January 12, 2011

AHL Journal: Cavanagh's death stuns ex-mates

Tom Cavanagh last played for the Springfield Falcons. (photo: Dan Hickling/New England Hockey Journal)

Shock, disbelief, sorrow.

All of those emotions and more were being expressed in many corners of New England’s professional hockey community following Thursday’s tragic death of Tom Cavanagh.

Cavanagh, who starred at Harvard and later played for four AHL teams (Cleveland, Worcester, Manchester and Springfield), was found dead in a Providence parking garage, a victim of suicide. He was just 28.

Barely three months removed from his last ever shift — logged during a brief, five-game stint with the Springfield Falcons — Cavanagh left behind a host of grieving former teammates.

“It’s definitely not an easy time for us,” Springfield team captain Ben Guite said. “Just thinking about having Tommy here. He was a good man to have around. We enjoyed him in the locker room. He’s going to be missed.”

Manchester defenseman Andrew Campbell, Cavanagh’s teammate for 17 games last season, echoed the sentiment.

“It was a shock to all of us. It kind of sends chills down your spine. He was a great guy. Everyone got along with him. He went through a war with us. It takes your breath away when you hear something like this. Everyone was in shock.”

Not blessed with an abundance of speed or skill, Cavanagh did possess a wealth of grit, passion and hockey sense.

And he parlayed those qualities into a six-year professional career, out of which he squeezed more than most sixth-round draft choices (San Jose, 2001) could ever hope for.

The 18 games in which he got to skate in “The Show” (all with the Sharks). The Worcester Sharks franchise scoring record (46-92-138).

It all counted for something.

So did the unassuming way in which he conducted himself.

That counted, too.

“He was a quiet, reserved guy who kept to himself,” remembered Portland Pirates defenseman Tim Conboy, a teammate when Cavanagh was breaking in as a rookie center with Cleveland. “But I’ve played with guys who were way more (of a loner) than (him).”

Campbell found him to be much the same way, even after Cavanagh had become a little wiser in the ways of the game.

“He was a veteran guy, but you’d never know it,” Campbell said. “He was so humble. He was so calm and polite. He was just a really, really nice guy. He’d give the shirt off his back for anyone in that room.”

In the hours following Cavanagh’s passing, his father, Joe, himself a former Crimson star and the father of eight, spoke of his son’s extreme emotional struggles.

“Our son, Tom, was a young man who bravely fought the demons of mental illness for many years,” he said in a statement first printed in the Providence Journal. “This private struggle far surpassed his public athletic accomplishments. Our family will celebrate and always remember his beautiful but short life.”

Some of his former mates may have been aware of those battles, but many were not.

“He still interacted with us every day,” Conboy said. “I don’t think that anybody even knew about the mental health stuff. He was a great guy. Just talking to him and knowing him for the little time that I did, you would never expect that any of that was going on.”

No one may ever know what caused Cavanagh to take so drastic a step.

More certain is this.

Those who cared about him are left with more questions than answers.

“You never think that sort of thing is going to happen to one of your teammates,” Guite said. “It definitely touched home. Our prayers go out to his family. You think about what they have to go through.”

Around the AHL

Latest locals to earn promotion to the NHL include Providence Bruins rookie defenseman Matt Bartkowski (to Boston), Springfield goalie David LeNeveu and his blueliner teammate Grant Clitsome (both to Columbus), and Connecticut center Kris Newbury (to the Rangers).

Bartkowski’s stay with the Bruins was short-lived. He made his NHL debut Monday, logging almost 10 minutes of ice time in his hometown of Pittsburgh. But he was assigned back to Providence on Tuesday. …

Bridgeport defenseman Mark Wottonw as selected as captain for the Eastern Conference in the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic on Jan. 31 in Hershey.

Wotton and Worcester forward Jonathan Cheechoo will start for the East against the West (so long, PlanetUSA).

Other New England-based players selected for the Eastern Conference are Manchester goalie Martin Jones and defenseman Viatcheslav Voynov; Portland defensemen Drew Schiestel and forward Luke Adam; Providence defenseman Steven Kampfer; Springfield defenseman John Moore; Bridgeport forward Rhett Rakhshani; and Connecticut forward Jeremy Williams.

Dan Hickling can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com