Todd Reirden was in Las Vegas the first week of December and in the thick of his first season as the Washington Capitals’ head coach, weathering the usual challenges of that role and another specific to him. The Capitals had just started a three-game road trip, and Reirden’s team was showing signs of fatigue after last season’s long playoff run. While he worked to piece together two top lines from a forward corps nursing multiple injuries, his thoughts also were back in Washington, where his 16-year-old son had just been admitted to the hospital.
Reirden’s wife, Shelby, called the ambulance for their son, Travis, on Dec. 3, the day before the Capitals’ game against the Golden Knights and the start of six days on the road for the team. For the next week, Shelby was with Travis in the hospital while Todd traveled with the Capitals, and for an event that would have shaken most households, it was unfortunately routine for the Reirdens.
“These things seem to always happen during a road trip,” Shelby said.
Travis was born with Common Variable Immunodeficiency, a disorder that leaves his body unable to defend against bacteria and viruses. He could wake up with a crippling migraine or a fever or something else entirely that forces yet another hospital visit, or he might actually feel well enough to get to school on time. There is no way to know what each morning will bring, and his everyday life is a delicate balance between trying to be a normal teenager and worrying about what will happen to him when a classmate sneezes nearby.
Travis hasn’t told kids at school why he has been absent roughly 60 days this year, and outside of telling a handful of players and assistant coaches, Todd has similarly kept mum about what has been going on behind the scenes of his first season as an NHL head coach. The job alone is a lot of pressure, but adding to it was that he had been promoted to replace Barry Trotz, who resigned last summer after leading the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup. As Reirden has guided Washington back to the playoffs and atop the Metropolitan Division in a quest to repeat as champions, his family’s significant hardships have kept the team’s occasional struggles in proper perspective.
“It’s not an easy one to go to sleep on the road when there are some things that are going on that are not fun, and my wife and him are having to deal with it on their own,” Todd said. “I feel at times that I’m letting him down.”
‘I really wish I could be normal’
From the moment her baby boy entered this world, Shelby Reirden knew something was wrong. Travis was two weeks early, and he had to stay in the hospital because his lungs weren’t fully developed and he had jaundice. She noticed he wasn’t gaining weight, and when she held him, his breath smelled off to her, like acetone.
“Nobody else, even the doctors, believed me,” she said.
The Reirdens were constantly moving at the start of Travis’s life, when Todd’s NHL playing days were winding down. He bounced around the American Hockey League before going to Europe, and as Travis continued to get everything from ear and sinus infections to warts on the bottom of his feet, each new destination meant starting from scratch with new doctors. They might fix his current ailment, and then another would crop up.
Shelby exhausted WebMD, and while Todd felt he could have played two or three more years abroad, he decided to call it quits so Travis could see doctors stateside. Common Variable Immunodeficiency affects roughly 1 in 30,000, but most cases aren’t diagnosed until a person reaches 20 or 30. Travis’s symptoms were so extreme that the disorder was detected when he was in third grade, just as Todd’s coaching career was picking up as an assistant in Pittsburgh. He had spent years wondering why his son wasn’t tougher, and the news had him wracked with guilt.
“It’s sad for me because I don’t really know the life that he lives,” Todd said. “For some reason, I never get sick. I don’t know why, but I just don’t. I have never missed a day of work or practice. He lives a different life than I do, and he sees that, and he’s like, ‘Man, I wish I could be like you.’”
The treatment focuses on immunoglobulin replacement therapy — transfusions of human plasma, the liquid part of the body’s blood that carries the antibodies Travis needs. A nurse brings a cooler of plasma along with an IV to the Reirdens’ home once a month. When he was 9, Travis was so terrified of needles that he once said he had to go to the bathroom then tried to run away to avoid getting pricked. Scar tissue has built up in his arm from the numerous transfusions, which makes finding his vein even more painful. He is now so used to the four-hour process he tends to just doze off during it.
The transfusions have helped him be less susceptible to illnesses, but his reactions to the plasma vary with each treatment. He has to miss school every time he has one, and because most of his classmates don’t know the scope of his condition or that he has one at all, they will occasionally rib him about skipping. The best he can hope for is three weeks of perfect attendance, though even that might include some late arrivals depending on how Travis is feeling when he wakes up.
“I don’t want to be a sob story,” Travis said. “I don’t want my friends always feeling bad for me. When I’m there, I just want to be part of the group. I don’t want people thinking about, ‘Oh, I hope I don’t cough near him because he’s going to get sick.’ I really wish I could be normal.”
Stability at last
As Todd worked his way up the coaching ladder, his contract negotiations started with ensuring a certain standard of insurance to cover Travis’s medical bills. Salary was secondary. Shelby is often on the front lines of helping manage Travis’s erratic health every day, and Todd’s role is as the provider, something Travis appreciates even if it means his dad is away from home more than he’d like.
“He’s certainly my biggest fan and supporter,” Todd said. “Whether I was a player or now as a coach, he’s always there for me and always rooting for me and cheering me on and cheering our team on. Then it’s sad that I’m not always in town to return the favor. That’s the difficult part of what we’re doing, and he understands that part of the reason he’s able to get these treatments is the job I have and the insurance plan we have here with the Capitals.”
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was the first player to approach Travis and thank him for loaning Todd to the team during the season. Star center Sidney Crosby gave Travis a signed Sports Illustrated cover and a stick with the note, “Great job battling through school this year with your sickness and thanks for letting your dad help us out.” Todd’s tenure in Pittsburgh ended in 2014, when Dan Bylsma’s full coaching staff was let go, but it wasn’t long before Trotz reached out about a position as an assistant in Washington.
“I was just so in awe of the fact that my dad could end up coaching Alex Ovechkin,” Travis said. “I mean, he’d already coached Crosby, but Ovi is pretty unbelievable.”
Travis was actually most star-struck at meeting Trotz, whom he admired for his long tenure with the Nashville Predators.
“I thought that was insane because we’d moved around so much,” Travis said. “The first thing I did was I walked up to him and I was like, ’[15 seasons], you are a legend.’”
Before this season, the closest the Reirdens ever got to owning a home in the city in which Todd was playing or coaching was Pittsburgh, when they moved into a brand-new subdivision. They were renting the house, but the owner was eager to sell. Then Shelby realized all of the dust from the nearby construction was causing Travis’s asthma to flare up, another symptom of his immune deficiency.
“I had Travis sleeping with me because he was having so much trouble,” Shelby said. “I wake up one night and the dog is jumping on his chest. Travis was turning blue. So I called an ambulance, and we were back to the hospital again.”
As a kid, Travis would get confused about where the bathroom was because he had changed homes so often. When the Reirdens bought a house in Falls Church, Va., before the season, it finally provided stability. His first year in Washington, he was home-schooled, which was good for limiting his exposure to bacteria, but it was too boring. This year, he enrolled at George Mason High, a smaller public school with roughly 900 students.
It was ultimately Travis’s decision to share this story now, hopeful he and Todd can use Todd’s platform as the Capitals’ coach to raise awareness about immune deficiency. Todd is working to start a foundation, and Travis wants to eventually talk to younger kids about how to cope. Maybe a community could help him get some answers, too.
“He’s already worried about, ‘Well, what kind of job am I going to have when I get older? How am I going to be able to get this insurance that will pay for my treatments?’” Shelby said. “That’s the kind of stuff he already thinks about.”
Maintaining excellence, and perspective
Todd is usually at the Capitals’ practice facility by the time Shelby and Travis get their days going at 7:30 a.m. That is around when he will fire off the first text message: “Are you going to school today?” The hours that Todd is in team meetings or without his phone during the game can be the most nerve-racking.
“That’s always time when you just hope you don’t see something after that’s not positive,” Todd said. “He’s probably held back some information from me this year more than he has in the past, and I tell him not to.”
Imagine Todd’s anxiety when a stomach bug recently worked its way through the Capitals’ locker room. Todd often takes antibiotics if he spots even the slightest symptom, fearful of transferring an illness to Travis. Shelby burns through Lysol and bleach around the house, and Travis always has hand sanitizer.
That’s just the practical; the mental practice of coping with the situation is its own challenge. Todd has become the master of compartmentalizing. He doesn’t bring a bad day at work home, and vice versa. But in his most challenging weeks as a head coach, during the Capitals’ seven-game losing streak in January, maybe everything else he and his family have overcome made it easier to stay patient when that was exactly what the team needed.
He expected players to eventually hit a wall after how much hockey they had played during last year’s run to a franchise-first Stanley Cup. While he strategically picked moments to be stern, he has never been a screamer and he also knew his team would benefit from the upcoming bye week. The Capitals’ first game back from that was Feb. 1, and they finished the season 21-9-2 from that point.
“He’s a pretty calm guy to begin with,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “He’s very smart. He’s taking his time before he says stuff to us, and he’s thinking a lot.”
Said veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik: “If you had somebody change the way they were, I think guys would see right through it. That would have a negative effect. Guys would just kind of tune you out if all of a sudden you went from being one kind of personality to a different one.”
Todd’s confidence in himself was tested most. He didn’t have prior experiences as an NHL head coach to lean on, and he had also never dealt with significant media criticism before. As the Capitals were struggling, the New York Islanders, with Trotz at the helm, surged ahead of Washington in the standings. Comparing Todd to his predecessor was natural. While many coaches take over a team at its low point, Todd can’t better the team’s achievements under Trotz this season. He can only match him with another Stanley Cup.
“I knew that coming in,” Todd said. “I knew what I signed up for. That being said, I didn’t want another opportunity. I wanted this opportunity because I felt like I had a big part in it, and I was willing to deal with the comparisons and criticisms and whatever was going to happen.”
He often brings game film home to watch with Travis, who will then look for certain plays they discussed in games. Travis doesn’t get to Capital One Arena much; on a weekday, the late night would have him so exhausted that he would almost certainly have to miss school the next morning. There is also the risk of illness with so many people stuffed into the arena.
“It always goes back to that,” Travis said. But in an existence ruled by caution, the playoffs are nonnegotiable. His parents have already said they will make an exception.
“When times get tough, then you think about some other tough things that are going on,” Todd said. “What I need to remember is that there are a lot worse days out there for other people, and I’m living a dream that I had. Regardless of whether it goes well or it doesn’t, I’m living a dream, and my family is right there with me.”
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