The phone rang around 2:30 in the morning.
One of those disorienting, middle-of-the-night calls, when you grab the phone before you know where you are, before you know whether you are awake or dreaming.
It had to be the latter. The words coming from the other end of the line made no sense.
"What?!? How?!? No!"
Taylor Pyatt dropped the phone.
It is springtime in Canada, when we inevitably lose our minds about hockey, and talk about wins and losses as if they are life and death. They are, of course, nothing remotely close. And no one knows this better than Pyatt, a tall, bruising forward for the Phoenix Coyotes.
A little over a year ago, he was getting ready for a playoff run with the Vancouver Canucks, and a summer wedding to his longtime girlfriend, Carly Bragnalo.
"We were together 11 years, high school sweethearts." Pyatt says. "She was just an amazing person. She just... always made me feel comfortable. We had a great relationship."
"Everyone loved her," says Taylor's younger brother Tom, a forward with the Montreal Canadiens. "She was always happy. She loved to cook. She was always cooking up big feasts for us at the cottage."
Their cottage, in Thunder Bay, is where Taylor and Carly were to be married. But on April 2nd, 2009, just four months before the wedding, that phone call in the middle of the night changed... everything.
"We had a game at home that night against Anaheim. I just went home and had something to eat, and went to sleep. I got a call at 2:30 a.m. from Carly's brother. I was still half asleep, I didn't know what he was saying. I couldn't comprehend it. I just dropped the phone. Then I got a call about 15 seconds later from her Dad. He said Carly had been killed in a car accident. I couldn't believe it... I kept asking him over and over, 'Are you sure, are you sure?' I was in total shock."
Bragnalo was vacationing in Jamaica. She was in a taxi with her Mom and three others when the driver lost control around a corner, flipped, and hit a utility pole. Carly was the only fatality.
Taylor Pyatt sits in a dressing room at the Coyotes' arena in Glendale, Arizona, squeezing an empty water bottle over and over nervously. This is the first time he has spoken publicly about Carly's death, and his year in Hell.
He is a quiet guy at the best of times, so finding the right words is a struggle. You want to tell him you understand. Right words? They don't exist.
"It was just a devastating time for me. I got on a flight and went home right away. I was surrounded by my family for the next few weeks, but I was in total shock. The first few days, making funeral arrangements, making plans to get her back... her body back, all those sort of things you thought you would never do, especially at this point of your life. I remember asking myself, 'Are you really doing this?'"
"It felt like a bad dream," says Tom Pyatt. "I flew right home and Taylor was already there, with friends. There's not much you can say. I just gave him a big hug and told him I'd be there for him."
Taylor would spend the next three weeks in Thunder Bay, trying to figure out why the world had leveled him from behind. Answers never came.
He returned to the Canucks, just before their playoff series with Chicago, hoping to lose himself in hockey. Going to the rink, seeing the guys, trying to win games - it helped.
But once the team was eliminated, he was left alone, to a summer of mourning. And a feeling that he needed to get far, far away.
"I felt it was time to move on from Vancouver, time to turn the page, for my personal life and my career."
Pyatt was a free agent, and in the harsh world of professional hockey, he was now a bit of a risk. He was a 27 year-old budding journeyman (he had played for the Islanders and Buffalo, before Vancouver) coming off a so-so season, and he was a mess mentally. Damaged.
Only one general manager called him. Don Maloney of the Phoenix Coyotes.
"We drafted his brother Tom in New York, so I knew the family," say Maloney. "We didn't have the resources to offer him what he'd been making in Vancouver, but I wanted to see how he was doing, and tell him why this would be a great fit for him."
Phoenix was hardly a desired destination for most free agents last summer. The team was in bankruptcy court, ownerless, and hadn't made the playoffs in eight years. It seemed like a one-way ticket to hockey obscurity. And maybe that's what made it the perfect place for Taylor Pyatt.
"He was looking for a fresh start," says Maloney. "I think he looked at us in the desert being as far away from all the attention in Canada as you can imagine."
He was right.
Pyatt did need to get away. Away from everything that reminded him of his old life. Of Carly. So he became a Phoenix Coyote.
Play through pain. That's what hockey players are supposed to do, right? But there was no treatment for this. No ice bags, no pills, no rehab. It was unrelenting. Paralyzing.
"I think early on in the season I struggled quite a bit. It was much harder than I thought. Mentally, emotionally, the ups and downs of hockey can be tough by themselves. But to add on the grieving process... at times it was really difficult. If I had a tough game, in the morning I felt pretty low. I started to wonder if I should step away from the game for a bit... if my heart was still in it."
During those tough first few months, Pyatt became good friends with Keith Yandle, the Coyotes star-in-the-making defenceman. They would hang out, go to dinner, and when Pyatt was ready, talk.
"He's a quiet guy, and I didn't really know what was going on inside him. But once he got comfortable, sometimes he'd want to talk about it, and so I'd just listen. That's all you can do is be there to listen.
"I think it helped him. He started to come out of his shell. He likes to laugh, joke around. It's great to see. I'm engaged right now and I couldn't imagine what happened to him happening to me. He's a really strong kid, and a great guy."
As the season wore on, and the Coyotes started winning, hockey started to matter again to Pyatt.
"It was hard early," says Maloney. "The holidays were really hard for him. He sat out some games when he wasn't as good as he needed to be. But, the last month he's been terrific. When he's focused, he's an unstoppable force."
It's been a year now. And Taylor Pyatt is healing. Slowly.
"There was no one day that I was suddenly ready to move on," says Pyatt. "It just comes and goes, and you learn to live with it. I still struggle every day. I still think about Carly every day. But I'm not as emotional as I was. I can smile and laugh about the good times we had. I love playing hockey, and I'm excited about this team and its chances. I'm looking forward to getting that happiness and joy back in my life."