ST. LOUIS - What would Mandi think?
That’s what went through Jaden Schwartz’s mind as he prepared to skate onto the ice in this Stanley Cup final, wearing her number 17, with her initials stamped on his stick.
It’s been eight years since Jaden lost his sister, Mandi, to leukemia at the age of 23, but there is never a moment she isn’t with him.
“This was her dream growing up,” Jaden said. “This was our family’s dream. And I’m living it. I know she’s watching up there somewhere and she’s excited.
“This is all for her.”
The Schwartz family can’t help but feel Mandi’s fingerprints on this magical St. Louis Blues run. Like the Blues, who were in 31st place on Jan. 3, Jaden has turned around the worst season of his NHL career to lead St. Louis in goals (12) and points (18) this postseason.
“I see a lot of Mandi here now,” said Jaden’s father, Rick. “Every time I see a shift, I think, what would she think of him scoring in the Stanley Cup?”
Jaden, 26, became the first player in more than a decade to net two hat tricks in a single Stanley Cup playoff this spring. He is on the short list of Blues candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy, but has been held to two assists in the first three games of the final. He’ll be counted on to help knot this best-of-seven series in Game 4 on Monday night.
But Jaden might not even have been the best hockey player in the Schwartz household.
That title could have belonged to Mandi.
That’s saying something, because Jaden’s older brother, Rylan, is also a pro player. Rylan made it to Team Canada’s U-18 camp with the likes of Steven Stamkos, Alex Pietrangelo and Michael Del Zotto. He signed with the San Jose Sharks out of Colorado College and is still playing in Germany’s top pro league.
“She was better than all of us growing up,” said Blues forward Brayden Schenn, who has played with or against Jaden and Rylan since he was 10.
Mandi was the trailblazer. The oldest of the three siblings, Mandi represented Saskatchewan at the Canada Winter Games. She was the reason the Schwartzs moved to Wilcox, Sask., to play at the famed Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in the early 2000s, at a time opportunities for women’s hockey players weren’t teeming. Yale University plucked Mandi from the Hounds.
“She looked up to the boys, but I know it was the other way around,” Rick said.
Mandi was nearly halfway through her junior season at Yale when Rick and Carol Schwartz got the call. Rick will never forget the date she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia – Dec. 9, 2008 – because it’s his birthday.
She dug in and fought, because that’s what Mandi did.
“She was a very good player, her work ethic was honestly to die for,” Rick said. “She didn’t ever want to let somebody have that puck. She was a nice kid, but you put the skates on her and it’s like something switched on.”
But Mandi could not find a suitable match for a potentially life-saving bone marrow transplant. The entire Schwartz family got tested. Through it all, her smile never diminished.
“Mandi didn’t have a lot of time,” Rick said. “It’s a one-in-130 million shot and there are only usually 33 million people on the registry. It’s like trying to find a needle in the haystack.”
They tried every avenue, including a cord blood stem cell transplant. But her cancer returned in Dec. 2010, while Jaden was playing for Team Canada at the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo.
Mandi died on April 3, 2011 in Regina. She never got to graduate from Yale, or see Jaden make his NHL debut with the Blues later that season. She was just 23.
“She was robbed of so many things, which is hard to reconcile as a parent,” said Rick, his eyes welling in a Boston hotel lobby last week.
Rick says he sees that same “hurt” in Jaden and Rylan “all the time.” It never goes away.
“Every day,” Jaden says. “It’s hard on you at times. It’s sad at times, but you want to try and cherish the moments and memories you have with her. It’s tough to put into words. We miss her every day. She was everything to us.”
What keeps the Schwartzs going is what Mandi meant to everyone else.
Mandi’s No. 17 jersey still hangs in her stall at Yale, where a scholarship was funded in her name. Jaden switched from No. 9 to No. 17 shortly after Vladimir Sobotka left the Blues in 2014.
That year, the entire Blues team diverted from a New York road trip and took a bus to Yale for annual White Out for Mandi game. It remains one of the largest attended women’s hockey games in the history of Ingalls Rink.
Known as the “glue guy” who is “[bleeping] hilarious,” Schenn said Jaden doesn’t open up much about Mandi in the dressing room. But the Blues have his back.
“You just do what you can to help him through the tough days,” said Schenn.
So far, more than $300,000 has been raised for cancer equipment and other charities in Saskatoon through the annual Run for Mandi event.
Mandi lives on in the lives she’s touched.
Both Yale and the Blues have held Be the Match drives in which fans swab their cheek and register for the international bone marrow registry. It takes five seconds.
“More than 7,500 people have been swabbed because of Mandi,” Rick said. “Those swabs have directly saved 59 lives. That is incredible.”
Hockey remains the best diversion for Rick, who is a program coordinator at the Saskatchewan Safety Council, and Carol, who works for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice.
“For me, it’s really difficult to think about Mandi a lot of the time,” Rick said. “The boys keep me going. Watching hockey, I think, ‘Man, we’re lucky to have this.’”
But like a lot of Blues fans, Rick and Carol weren’t counting on a playoff run. They don’t like to be home around the anniversary of Mandi’s passing every April, so they booked a trip to Hawaii this year, banking the Blues wouldn’t make it.
Rick and Carol watched the Blues take on the Winnipeg Jets in Game 1 from an airport bar.
“I told Jaden, ‘You went from last place to the playoffs, anything can happen,’” Rick said.
Jaden knocked out the Jets with a hat trick in the clinching Game 6. He scored four more goals against both the Stars and Sharks. His 12 goals are the most in one playoffs by a Blues player since Brett Hull bagged 13 in 1990.
Mandi has been there the entire time. How else to explain Jaden’s explosion, from a six per cent shooting season to 19.3 per cent in the playoffs?
Or that the Blues are facing Boston, of all teams, where the Schwartzs found so much love and support right down the road from Yale?
The stars seem to be aligning, allowing the Schwartzs to dream about what might still be instead of wonder about what might have been.
“What a scene that would be if Jaden gets to hold up the Cup,” Rick said. “I would love to see his reaction, knowing that Mandi is there with him. That would be priceless.”
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli