From the moment he met Colby Cave in 2011, Mark Lamb knew he had found a kindred spirit. Not as a hockey player, though. Lamb had already enjoyed a 400-game NHL career and, truth be told, was a much more talented player than Colby Cave could ever hope to be. Where they found their common ground was in their backgrounds. Cave had grown up on a ranch in North Battleford, Sask., about four hours north of where Lamb and his family farmed in Pontiex, population 605.
“We had a lot in common because I was brought up the same way,” said Lamb, who was the coach-GM of the Swift Current Broncos, the junior team for which Cave played for four seasons. “We used to make jokes about how we would try to get out of doing chores for hockey. I used to do it all the time and he did, too. What a person. What a player. Gone way, way too soon.”
The hockey world was shocked and stunned to learn that Cave - a 25-year-old who had spent the past five seasons shuttling between the NHL and the American League, most recently for the Edmonton Oilers – died Saturday morning at a Toronto hospital after surgery to heal a brain bleed that occurred while he was sleeping in nearby Barrie, Ont., Monday night. Cave’s wife, Emily, found him unresponsive Tuesday morning and later that day, he underwent surgery was to remove a colloid cyst that was causing pressure on his brain.
Even at a time like this, with so much death and uncertainty in the world, the last thing you expect is for a 25-year-old kid to be randomly struck down in the prime of his life and his career. Everything Colby Cave got in hockey, he earned with an extraordinary work ethic and an unceasingly positive attitude. A first-round pick of the Kootenay Ice in 2009, Cave was acquired by Lamb in Swift Current in January, 2011 as the centerpiece of a trade which sent WHL star and future NHLer Cody Eakin the other way. “Cody Eakin is the best player to come to this team since Joe Sakic,” Lamb said at the time. And still he traded Eakin, who had just won a silver medal at the World Junior Championship. That’s how much he thought of the unproven Cave, who captained the Broncos in his last two seasons of junior hockey.
“He was a total buy-in guy, totally coachable,” said Lamb, who is now GM-coach of the Prince George Cougars. “Great teammate. He worked for everything he got. The last two years he was our best player and our leader. He treated everybody the way you want people to treat people. People gravitated to him and he had an infectious smile that he brought into the room. He wanted to be a hockey player and he bought into being a hockey player.”
Cave’s agent, Jason Davidson, remembers one day earlier this season when Cave received a call-up from the Oilers and texted him in an Uber en route to the airport in Los Angeles. Not long after, he received another text from his client, saying the Oilers had called back and informed him that they didn’t need him after all and he was to report back to Bakersfield.
“He texted me back and he was like, ‘Yeah, sh--, I was in the car and I was ready to go.’ ” Davidson said. “Then he just said, ‘I guess I just have to go back to work and play harder tomorrow.’ That’s the kind of person he was. I don’t think people realize how hard it is on a guy who gets called up and sent down. But I was looking through my texts with him the past couple of years and he never complained about it. Not once. It didn’t matter what day it was or what the circumstances were, you would always see Colby Cave with a smile on his face.”
Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, who played parts of two seasons with Cave before the Oilers picked him up on waivers, said it was clear Cave had an infectious personality. "I played a very small role in his career," Krug said. "But in the short time I played with him, it was very apparent that he just attacked whatever situation was right in front of him. It didn't matter if he was going to be the fourth-line center that night or if he was bumped up to play with (David) Pastrnak and (Brad) Marchand like he did for a couple of games, it was always, 'I'm going to make the best of this opportunity and I'm going to enjoy it.' He just embraced every role he was given and every situation in front of him."
Earlier this season, Cave was playing for the Bakersfield Condors, the Oilers’ AHL affiliate, and got into a fight with rookie Martin Pospisil of the Stockton Heat. After the two players exchanged haymakers, Cave dropped Pospisil with a right hand that knocked Pospisil to the ice and rendered him unconscious. Pospisil regained consciousness and skated off, but remembered nothing of the incident. The next day, Cave sent Pospisil a text to ensure that he was OK. “Hey buddy, it’s Cave from the other side,” the text read. “Just wanted to reach out and hope you’re OK, buddy. You’re a tough kid and I respect a guy that stands up for himself. Hope you have a quick recovery, buddy.”
(And just to be clear, there is no indication that the colloid cyst was due to any head trauma Cave may have suffered playing hockey. The cyst was not diagnosed until the surgery was done and Cave did not have an extensive history of concussions. Colloid cysts are a very rare congenital disorder. “According to the NHLPA doctor,” Davidson said, “you’re born with it and there’s nothing you can do.”)
The Bruins signed Cave as an undrafted free agent after his career in Swift Current and Davidson said when the Bruins lost him on waivers to the Oilers in January, 2019, they were hoping they might be able to sneak him through without being chosen. Part of the reason Cave made it to the NHL is he had Davidson, a person who passionately believed in him as a player and a person and one of the people who helped convince the Bruins to sign him. Davidson read a text he received from Bruins GM Don Sweeney after Cave died Saturday morning. It read: “I can easily remember our discussions and your belief in his character. You were so right. We will all miss him.”
To make things even more tragic, things were just starting to come together for Colby Cave, both in life and as a player. He and Emily, were married last July. You probably know Emily Cave now from the heartbreaking posts she put on social media after the surgery and leading up to her husband’s death. After the AHL season was officially cancelled, Cave was informed that if the NHL did start again, he was going to be called up as a Black Ace for their playoff run. He was due to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and there was always the possibility of Seattle expansion on the horizon.
“Every GM is looking for a No. 1 center for call-up,” Davidson said. “They all are. Colby and I would have considered this a real fun time for us, back-and-forth on which teams were interested and for once, him having a bit of a say where he wanted to end up for his family and his new wife. But we won’t get to see that day. That’s sad.”
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