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Duthie: The '96 we never got to see

James Duthie
6/25/2014 11:42:46 PM
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The email dropped in my box a few weeks ago. Almost lost it in the endless stream of playoff-related info (Rangers Availability, 5:00pm, JW Marriot) and reminders from Shutterfly about my daughters' upcoming soccer practices. This note was from a friend made a few years ago, in the worst possible way you can make a friend.

Paul Frustaglio just wanted to let me know they were having a golf tournament on June 26th for his son Evan. "Drop by, if you can make it," he wrote. I couldn't. Would be in Philadelphia for the NHL Draft. So I sent along my regrets and said that I'd at least try to get a prize sent over from TSN.

"I should have remembered that was draft week," Paul wrote back. "Evan was a '96."

That's the first way every hockey parent describes his/her kid; by their abbreviated birth year. When someone asks,"What is your boy?" We know instantly what they mean. "Oh, he's a '98." 

There will be a slew of 96's who have their names called Friday night and Saturday in Philadelphia who will remember Evan Frustaglio. He was part of an elite group of Toronto area hockey players growing up. From minor atom on, he battled against top prospects like Sam Bennett, Robby Fabbri, and Josh Ho-Sang. He played on summer teams with Bennett, Sunny Milano and Connor McDavid, next year's draft prodigy. When the Grade 8 team from Vaughn's Hill Academy, a sport-focused private school north of Toronto, played its opening game in 2008, Evan scored the game's first three goals. His linemate Michael Dal Colle, a likely top-five pick Friday, scored the next six. 

"Evan had sick hands," Dal Colle says, waiting for his luggage at the Philadelphia airport. "He wasn't big but his skill level was off the charts. Great player, great guy. So sad."

Evan Frustaglio was 13 when he started to feel sick at a hockey tournament in London. His Mom, Ann-Marie brought him home after the Saturday games, thinking there was no point staying over if he wasn't likely to be better for Sunday. Don't want the flu to spread around a dressing room. And it looked like, felt like, had to be, the flu. That's what the doctor at the walk-in clinic said Sunday. "Probably just a mild virus... give him lots of fluids." 

But his parents were worried, and Paul stayed up all night watching him. The next morning, Evan told his Mom he was feeling OK, so she went off to work. Paul took the day off to stay home with Evan, and catch up on sleep. He gave his son a bath, and noticed an odd rash, but couldn't reach his family doctor to ask about it. Evan went back to bed, and Paul left the room briefly. When he called Evan's name just a few minutes later, there was no answer. Paul found him sprawled on the bathroom floor, limp. 

The rest, four years later, is still a painful blur. A panicked 9-1-1 call, the operator giving Paul instructions on how to do CPR, the medics arriving and trying to revive him. Too late.

Evan died October 26, 2009, the same day they started giving H1N1 shots to the public. That virus, the one supposed to prey on the vulnerable, the elderly and the very young, had killed a strong, healthy teenage athlete.

"It attacked his heart," Paul says. "He was... too healthy. From what they told me, the best layman's way to put it is that his heart literally beat itself to death."

Evan's death triggered H1N1 hysteria across Canada. Instantly, there were line-ups that queued for hours at immunization clinics. 

Three thousand came to Evan's wake. Hockey people, mostly. Entire teams that played with and against him. Some who did neither. Hockey is like that.

I met Paul there. He was remarkable, thanking me and everyone else over and over for coming. The ultimate Canadian, overly polite even when his world was crumbling around him. He proudly showed me the flowers Sidney Crosby had sent. Evan had touched people. You hold on to that to keep you going, I guessed. 

Doctors would thank Paul for doing interviews, for talking about Evan, for encouraging people to get immunized. That helped him a little too, he supposes.

But soon the H1N1 story faded, and the Frustaglios were left to figure out how to continue their lives without their first-born. They're still working on it. Evan's younger brother Will, a '99, was too young to grasp the loss of his best friend. It's only started to really hit him hard in the last year or two. But he's done remarkably well. He is a top student and athlete at The Hill, his brother's old school, working out everyday in the same gym as Dal Colle. Will got the size gene Evan didn't, and enters his junior draft year as a solid prospect.

Any parent who has lost a child tells you the grieving never really ends. But after four years, Paul and Anne-Marie finally felt ready to celebrate Evan's memory. So as you read this, The Hill Academy is holding the first Evan Frustaglio Memorial Golf Tournament at The Glen Eagle Golf Club near Bolton, Ontario. The school is naming its gym after Evan. Money raised from the tourney will be used to set up a scholarship, and the plan is to designate a different charity every year to support. 

Would Evan have been in Philly Friday? Would he have gotten the chance to walk up on that stage and put on some team's sweater and ballcap, while Paul and Anne-Marie and Will and aunts and uncles and friends cheered and cried a little in the stands? Useless hypothetical, I suppose. His size was starting to be an issue by the time he was a teenager, so the odds were probably against him. But with those hands, that skill, and a fearlessness to boot, who knows? A couple of growth spurts... and... maybe.

No. Was right the first time. Useless hypothetical. Paul Frustaglio would prefer to celebrate the life his son had, instead of the one that might have been. And so Friday night, he will do what he does every year.

"I will watch the draft for sure," he says. "I'm sure it will be bittersweet and a little sad this time because it is Evan's class. But these kids are great kids. Some of them I watched since they played minor novice in the North York Hockey League. I'll be incredibly happy for all of them."

Click here for more information on the golf tournament.




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