In April last year, Dominic Moore, a centre with the San Jose Sharks, disappeared from hockey in the final two Stanley Cup playoff games against the St. Louis Blues. Fans were surprised. Only two months earlier, he had been traded from Tampa Bay Lightning. Later in June, the reason was revealed. Katie Moore, his wife of less than two years, had been diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer.
Now, for the first time since his departure from the ice, the Canadian-born NHL veteran is speaking publicly about it. "Katie is an avid writer. A very reflective person," he begins. I don't point out that he's using the present tense. She died Jan. 7, at the age of 32. It had been less than a month since her death when he reached out to speak about the shock, illness, hope and fortitude that had marked their last nine months together.
"She would have wanted to share her story," he says.
Grief is its own animal. You can never know how it will act, what it will make you feel or want to do, until it has you in its grip. It's different for everyone. What spills out from Moore is the need to bring her back – the desire to, anyway – to play back what happened, to slow it down and understand it, because when you're in the midst of it, everything goes so fast, and when the end comes, it is always so final.
But if this is a story about personal grief over the loss of a vivacious and spirited woman, it is also one about the hockey family and the relationships that lie behind the game.
The Moore family has certainly had their share of hardship. Dominic Moore is the youngest son of three, who grew up in Thornhill, Ont. Mark, Steve and Dominic all went to Harvard University to play hockey, the first brother trio to play on the school's varsity hockey team. Mark was drafted and signed by the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, played three seasons, but left professional hockey due to injuries. Steve Moore tragically became a cautionary tale about the dangers of the sport. In 2004, in an infamous incident of violence, he was hit from behind by Todd Bertuzzi during a game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Colorado Avalanche, suffering a concussion and broken vertebrae in his neck.
"He has never been the same," Dominic Moore says. A lawsuit is still pending. There has been no compensation. "He and his wife are supporting themselves. But that's a tale for another time." He pauses momentarily. "No one has a say in what events happen to us."
Moore, now an unrestricted free agent, is speaking on the phone from Boston, where he and his wife had decided to make their home. His NHL career had taken him to a new city almost every year for the previous 10 years. But they had met at Harvard and had been together ever since. Boston was the landscape of their love affair.
Hockey life is often hard on relationships, but Katie followed him everywhere, sacrificing the chance for her own career. "There's a lot of uncertainty, certainly with my career," he explains. " I was always changing cities. She is my rock and foundation," he says, reverting back to present tense. "Life as a professional athlete is almost necessarily selfish. It takes so much focus to compete at that level. And that plays into the role the wives play," he says. "She knew I was pursuing my childhood dream."
An athlete herself, Katie had been selected in high school in a small town in Minnesota, where she grew up, for the Olympic regional soccer team; she went on to play the sport at Harvard. "She was not one of those wives to sit in the wives' room. She was always in the stands."
Part of how they coped with the instability of hockey life was to find a home where they could think about having children and Katie could write the novel she had started. They had bought a "dream unit" in a building in Boston in the fall of 2011. They could not have known what the future held. Last spring, while in San Jose, Katie fell ill, unable to keep food down. Scans and a biopsy confirmed the worst: fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, a rare form of liver cancer that often afflicts younger people. It had spread to the lymph nodes and there were tumours elsewhere in her body. The morning after the diagnosis, she underwent an eight-hour "aggressive surgery" to remove her stomach, her gallbladder and all the lymph nodes in her abdomen.
"She had no hesitation whatsoever. She was incredible," Moore recalls, adding that she emulated the positive attitude of her father, who had died unexpectedly a year earlier. As it was a cancer that had no specific chemotherapy treatment, she would have to undergo experimental trials.
His departure from the game was easy, he says, even during the playoffs, which he had already been in for two years in a row, with Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011 and the Montreal Canadiens in 2010. "There's a sense that when you take time off, you're not pulling your weight. But at the same time, family comes first." To him, the lockout was "a blessing" because at the least he didn't feel as though he was missing anything.
By June, they had moved back to Boston, where her care continued at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She continued to work tirelessly on the renovations for their dream home. During the month of August, when she had to be in the hospital, Moore stayed with her every night. Their condo was ready for them to move in but "I wanted to go home with her," he explains. In early September, they did, and he videotaped their crossing of the threshold.
Throughout, they never hesitated to try anything doctors recommended. "Neither of us would ever admit defeat. It's not in our natures," he says, as he documents the heartbreaking ups and downs of her condition over that summer and fall.
I ask him if any of that attitude comes from sports psychology. "I don't think it has to do with being an athlete. At the end of the day, sports is about whether you win or you lose. But none of us is getting out of here alive. It's about the character, the spirit you show. People like Lance Armstrong are called a winner because they beat cancer. But millions of people who fight, and even fight harder than most, still die from cancer."
At the end, he was by her side, holding her hand. In hospital since late November, she was weak, unable to speak. A few hours before she died, he made a move to get up to leave momentarily. But "she squeezed my hand. So I sat right back down," he says. She died with her eyes open. "She was afraid that if she closed her eyes, she wouldn't wake up." Doctors had given her drugs to help her sleep. "But they didn't work. She had this inhuman strength."
It is not Moore, the professional hockey player, who is talking to me. I have interviewed some over the years, and it's always a difficult exercise. They rarely speak about themselves. It's always about the team, the play, the passes, the goals, the chances, the misses. Moore is without protective gear as he speaks, simply a husband who is easing into his role as a grieving widower. "We were incredibly lucky to have the relationship we had," he continues, eager to tell me everything about her. "We had something special … Pure unadulterated love. Every day, we were grateful to have each other."
I get a word in edgewise to ask whether he will sign with a team soon. "There have been options offered. But I'm not at this point accepting them." He pauses. "I need to take some time."
And then he swings the conversation back to Katie. "I told her near the end that her father would be very proud of her. It was his last fatherly act to have shown her the way."