It was like the greatest fantasy camp ever. The Carolina Hurricanes were storming through the playoffs, and David Gove, Keith Aucoin and Craig Kowalski were along for the ride. Called up from the minor leagues as playoff reinforcements, they had no responsibilities whatsoever, except to show up for practice and watch the games from the press box.
They drank champagne from the Stanley Cup and were on the ice with it, and although they didn’t get their names on the Stanley Cup, the three young Black Aces, in hockey parlance – a pair of undersized forwards and Kowalski, a goalie – received the same rings as the other players, mementos of two months spent living the hockey life to its fullest.
So some Hurricanes fans may not immediately connect Gove’s name to the Stanley Cup season when they hear the news that a former fringe NHL player died in Pittsburgh on Thursday. But Gove was an essential, if anonymous, part of that playoff run. According to media reports, Gove, 38, was found dead of a suspected heroin overdose in Pittsburgh, leaving behind a wife and son.
“There are people that you’ve played with that you don’t remember the faces,” 2006 teammates Aaron Ward said Friday. “They just passed on through. But when you talk about making memories as a band of brothers like we did in 2006, they are included in it. I remember them. I played with a million guys at a similar time and with similar roles in team, but I remember them. They’re etched in my memory.”
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Aucoin would go on to forge an NHL career with the Hurricanes and other teams; Gove and Kowalski were largely forgotten, although not by their teammates, who were impressed by their enthusiasm and, in Gove’s case, his cheerful smile.
“He was such a likeable guy,” then-Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “Everybody liked him and he fit that role perfectly. He enjoyed the run and did what was necessary to be ready to play.”
Time is already passing too quickly for that group. Gove is the second member of the 2006 team to die, following Josef Vasicek, who was killed in a plane crash in Russia in 2011.
Gove had been head coach of the Wheeling Nailers, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ ECHL affiliate, in 2015-16 before taking a leave of absence at the start of the playoffs. He never returned to the team.
It’s unknown at this point what demons Gove battled and for how long. His Stanley Cup ring was sold at auction in November 2015 for $7,716, offering one potential waypoint. The circumstances of his death will contribute to concerns about hockey’s painkiller culture, and even if Gove’s apparent addiction was unrelated, there will certainly be others for whom easily available painkillers while playing become a gateway drug to heroin and other opiates once their career ends.
An undrafted Massachusetts native who played at Western Michigan, Gove had his only 20-goal AHL season with Lowell Lock Monsters in 2005-06, earning the playoff promotion along with Aucoin and Kowalski. Gove played two NHL games for the Hurricanes – one in 2005-06, one in 2006-07 – before moving on as a free agent.
“He was an overachiever,”then-Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said. “He wasn’t a big kid, 5-8 or 5-9. He found a way to work his way from college through a bunch of different levels, coming to our camp for a tryout, plays his way into a contract, plays in the minor leagues -- just through perseverence. He was a fast player, a quick player. He wasn’t overly talented at the minor-league level. He wasn’t like a point-per-game guy, a go-to guy.
“He was just one of those guys who endeared himself to coaches by his work ethic. That’s why we ended up bringing him up. We knew we were getting into the playoffs and we wanted people who would compete.”
He would serve as captain of the Penguins’ AHL affiliate before becoming an assistant coach in Wheeling in 2015-16 and being promoted into the head job at midseason, only to leave on the eve of the playoffs.
“I know the owner in Wheeling was helping him and working with him at that time,” Rutherford said. “I don’t know all the details. I know he was dealing with some issues, and that’s really all I know.”
That’s all anyone really knows at this point. Something was clearly wrong, and Gove was never able to get on the right side of it. For two glorious months, he was on top of the hockey world with the Hurricanes. And for that, he’ll never be forgotten.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock