Watching from ice level as the players swirled past during warmups, Heather Oliver was overwhelmed with a sense of how much her fiance would have enjoyed this.
Sgt. Michael Cathcart loved hockey. He would have loved getting an up-close look like this, as the Carolina Hurricanes hosted the Detroit Red Wings, which made Sunday’s tribute to the fallen soldier a fitting one.
“It’s hard being here without him here,” Oliver said, wearing a camouflage Hurricanes jersey with Cathcart’s name on the back.
Cathcart, 31, was killed in action last month in Afghanistan while serving with the 3rd Special Forces Group. Sunday, the Hurricanes honored the life and service of a man they came to know, in a way only they could honor him: as one of their own.
Cathcart and the Hurricanes came to know each other by chance. Last year, the Hurricanes joined a charitable drive to keep Fort Bragg’s Cleland Ice Rink open. The culmination of their effort was a practice on the base in February, and Cathcart was invited to join the team for that practice.
Cathcart, who did two tours in Iraq and was badly injured in the second, was just a recreational player, but he skated on a line with Jeff Skinner and Riley Nash, even scoring a goal on Cam Ward.
“When he got to skate with them, he was so excited,” Oliver said. “He kept sending me all these pictures. He scored a goal. He led the stretch. He loved the Hurricanes.”
Cathcart grew up a Red Wings fan in Bay City, Mich., but wherever his service took him, he adopted the local team as well – the Nashville Predators while stationed in Tennessee, and later the Hurricanes, even before his personal experience with them.
It was a two-way street. The Hurricanes’ bond with Cathcart was different. Strong. When they heard of his death on Nov. 14, killed by small-arms fire while conducting combat operations in Kunduz Province, they wanted to do something special in his honor.
“Losing a man like him is a terrible loss for his family and friends and within our room, too,” Hurricanes defenseman John-Michael Liles said. “He was a great guy, and we only got to know him for a day. I’m sure if we would have gotten to know him better it would have been pretty amazing.”
Ahead of a memorial service at Fort Bragg on Monday, the Special Forces Charitable Trust paid for members of Cathcart’s family to travel to Raleigh and attend Sunday’s game between Cathcart’s childhood team and his adopted team. Soldiers from his unit joined them there, so many of them that the Hurricanes needed two luxury suites to accommodate everyone.
Hurricanes players Justin Faulk, Tim Gleason and Liles, three American defensemen, paid for the two suites. For Liles, it was particularly personal. His brother is in the Navy, a navigator on sub-hunting planes, and his brother-in-law did three tours in Iraq.
“That phone call can come any day,” Liles said. “Unfortunately for his family, it did.”
Before the game, Cathcart’s mother, Jeanne, stood between his sister Trishia, Oliver and two members of Cathcart’s unit in their dress blues at center ice for the ceremonial puck drop. She dropped it between the sticks of Eric Staal and Henrik Zetterberg, who each hugged the women before shaking the soldiers’ hands.
The color guard from Cathcart’s unit presented the colors for the anthem. During a first-period timeout, a scoreboard tribute concluded with a live shot of the suites and a prolonged ovation from the crowd.
“It’s fitting for him, this kind of tribute,” Oliver said. “Especially the Red Wings and Hurricanes. It’s definitely fitting.”
After the game, the group visited the Hurricanes’ locker room to meet with the players who had gotten to know him, if only briefly, as both a hockey fan and a hero.