyle, so he left the game and became a financial adviser in his native Peterborough, Ontario.
Over the next decade, his daughter turned into a public figure in Peterborough as she fought off an avalanche of medical problems — what Druce calls “a battle that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies.” She went through chemotherapy four times and radiation twice. She had two bone marrow transplants. After beating leukemia for a third time, she was in remission for almost five years and getting on with her life when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She beat that, too, but then the cancer came back a year ago. She died in April, eight days before her 28th birthday.
“She’s my hero,” Druce said. “She would still walk into a room and would still light up that room when she walked in, even after going through all of that. She didn’t take one day for granted. She always had goals and always had dreams, and was still pursuing them as she was going through this. It was unbelievable.”
Druce’s own goals, meanwhile, underwent a change. Instead of pursuing a post-playing career in hockey, he would raise money and awareness for other Canadian families going through similar struggles. And he was in the right place at the right time for that, too.
Around the time Courtney was diagnosed, a dozen Peterborough police officers had decided to launch a three-week annual bike ride, visiting schools to talk about pediatric cancer while riding hundreds of miles around Ontario. The Canadian Cancer Society knew that Druce was looking for an outlet, and they gave his name to his hometown cops, who knew Druce only as a hockey player with a famous hot streak on his résumé.
“I said I’d really be interested in being a part of that if they’d welcome me,” Druce said. “And they did, with open arms.”
“He was just a normal, regular guy on our team,” said Marc Habgood, a staff sergeant in the Peterborough Police Service and one of the founders of Pedal for Hope. “It was 12 police officers and one NHL hockey player, and we all did the same thing.”
So the 13 men became big brothers to kids with cancer. They saved up their vacation time so they could disappear for three weeks each year. They set a Guinness World Record for simultaneous head-shaving, visited with the Canadian prime minister and raised more than $4 million.
The Peterborough Police Service made Druce an honorary member, his bike partners became among his closest friends, and Courtney became an ambassador and public face for the team. When they needed someone to film a promotional video, they asked her. When they needed an emcee for the final day of the ride, they turned to her. When they needed someone to greet families, she volunteered. So when Druce bowed out of last year’s charity ride as Courtney entered hospice care, and then called early one morning with the news, he wound up consoling the distraught policemen.
“I was a mess a couple times, just a mess,” Habgood said. “It’s just so hard to believe. That kid was so sick for so long, and she kept battling, and John was along for the fight. I guess we all were along for the fight.”
Druce hasn’t given up that fight. He traveled to the Caps’ FanFest last spring and played in the alumni game; his fellow players then auctioned off their jerseys, with the proceeds going to Pedal for Hope and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s local chapter. Druce will be back in town Saturday night, dropping the ceremonial puck as part of the Caps’ Hockey Fights Cancer campaign, which raises money for several cancer charities. It was easy for him to get onto the Pedal for Hope team, he said, “but you may not be able to get out — not that anybody wants to.”
“People need to hear about it; they need to know what people are going through,” Druce said, explaining why he remains involved with the group. “It tears families apart. It’s like going through hell.”
His new coaching gig, at least, is another distraction. Druce already had been helping out with the Cougars last fall, before Courtney’s final relapse, but he never had the free time to dive full-time into hockey. Courtney’s death changed that. The Cougars were looking for a head coach, and Druce said he would consider it if they were interested. A week later, he had the job.
“I kind of looked at it — and I still do — as Courtney’s way of saying ‘Here, Dad, you go do this now,’ you know?” Druce said. “I stopped broadcasting when she got sick, and she knew. She knew how much I loved being around the game. And I just look at it as my little angel watching over me and saying, ‘Now you go coach. Now you go do this.’ ”
Druce has a 40-minute drive to the rink now, and he thinks about Courtney every day on that ride: the painful memories and the happy ones, too. He also has a perspective that might be hard to replicate. I talked to him a few days into my own paternity leave, which he brought up during our conversation.
“Every day — whether it be changing diapers or a baby crying — every day is to be cherished,” he told me. “And it’s hard. Life gets busy; life gets in the way; life takes you away. But when you look back in 15 years, you’ll remember all those little times she made you laugh. You’ll remember that. The hardest thing to do in the moment is to appreciate things.”
I also asked him whether he’s tried to sort out why all of these things happened to his daughter and his family. How can you answer that question? He tried.
“There is no sense. There are no answers. There’s no ‘Why did this happen?’ ” he said. “Life goes on. Life is constant change. You can’t control it. I don’t look for answers. Reality is reality. I just miss her.”
The Capitals’ Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness night will include an auction featuring Hockey Fights Cancer jerseys, sticks, pucks and hats. Proceeds benefit Flashes of Hope, Hope for Henry, Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.