A lesser man might have felt like he had been tested enough, that fate had plans for him other than the completion of an increasingly meaningless hockey season.
Yet if Kevin Hayes had a moment of doubt, a crisis of confidence after the tremendous feeling of loss from the death of a beloved brother last August along with the challenge of multiple abdominal surgeries, the Flyers center refused to give in to those emotions.
Hayes chose to forge ahead, battled through a grueling rehabilitation and managed a return to play. And played well.
Which is why the Philadelphia chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association has chosen Hayes as its nominee for this season’s Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded each year to the “National Hockey League player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey.”
Each year, all 32 chapters of the PHWA nominate a player from their respective teams.
In franchise history, three Flyers have won the honor: Bobby Clarke in 1971-72; Tim Kerr, 1988-89; and Ian Laperriere, 2010-11.
The trophy is named after Masterton, the only player in history to die as a direct result of injuries suffered during a game. Masterton, who played for the former Minnesota North Stars, died on Jan. 15, 1968 after sustaining injuries during a game.
Hayes, a 29-year-old center now in the third year of a seven-year contract with Philadelphia, lost his older brother, Jimmy (also an NHL player) due to an acute intoxication of fentanyl and cocaine just prior to the current season. Meanwhile, Kevin had to undergo several operations to repair injuries to his abdominal area, plus antibiotics to combat a blood infection.
Did the thought ever cross his mind that he might as well give up on this sesaon and just plan ahead for 2022-23?
“I don’t think there was ever really a thought of shutting it down,’’ said Hayes during a media Zoom call last Thursday. “I have an obilgation to (GM) Chuck (Fletcher), to this organization, to my teammates, my coaches, the fans. It would have been easy just to focus on on next year and get as strong as I can. But that never really crossed my mind. I have a job and my job is to play hockey. If I’m healthy enough to do it, I’ll be out there.’’
Fletcher indicated he admires the character Hayes has demonstrated throughout the season.
“Kevin is an excellent choice and is deserving of this nomination,’’ Fletcher said via a statement from the team’s public relations department. “To return from both the physical and emotional challenges he faced this season speaks volumes about his character as a person, but also his commitment to our club and his teammates. Kevin not only fought through many issues during the year, he performed at a high level and was one of our best players each time he was in the lineup.’’
Somehow the Boston native has managed to play in 45 games with nine goals/30 points. He’s gotten better as the season has progressed and he’s been an invaluable asset as a leader, especially since captain Claude Giroux was traded to Florida.
In making the decision to finish out the sesaon, Hayes wasn’t just thinking about himself.
“It’s definitely something my brother would want me to do,’’ Hayes said. “Hockey’s been pretty much my life since as long as I can remember. The way this organization and my teammates have kind of acted this year in support of myself have really made things a lot easier. I knew right from the start it was going to be difficult but it was something I definitely wanted to do. I feel a lot better when I’m with my teammates at the rink playing hockey than I am just sitting around. Without a doubt I wanted to play, I didn’t know how it was going to pan out. But coming to the rink made it a lot easier.’’
His own personal medical situation made everything even more complex. The medical experts needed quite some time to get Hayes healthy again.
“It’s definitely been a whirlwind of a year for myself and my family,’’ Hayes said. “After everything went down in August, I wasn’t sure how it was all going to play out. It’s been a bit of an up-and-down year surgery-wise. I’m just trying to stay really connected with my family. Checking in on them everyday while I’m trying to focus on playing. It’s been difficult but playing hockey this year is something I knew would be emotional and it has had its ups and downs but I’m definitely proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish. Been definitely thinking a lot about my brother when I play.’’
Hayes has looked a lot like his old self the past month or so, an encouraging sign for next season and getting back on track with his career.
“It was difficult this year to try to come back and play and not knowing why it wasn’t getting better,’’ he said. “You get three surgeries and you should start feeling better. At that point, nothing was really happening for me. They figured out I had an infection in my blood, thankfully we figured that out and that’s when I started feeling better.’’
Dedicating this season to his brother has made it an emotional one.
“It’s hard not to get emotional when I think about my brother,’’ he said. “The way that I’ve coped with it, I just try to think of all the fun we had together, especially playing hockey. Just trying my hardest to just be like him, how he treats people. Everyday at the rink I try to emulate what he would do. Just try to treat people with respect.’’