They remembered him as the big kid with the broad shoulders who would smile and politely remove his ballcap when told, time after time, he couldn’t wear it in school.
And they remembered, too, how much he loved his family and friends and how eager he was to do well in his first tryout with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL.
On Tuesday, those who best knew Jordan Boyd held onto those memories a little tighter. It was all they could do after hearing the 16-year-old Nova Scotia athlete had died Monday, during a skating drill at the Titan rookie camp.
While the exact cause remains unknown, Boyd’s death has generated an outpouring of grief and questioning: What happened? Why Boyd? Was there any way of preventing it?
Losing a young person is the cruellest of blows. It takes away the possibilities of what could have been and, yet, it has happened before and recently.
Less than two years ago, 18-year-old Patrick Steel, a rookie with the Canmore Eagles of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, was found dead in the home of his billets. No cause of death was announced.
Before that, in 2008, Windsor Spitfires 19-year-old captain Mickey Renaud died in his home during breakfast. An autopsy revealed he had suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
With his parents in the stands watching Monday, Boyd collapsed and was immediately tended to by the team’s medical staff. A defibrillator was used before the 6-foot-1, 174-pound player was rushed to a nearby hospital and later pronounced dead.
“My mom had told me when she was up there, that when he was on the ice, that it seemed it may been the red jersey, but he was glowing with happiness,” Boyd’s older brother, Greg Dobson, told CTV. “It was probably the best day of his life.”
Boyd attended Rothesay Netherwood private school in New Brunswick last year, and was said to be kind and well-liked. He enjoyed the environment, from the morning gatherings for chapel to living in a dorm and playing for the school’s hockey team.
Although school work didn’t come easily for him, Boyd put in the effort and was clearly proud of his academic improvement. “I think Jordan made himself taller last year, by proving he could do well academically,” said Paul Kitchen, the head of Rothesay Netherwood.
Encouraged by his parents, Boyd took the same approach with hockey. In the months leading up to his Titan tryout, Boyd got serious about his preparations. He turned to Bill Short from Hockey Nova Scotia’s high-performance program. Short had known of Boyd for five years when he played on Nova Scotia’s under-16 team. The plan was to ready for him physically but also mentally.
“He was a good-sized, offensively-gifted player. He could score goals,” Short said. “This summer, he worked the hardest he ever had, on and off the ice. I worked with him twice a week for six weeks. He was learning the detail side of the game, what it takes to separate yourself from the others.”
The QMJHL has a screening protocol in place for heart problems and, according to sources, has asked for a deeper review of training camp medical records across the league in light of Monday’s tragedy.
The Quebec Remparts consulting cardiologist, Paul Poirier, said he’s spent several hours in the past two days reassuring parents of QMJHL players and other athletes (he also works with college and Olympic competitors).
“No system of testing is ever going to be perfect, and I think we have to be careful about escalating the screening regime, because that raises other questions: Who’s going to do the testing? Who’s going to interpret the results?” Poirier said. “It’s tricky. Some athletes might have electrocardiogram results that look like a red flag if the person examining them doesn’t know they’re a high-level athlete. A detailed medical history is sufficient to detect the vast majority of cases, which are rare. In 15 years, I’ve only had to prevent one player from going out on the ice.”
Symptoms of underlying heart problems include fainting and difficulty breathing.
“I think if you could go back, you might find that these kids in these cases had a warning sign of some sort, whether it’s a blackout or chest pains,” said David Birnie, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
The screening of athletes in Canada is a patchwork affair, left up to individual provinces, leagues and sporting federations – although most follow the standard protocol of a physical exam and detailed family history.
Some European countries have put forward a recommendation that athletes undergo more sophisticated diagnostic tests, but only Italy systematically tests athletes – both amateur and recreational – from the age of 12, via a federally-administered program designed to detect a genetic heart anomaly common among Italians.
Experts disagree on the value of systematic testing – some heart disorders are nearly impossible to diagnose through conventional tools – but there is a broad medical consensus elite athletes should undergo thorough screening. Even then, it’s no guarantee.
“Anything we can ever do to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening for one other family is crucial,” Kitchen said. “We’re all so devastated. I kept referring to him as a gentle spirit. He was a kid with a great big smile.”