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It was a Friday night, sure, but he was early to bed, as usual.

There was a game to think about - the Buffalo Sabres, the National Hockey League's best team, in town to play his Montreal Canadiens - and Bob Gainey wanted to get an early start on Saturday.

At almost the same time that the Canadiens general manager turned out the lights in his downtown condominium, his daughter Laura stepped out on the deck of the Picton Castle as the ship hit heavy waters about a thousand kilometres off the coast of Cape Cod.

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She shouldn't have been there. She should have been down below, in her own bed.

But she was 25 years old, she was living her dream and, as her father often said, she liked to "live on the edge." Where this sailing gene came from, no one knew. She had been born in Montreal and grown up in Minnesota and Texas, but now she was so in love with sailing she had a tall ship tattooed on her left shoulder and liked nothing in the world better than climbing eight storeys up the mast, unfurling the royal and watching it catch the wind.

The royal is a small sail that puffs out majestically, triumphantly, and is used only in light, favourable winds.

This was no night for such a sail. The gale-force wind was at 55 knots, the waves slamming into the 55-metre-long barque and the ship tossing heavily. She'd been told to stay below, like most of the other young and less-experienced sailors.

She went out on deck without a life jacket. She did not use a safety tether. Perhaps she simply wanted to see the ship battle the storm for herself. We will never know. One wave, some say a "rogue" wave, seemed to reach up and simply slap her off the deck.

Gone, in an instant, with reports of one quick, small cry for help.

No one could see anything, not with the early December dark, not with the sheered water flying in the wind, not for the exploding crashes against the hull. Those who saw her vanish could only throw flotation devices after her and pray that Laura, a fine swimmer, would be able to find one of them in time.

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Bob Gainey awoke at 4:30 a.m. A fastidious, meticulous man, he busied himself with some paperwork and then, nearing 6 a.m., he checked his BlackBerry.

"I had three messages," he remembers. "Three consecutive messages that came in around 11:30, 11:35, 11:45 and said 'Please call.' I didn't need to make the call to know there was a problem. I knew there was a problem.

"I just didn't know how bad the problem was."

GROWING UP GAINEY

Life was never supposed to be like this for a hockey hero. As West Coast humorist Eric Nicol once so charmingly put it, "For any God-fearing young Canadian, the ultimate reward is to be chosen for the NHL All-Star Game. If he later goes to Heaven, that is so much gravy."

Bob Gainey played in four National Hockey League All-Star Games. He once told his road hockey and rink-rat buddies back in Peterborough, Ont., that he was going to grow up to become captain of the Montreal Canadiens, and he did, for half of the 16 years he played in Montreal. He won five Stanley Cups. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. He was so brilliant defensively that his abilities inspired the league to create a new trophy, the Frank Selke, to honour the checking forward - and he promptly won it the first four years. When he retired, he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He had been a lock for years.

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Now 52, Bob Gainey had a work ethic as a player so strong that former Montreal goaltender Ken Dryden, himself a Hall of Famer, called his old teammate and still-close friend "the playing conscience of the team." When Gainey became captain, he thought the captain of the Montreal Canadiens should be able to speak the language of the team's fans, and so he taught himself French, practising with his francophone teammates and reading grammar books on team flights while others played hearts and slept.

He came by such extreme dedication honestly. George Gainey had served in the war and, for four decades, walked daily to his factory job at Quaker Oats. When Bob Gainey became captain of the Canadiens, he insisted on living close enough to the old Montreal Forum that he could walk. When he became general manager many years later, he moved close enough to the Bell Centre that he can still walk to work. George Gainey shovelled his own driveway; Bob Gainey shovelled his, and when Montreal city crews came along trying to do the local captain a favour, he would shoo them away. George Gainey was a humble man who never talked about himself or his war. Bob Gainey does not hang his career on the walls, nor is he comfortable talking about it.

"My father," says 29-year-old Anna Gainey, Laura's older sister, "is a very private man."

George and Anne Gainey had five children and Bob, the youngest, was the hockey star. He was also an altar boy in a very Catholic family. His mother once told the Dallas Morning News that her son, then working for the Dallas Stars hockey club, had once come down with a mysterious limp that was cured through nine days of prayer and devotion. She wondered if perhaps it was a "miracle."

Whatever it was, he returned to play and went on to star for the Peterborough Petes, the local junior hockey club. Bright - some say one of hockey's brightest minds - he showed no head for school, failed once and struggled to finish high school. He was also so painfully shy it took ages for the local hockey star to ask out Cathy Collins, a pretty usherette at the hockey rink. Cathy was the 15th of 19 children in another Catholic family, as outgoing as he was reserved, and soon they were together forever.

Only Bob Gainey had no idea then how short forever can sometimes be.

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"Life," former NHL coach Fred Shero used to say, "is just a place where we spend time between games. Hockey is where we live, where we can best meet and overcome pain and wrong and death."

It is, unfortunately, just a little more complicated than that.

Life between games meant four children coming along in fairly quick succession - Anna, Stephen, Laura and Colleen, the baby. Life meant retirement and then a happy year in France, where he played and coached and worked on his French and the children all became fluent themselves. Life meant coming back to the NHL to take a job with the Minnesota North Stars and moving the family to the United States.

And life meant the first of two telephone calls that no one - whether starring on the ice or faceless in the crowd - should ever have to go through.

The North Stars were in Winnipeg playing the Jets when, after the morning skate, Gainey received a message to call home. He did and five-year-old Colleen answered.

"Daddy! Daddy!" she cried. "Mommy's on the floor in the bathroom - she's not moving!"

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It was a brain tumour. Cathy Gainey had massive surgery and, over the coming months and years, gruelling radiation, chemotherapy, good news, bad news, more surgery and, ultimately, impossible news. She fought it for five years; she moved her family when the North Stars left Minnesota for Dallas. She was ever optimistic even when she knew. She was only 39 years old when the cancer won.

The two older children were off at school and, of course, dramatically affected, but the two younger, Laura and Colleen, were traumatized. It is too simple to say they felt anger and abandonment, but that is what is said because no one can possibly know and the young often cannot say. Little Colleen fell into depression and spent time in a clinic. Laura, 10 when her mother died, also fought depression and, early into her teens, fell into drugs and bad company in Dallas.

It was a tough, almost impossible time to be a single father with a public and demanding job. On this warm spring day in 2007, less than five months after Laura's own death, Bob Gainey permits himself a small, sad smile: "It wasn't the first time I'd had a phone call about Laura at 4 o'clock in the morning."

He intervened. At one point, he and two of his assistant coaches physically removed Laura from a house. Finally, she was put in a rehabilitation clinic in Topeka, Kan., stayed nine months - "most kids stay just 30 days," he says - and came out clean and ready to try, at least, a new start.

Ed Arnold, managing editor of the Peterborough Examiner and a long-time family friend, learned that Laura was showing interest in photography and had her come to this small city in Central Ontario and cover briefly for a vacationing photographer. First day on the job, she learned of a hostage-taking situation and, somehow, walked through the police lines to take a dramatic photograph of the incident. Her father laughs to remember her first day's work ending up on the front page.

"She was a tough, kind of no-fear, straight-ahead young woman," he says.

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She moved back to Canada and tried her hand at art, at working with children, at environmental studies and then, on sister Anna's suggestion, signed up to train on one of the tall ships. She instantly fell in love with sailing. She found her legs at sea.

Laura seemed to want so much out of life so quickly that her father often wondered what was driving her. Cathy's death from brain cancer was not the first in her large family, and the concern is that there might be some genetic connection.

"Laura was kind of a risk-taker," Bob Gainey says, "thinking that she might not have all that much time. I don't know how big of a play it had in how much she wanted to grab out of life and how quickly, but it had some."

After that first voyage, she returned home, dropped her bags at the front door and announced, "I want to go back." She finally did, joining the Picton Castle for what would turn out to be such a fateful voyage.

"She kind of reached a point," says her father, "where she decided if she was going to scratch that itch, she had to get back on the ship."

There was no smooth sailing from the rehab centre in Kansas to the dark and windy night of Dec. 8 off Cape Cod, but she was getting there. "She went through different stages," he says, "and she was still in a growth stage at 25."

FAILING A MIRACLE

What she was, her siblings knew, was happy at last. They could read it in her e-mails. They heard it from the friends she made in the crew. She was also good at sailing, so good that the accident should never have happened. But for whatever reason, she had to see for herself that night and paid a price youthful curiosity should never pay.

They began to search the following day. At this point, all that was known in Canada was that a crew member had been washed overboard. A woman, and Canadian. The story didn't even make the front pages. It was only as the weekend closed that word came that the young woman was the daughter of a Canadian hockey legend. And suddenly it was front-page.

They were hopeful at first, of course. "You grasp onto whatever amount of hope there is for a period of time," Bob Gainey remembers, "and then you expand it."

"You instantly think the worst," says Anna Gainey. "There were 22-foot seas that night and gale-force winds. You like to think it was quick, and peaceful. But then you start to backtrack. You think 24 hours, 36 hours, 48 hours, always hoping for something."

The United States Coast Guard searched and Canada also got involved. A friendly congressman from Texas got the Coast Guard to extend the search for a day, but finally the young captain in charge of search and rescue, a man who had not once previously let pessimism seep into his announcements, said they could only "send out one more plane - and when that's done we have to pull our resources."

By now, they knew.

There would be no miracle. This was not some mysterious limp that went away while the family prayed. This was hard fact: no Laura, no body, no hope.

Bob Gainey says he likes to think he has some spirituality in him, but not the sort of faith that helps others get through such tragedy. "Some people," he says, "can find enormous strength in that area, but I don't. You don't turn away from the possibility, but. …"

Coming from Central Ontario and working in Montreal, Minneapolis and Dallas, Gainey had no sense of the sea and did not even comprehend the sheer vastness of it - and the impossibility of finding anything - until he flew over the site himself on a clear day. "It wasn't in my wheelhouse that there was danger involved here," he says, shaking his head. But when he thought about the conditions that night - wind howling, waves sheering off, saltwater blinding - he understood how instantly disaster could strike.

But what did it mean? It was only in talking to close friends from the Maritimes that he began to understand. "They all know someone who has been lost at sea," he says. "They know what it means."

The best answer came from Anna, who told her father: "If Laura's wishes had been known, and if her body had been found, she probably would have been put back into the sea."

But still he had to deal with it. Somehow. His inclination might be to go it alone, but his friends and the Canadiens organization weren't about to let him. It had no sooner happened than the Gaineys were swamped with support. Even in the weeks when, he freely admits, he became "disengaged" from his work with the hockey club, others moved in to fill the space he left.

He considered briefly that he should step aside, that he had been rendered useless, but he couldn't see how that would accomplish anything. Besides, none of his trusted friends or colleagues had even raised the possibility. Instead, they thought he should get busy and keep busy. And, given his background, he agreed with them. He would carry on.

Bob Gainey, in the opinion of long-time Montreal Gazette sports writer Red Fisher, "played through more pain, I think, than any athlete I have ever known."

But this pain didn't go away with icing. This wasn't something surgery and rest could alleviate.

Gainey, who winces visibly when recognized in the streets and approached by fans, was troubled by this growing sense that so many people were feeling sorry for him. He wasn't the only person on Earth working his way through tragic circumstances, but at times it sure felt like it.

"I was talking to Ken [Dryden]at one point," he remembers, "and he said, 'You know, Bob, people all across the country are thinking of you.'

"I said, 'Well, I wish they'd stop.' "

LOOKING FORWARD

"There's a piece of me," Gainey says on this damp spring day, "that would like to turn out the lights and deal with it on my own."

But he knew he couldn't do that. His children wouldn't let him. His friends wouldn't let him. His country wouldn't let him. The name was too familiar, the story too compelling.

"You can do that," he adds, "or you can decide to stay and turn on that light and get underneath it and take that situation and turn it in another direction."

Not long after a very tough Christmas, the remaining family members - Bob, Anna, 28-year-old Stephen and Colleen, now 22 - gathered at the Stoney Lake cottage near Peterborough that has become the Gainey home, even though they are there only on holidays and rarely all together.

"We sort of huddled together to try and find some ways that would be positive of going forward with this," he says. A board of marine inquiry, carried out by officials from the Cook Islands, the South Pacific country where the Picton Castle is registered, continues.

After Cathy's death, Bob had established, with the help of Ed Arnold, a small foundation in Peterborough that helped children in need with their education. Cathy had been acutely aware of how limited their own education was and had pushed her children to excel where their parents had not.

There might, he thought, be something more they could now do in memory of both mother and daughter.

"This is our story," he says, "and it got lots of public attention. Lots of people have these stories and obviously don't get the public attention, yet they have to deal with the same things."

After the loss of Laura, he had been inundated with letters and calls from parents who had lost their own children. A young man lost on a river in Northern Quebec. A young woman lost while kayaking in Europe. So many lost to a variety of accidents. All those families were trying to work through, on their own, what the Gaineys were having such trouble getting through with help.

"There was an opportunity here," says Anna, who first talked about setting up something that might help others in similar circumstances.

Anna, who had previously worked for the Liberal Party in Ottawa, would go to Montreal and work full time on this project that is still very much in the formative stages. There were already donations flowing in from the Canadiens and other organizations, including the Ottawa Senators. They set up a website (www.gaineyfoundation.com) and, over the coming months, hope to stage fundraisers for the charity.

Something happened in those days they gathered at the lake and decided to begin looking forward with hope rather than backwards with all hope lost.

"We've been close all along," says Anna, "and we became closer after we lost our mother. But now, after losing Laura, we've gone beyond close. I don't know how to say it, but we have.

"In a way, you know, we're very lucky."

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