The death of 13-year-old Evan Frustaglio from the H1N1 flu virus hit hard for one Toronto Maple Leafs player.
Two years ago, Leafs forward Jason Blake was new to the team and the city and struggling to deal with the news he had chronic myelogenous leukemia, a rare but treatable form of cancer. However, the little boy next door who loved hockey always made him smile.
"I can't imagine what they are going through," Blake said yesterday morning of his former Etobicoke neighbours, the Frustaglio family, two days after Evan died from the flu. "They are a great family with great kids. Evan was a hell of a hockey player.
"It's tough. My prayers and thoughts go with them."
Blake, his wife Sara and their three children lived in the house next door to the Frustaglios for the 2007-08 season, his first in Toronto after signing a five-year, $20-million (U.S.) contract with the NHL team. It was a difficult year for Blake, as his illness weighed heavily on his play. While the disease was treatable with regular medication, Blake went from 40 goals the season before with the New York Islanders to 15 with the Leafs.
Things were a little better at home, though, as Paul and Ann-Marie Frustaglio welcomed the Blake family to the neighbourhood.
"We became good friends with them," Blake recalled as the Leafs got ready to play the Dallas Stars last night. "They showed us the ropes when we got to town. They were our next-door neighbours, their kids came over and played driveway hockey. We had dinners together.
"It's a tough deal."
Blake remembers Evan as in irrepressible child with a deep passion for hockey.
"He was driven to play hockey; he loved hockey," he said. "He was outside in his driveway shooting pucks constantly. Pucks were always flying in my yard.
"This is just unbelievable. It's such a tragedy."
The spread of the H1N1 virus is becoming an increasing concern for NHL teams. Three players were diagnosed with the flu strain, commonly called swine flu, in the last two days: Peter Budaj of the Colorado Avalanche, Quintin Laing of the Washington Capitals and Ladislav Smid of the Edmonton Oilers. Dustin Boyd of the Calgary Flames has also been sidelined by a flu bug and didn't play against the Colorado Avalanche last night.
Since hockey players come into contact with more people than the norm because of the nature of their work, the medical staff on each team issued guidelines for the players to follow.
"We put our trust in the team doctors to look after us," Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek said. "Obviously, during the season, germs are flying all over the place. I think washing hands, things like that, [are the best precautions]
"At the end of the day you put your faith in the team doctors to give you the proper care and advice that you need. We've had conversations. If they tell us to take medication or vaccine that is going to help us and not knock us out for a week or so, I'm going to take that shot."
Even though the flu has hit other teams, Komisarek and his teammates say they are not obsessing about it.
"I don't think you can worry about that," Komisarek said. "You just keep a cool head and take the necessary precautions to make sure we don't come across anything like that."
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said his players have not had the H1N1 vaccination yet because it has not been made available to the team. He also said there is not a lot teams can do aside from following the simple advice of washing their hands frequently.
"I don't know if you can do anything, unless you live in a bubble, to avoid getting [sick]" the coach said. "We have to fly on planes, which is one of the worst things you can do, where you share the air with people.
"The shots haven't been made available to us yet. You just cross your fingers and hope people don't get sick."