Editor’s note: Edmonton Oilers forward Colby Cave died on April 11, after suffering a brain bleed earlier in the week. He was 25. His wife, Emily, shares her story here, as told to ESPN’s Emily Kaplan.
When the hockey season paused for coronavirus, Colby and I returned to Canada. He was playing for Bakersfield at the time, the Oilers’ AHL affiliate in California, meaning we had to quarantine for 14 days after crossing the border. When we landed in Toronto, my parents picked us up at the airport with this cute convoy of family and friends. Everyone lined up their cars to social distance, and they brought along “Welcome Back to Canada” signs.
Since my parents’ house in Ontario has a basement apartment, our plan was to stay there and quarantine. Colby and I had been married for nine months. This wasn’t how I imagined our first year of marriage going, but at least we were together.
On Monday, April 6, everything was normal. At 9 p.m., Colby had an Instagram Live interview with a friend from Hillsong, the church we attended when we lived in Boston. When he finished his interview, he had a call from Oilers assistant GM Keith Gretzky. Keith told him, “When the NHL returns, we’re going to have you come, Black Ace.” It makes me so happy that Colby knew that. He was going back up to the Oilers, and he’d be an injury away from playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Keith was actually the last person to talk to Colby, besides me.
At 11 p.m., Colby started complaining of a headache. He said he was in a lot of pain. Colb was never sick. He didn’t get the flu, never caught a cold, he was the epitome of health. I messaged my sister, who is a nurse, and started looking things up on Google. Colby said, “It’s probably just a migraine.” I remember saying, “What if it’s not a migraine, Colb? What if it’s a tumor?” He calmed me down and told me it probably wasn’t that.
But through the night, he got significantly worse. He got up and vomited about four times, but then would fall back to sleep. I took his temperature at 6:30 a.m. and knew he really wasn’t well. He was mumbling, I couldn’t really make sense of it. I put on a mask and gloves and ran upstairs to my parents and told them, “Something’s wrong with Colb. I feel it in my gut.” By the time the ambulance got there, he was hypothermic and completely unresponsive.
It was so fast, so traumatic. Colby was airlifted to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto and underwent surgery to remove a colloid cyst from his brain. I wasn’t allowed to be with him for any of it. Within 14 hours of Colb first saying he had a headache, I was told my 25-year-old husband was on life support. It wasn’t until Thursday, when the doctor told me that Colby probably wasn’t going to make it, that I was finally allowed into his hospital room, to physically be with him one last time, to tell him goodbye.
I fell in love with Colby for many reasons, but most important was his character. He wasn’t just a good person, he was incredible. He always wanted to help other people. Every morning we had a mantra that we would say to each other: “Be somebody that makes everybody feel like a somebody.” That’s how Colby and I lived. And even though he’s no longer physically here with me, I know we are together, working as a married couple, and he’s giving me strength from heaven to continue to inspire and help other people.
It’s why I decided to share his story, and our story. I can’t say it’s easy. A lot of the time it feels unbearable. I miss him more than words can describe, and it’s still hard to process what all happened. But I decided if I wasn’t vulnerable, if I wasn’t honest about PTSD and grief, if I wasn’t open about our story, I couldn’t continue to be the wife who Colby married.
It’s funny because I wasn’t interested in Colby at first. It was 2013, and Colby was in the WHL, the captain of the Swift Current Broncos. He found me on Instagram, we must have had mutual friends, and he liked my pictures and DM’d me for two years. Apparently he called me his Instagram crush in the locker room. He even told one of his teammates he was going to marry me one day. I had no idea who he was.
I didn’t really give him the time of day at first. I was busy doing my own thing. He lived in another province. Plus, I didn’t really want to get involved with the hockey lifestyle. Even though I’m Canadian, I really didn’t know much about hockey; I knew that the puck goes in the net, but that’s about it. I couldn’t tell you what offsides was or how penalties worked, nothing.
One day, I liked one of Colby’s photos with him and his two little billet sisters [of the family with whom he was living while in the WHL]. He messaged me again: “Finally, I got your attention.” We started talking from there. Those two girls actually became the flower girls in our wedding.
I wouldn’t meet Colby in person at first because I was too scared, so we had FaceTime dates. After a few conversations, I could see his character come through. He was so polite and had this presence about him. He was always asking questions about me. He was thoughtful, sometimes just texting: “Hey, I hope you’re having a great day.” He would call me his “little world changer.”
In 2015, I finally visited him. He told me that day he was going to marry me. I played it cool, but when I ended up flying back, I told all my friends and family, “I’m going to marry this guy.”
We had a long-distance relationship for two years, which was a pain with the hockey schedule, but we always made it work. Colby’s second year in the AHL in Providence, he was roommates with Matt Grzelcyk. After Colby passed, Matt and I texted each other: “love you roomie.” I was there so much, I felt like their roommate too.
In 2017, Colby and I finally were able to live in the same place. I had finished my internship and moved to Providence for the 2017-18 season. In 2018, after the hockey season ended, we got engaged.
Colby’s career was just starting to take off. The following season he was called up to the Bruins right away. He moved back and forth between the AHL and NHL, but he never took a call-up for granted. And any time he was sent down, there was never any anger. He would just say, “OK, I’m going to go down and work harder.” I always admired his humility.
He was picked up on waivers during the middle of the 2018-19 season by the Oilers. I’ve heard guys on all four teams for which Colby played — Providence, Boston, Edmonton, Bakersfield — tell me some version of the same story. When a guy got called up, Colby would be the first teammate to text him good luck. When a guy got sent down, Colby would be the first teammate to message him something like, “Don’t worry about it, man. You’ll be back in the NHL soon.” Even when he was fighting for his dream, he was supporting other people’s dreams.
I’ll never forget the last game Colby played. He was in Bakersfield. I got sushi with two of the girlfriends before the game. We usually sat up in box seats, but one of the girls had tickets for ice level, so we decided to watch from there. I had never been that close to the ice before. Colby scored, and I was just so excited I was screaming and cheering like crazy.
During intermission, one of the staff members told Colb, “You should have seen how happy Emily was after your goal.” Colby said, “Darn it, I wish I knew she was sitting there, I wish I turned around and saw that.”
When Colby and I realized the hockey season was going to be on hold for a while, we decided to binge a long TV show. We started “Grey’s Anatomy.” When situations happened in the show — a patient was on life support, decisions needed to be made on organ donations — Colby and I had all of these hypothetical discussions on how we would want it handled. Those are conversations we probably wouldn’t have had for a while. A 25-year-old and 26-year-old usually don’t talk about those types of things.
But when Colby was in the hospital, I knew exactly what he wanted. Everything happened so fast, and because of COVID-19, I wasn’t allowed to be with Colby in the ambulance, in the helicopter or even in his room. When I was invited to the critical care floor of the hospital in Toronto, I was met by a neurosurgeon, a critical care doctor, a critical care nurse, a spiritual counselor, and a life support person.
Looking back, it all still doesn’t feel real. I continue to go over those four days, again and again, to piece together a timeline; I was in shock during a lot of this. They told me Colby had a 50% chance of waking up, but you could tell it was a lot lower than that because of where the cyst was and the damage that was already done.
I remember begging the doctors to tell me he was going to wake up. “He’s going to wake up, right?” There would be a dead silence after every time I kept saying it on repeat. It was all I could manage to get out of my mouth.
It was so hard not being with Colby through his four days in the hospital. After his surgery, we were told we weren’t allowed to come back because of COVID restrictions. I begged them again to lock me in his room, that I would wear a diaper, that I wouldn’t leave or eat or anything, but I wasn’t allowed to go in and touch him.
I remember that night, before I left to head home, I had just gone to the bathroom, and in the hallway I saw him being wheeled back. He was maybe a few meters away from me, and I wanted to run over and hold his hand because I hadn’t seen him or touched him since they rolled him by me to get him into the helicopter back in Barrie. The critical care team actually stopped him, so that I wouldn’t go closer or touch him, and I was pushed back into the family room with the door shut and watched him roll by through a tiny window. This haunts me multiple times a day. It’s not their fault; it was a really tense and careful time to be in a hospital.
I once thought I didn’t want to date Colb because of how intimidated I was by the hockey community. Now I can’t imagine how I would survive without it. So many of Colby’s former or current teammates and coaches — and so many who never got the chance to play with him — have supported me and our family through this.
David Backes and his wife, Kelly, set up daily Zoom prayer groups with other athletes during those four days, praying for a miracle. We haven’t been able to hold a funeral for Colby yet, but I’ve already asked David to speak at it because he was an incredible mentor to Colby. I know Colby admired him so much.
Wendy, Dave Tippett’s wife, and Julie, Bruce Cassidy’s wife, have been so phenomenal to me. I tried to keep everyone updated, but as I got news, I sometimes just told them, because I know they could funnel the information to everyone who needed it.
At one point in time, I had 80 bouquets of flowers at my parents’ house; every NHL team sent something. I had flowers from the officials, the WHL, the AHL, the NHL. We felt so much love from the hockey family. I am so proud of the impact Colby had.
Shortly after Colby passed, the Oilers told me they wanted to start a fund in Colby’s honor and asked what I would like proceeds to go to. As a hockey wife, you put everything on hold, and I can’t thank them enough for giving me a purpose to continue Colby’s legacy alongside the hockey community.
The Colby Cave Memorial Fund supports community programs involving mental health and will help underprivileged children with access to sports. Since we were married only a year, we didn’t have a chance to have kids yet, but I know Colby would have been an incredible dad. That’s one thing I’ll miss the most, but I know he’ll help so many kids through the foundation.
One of Colby’s teammates, Cooper Marody, reached out and wanted to write a song for Colby. I shared some stories and words Colby and I used to say to each other. The song is called “Agape,” and it’s absolutely beautiful.
Because of COVID, I wasn’t able to see a lot of people right after Colby passed. For five weeks, I was in my parents’ house, and people would come to drop off food or gifts but leave right away. The first people I was actually able to hug other than my immediate family were Connor McDavid and his girlfriend, Lauren. Just being able to hug them, be with them, regain a little normalcy, meant so much.
During Colby’s four days at the hospital, we reached out to family members and both the Bruins and Oilers, and started collecting videos of people to tell Colby to wake up. I put them all on his iPad. The plan was to drop the iPad off for the nurse to play for him since he wasn’t allowed any visitors. Unfortunately, we never got the video to him. I still have the slideshow, though; it has more than 100 videos, hockey players and coaches, from all around the world, telling Colby: “Wake up.”
I’m not ready yet, but one day I hope I will be able to listen to them all. When I was putting it together, there were some incredible stories people were sharing about Colby, and those are memories I want to live with forever.