Josef Vasicek never had kids, but to see him with Skyler and Nathan Catling, you would have thought they were his own. He doted on the two boys, and they adored him.
He met them in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where Vasicek arrived to play junior hockey after leaving his native Czech Republic at 17. Skyler was 8, Nathan 7. They were big fans of the Soo Greyhounds, and Vasicek was one of the team's biggest stars. On one of his first days in Canada, they gave him a ride home from the rink, and that was all it took.
"I consider him to be like a big brother to them," said Lynn July, the boys' grandfather. "He was that good to them."
Over the next 13 years Vasicek watched Muscular dystrophy take its toll on the Catling brothers. Even when Vasicek, who played 341 games for the Carolina Hurricanes from 2000-2008, left the Soo for the NHL, he never left the Catling boys behind. He stood by them as an adult just as he had as a teenager.
The first time the boys came to visit him in Raleigh, in the spring of 2001, both boys were still walking. It wasn't long before Skyler was in a wheelchair, then Nathan as well.
They started out playing street hockey with Vasicek, and after that wasn't possible, they'd play Xbox against each other - or whatever hapless NHL player attempted, in vain, to beat them. Of the two, Skyler was quieter, more reserved - shy, even. Saying goodbye to Vasicek was always tougher for him. Nathan, the more outgoing brother, could talk his way through it. He could talk his way through anything.
The Catling brothers lived for hockey, especially their Greyhounds, but more than that, they lived for their annual trips to see Vasicek - in Carolina, on Long Island, wherever he might be playing. The boys couldn't fly, but Vasicek would foot the bills for their hotels, gas money, meals, whatever July needed to get them there.
"Lynn would let them order whatever they wanted, and they'd get it and they wouldn't eat it," said Brian Tatum, the Hurricanes' director of team services. "Their eyes were always bigger than their stomachs, so it was always fun to eat with them after games."
When they were at the rink with Vasicek, they were instant celebrities. They met just about everyone, from Soo native Ron Francis to young Penguins star Sidney Crosby. Of course, there was no bigger star in their world than Josef Vasicek.
To them, he was Howe, Orr, Lemieux and Gretzky all rolled into one, the center of the hockey universe.
"Oh, he was, no two ways about it," July said. "He was No. 1. He was a great guy. These guys don't get the credit for the things they do outside of hockey. There's a lot hidden behind the scenes. He never asked for anything. They don't come much better than Joe."
Just last spring, July wheeled the boys down to Florida, where Vasicek had purchased a condo with his fiancée, not far from former Hurricanes teammate Frantisek Kaberle.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were playing the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals, and Vasicek and Kaberle took Skyler and Nathan to the arena to watch Game 3 and meet Frantisek's brother Tomas and the other Bruins.
"Josef was always like that, an easy-going guy and a really nice person," said Tomas Kaberle, who signed with the Hurricanes this summer. "It was such a good thing from him, taking them to games right from juniors. He would take care of them all the time."
They had their picture taken with Vasicek and the Kaberles and Zdeno Chara, everyone happy and smiling and laughing.
Nathan Catling will be at the RBC Center on Friday when the Hurricanes honor Vasicek, who died in a plane crash in Russia on Sept. 7. He was 30. Four days after the crash, in Sault Ste. Marie, Skyler Catling's heart gave out. He was 21.