The Brandon Wheat Kings had just beaten the Medicine Hat Tigers 6-3 on Monday night at the MTS Centre, taking a surprising 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final series, and the locker-room was a place of unbridled joy. Teenage kids living the dream, and winning.
It was then that Brandon's head coach and GM Kelly McCrimmon quietly approached his stud 16-year-old defenceman Ryan Pulock.
"I know what day it is tomorrow," McCrimmon whispered, below the din. "You can go home."
The day was Tuesday, March 29, the first anniversary of the worst day in Pulock's life, when his 13-year-old brother, Brock, lost his life in a car accident while the family was driving to see the oldest of three Pulock sons, Derrick, play for the hometown Grandview Comets senior hockey team.
Ryan Pulock was in the car, too, along with his mother, Tannis, and grandmother.
When they buried Brock, an unabashed fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, his classmates released 13 Leafs balloons -- each containing a handwritten message to their young friend -- into the sky. Maybe they would reach Brock, they thought.
McCrimmon isn't just the GM and head coach of the Wheat Kings. He owns the team. To the players, he's not just a man with a whistle, but a father figure who knows his young charges intimately. The horrible day, one year later, had to be honoured. Remembered.
"He knew," said David Pulock, Ryan's father, of McCrimmon. "He's a great man. He told Ryan, 'Go home to your family.' "
Pulock's story isn't one of tragedy alone. He was selected by the Wheat Kings in the seventh round of the WHL's bantam draft... as a forward. Yet not only did Pulock make the Brandon roster this season, he notched 42 points -- breaking the franchise record for 16-year-old blue-liners held by Wade Redden (39 points), who went on to become a second-overall pick of the New York Islanders in the 1995 NHL entry draft.
"We rarely think of him being 16 years old because he's so mature beyond his years, not just as a player but as a young man," McCrimmon said. "He has a lot of poise. Really mature. When he plays great he doesn't lose his composure, doesn't lose his composure when he has tougher nights. He's just really taken advantage of every opportunity put in front of him."
Family is never far away. Father David gets up at 2:30 every morning to deliver milk. At least two nights a week, he stays in Brandon, where Ryan billets with his aunt and uncle. David fondly remembers the times when Brock and Ryan played minor hockey on the same blue-line back in Grandview. After all, Brock might have been the youngest, but he was itching to be the largest.
"(Brock) was a big, tall bird with broad shoulders," David recalled. "Everybody said he was going to be the biggest in the family."
Ryan is the quiet one. Ask him about his early success on the ice -- Pulock is not even NHL draft eligible for two more seasons -- and he just shrugs. "Once I started getting used to the league it came a lot easier," he said. "Now it's just like any other game, playing hockey."
Pulock makes it sound so simple. But imagine losing your little brother, a best friend, and leaving home just a few months later -- even if Grandview is only a three-hour drive from Brandon -- and getting thrown into the toughest junior league in the world. Not just surviving, but excelling.
Given the trying circumstances, McCrimmon watched over Pulock in those early days last fall like a hawk.
"That's a tragedy that any of us who haven't been through can only imagine," he said. "We were wait-and-see with how camp went and his readiness, not just physically and his ability to make our team, but just in terms of being able to move away and meet the challenge. It was pretty apparent that he was in Brandon to make our team."
On the opening game of the season, the 6-footer started on the Wheat Kings power play. He never looked back. By mid-season, the rookie was playing 25-28 minutes a night.
But Brock is never far from his older brother's thoughts. Ryan has a tattoo of a Maple Leaf on his chest with the No. 4, Brock's number. That same number is written on the blade of every one of Ryan's hockey sticks.
"I want to make it as far as I can," Ryan said. "That's what he'd want me to do. Try to make him proud. He's in the back of my head in everything I do. All the time."
So Ryan Pulock drove back home to Grandview on Tuesday, for that awful anniversary. His family went to the cemetery, to Brock's graveside, and had "a big cry."
Then they released 13 balloons, all with the logo of Brock's beloved Maple Leafs.
Headed for the sky.