This story originally appeared in The Tri-City News.
Clay Stevenson knew everything was going to be alright when he made 39 saves and shut out the Surrey Eagles 3-0. It was his first game of the BC Hockey League season, and the second for his Coquitlam Express.
It was also his first time strapping on his goalie equipment since his mom, Holly, died by suicide just 10 days earlier.
Stevenson, in his third year with the Express, said that moment has helped propel him to the best season of his career. And his team has followed, all the way to the top of the league standings.
A middle child between two sisters, Stevenson grew up in Alberta and British Columbia after his parents split up when he was a toddler.
At 16, Stevenson finally made the decision to move in with his mom, who was living in Chilliwack at the time, as the Lower Mainland offered more opportunities and access to better coaching to pursue his hockey ambitions.
Stevenson said his mom was always supportive, even as she endured personal struggles with her sexual identity and navigated a challenging career change from dental assistant to paramedic.
When Stevenson left for 100 Mile House to play Junior B, his mom arranged to be posted in that community’s ambulance station so she could support her son and even catch some of his games between shifts.
Stevenson said her sacrifices to ensure he always had the right equipment and to get up at four in the morning so he could get to practice left an indelible mark.
“I wanted to do my best to show her that it was going to pay off.”
It wasn’t always easy, though.
After playing 25 games for the 100 Mile House Wranglers, where he posted a 3.12 goals-against average, Stevenson joined the Express for the 2017/’18 season. He won only four of the 23 games he played, and his GA average ballooned to 3.89.
Still, Stevenson said the foundations of fortitude and perseverance he learned from his mom pushed him forward.
“Everything she did, she wanted to do to the best of her capabilities,” he said. “That rubbed off on me.”
The next season, Stevenson won 14 games and cut more than half a goal from his average. The congratulatory texts from his mom and the proud postings on her Facebook page became more frequent.
“Honestly, it was a bit embarrassing, but that’s what she loved to do.”
Stevenson learned of his mom’s death after a practice.
He was watching TV with his “billet brother” at the Coquitlam home where he stays during the season when his younger sister, Brie, showed up at the front door.
Stevenson said he knew his mom had been having a difficult year, struggling with her mental health, but he never expected the news his sister delivered.
It hit him hard.
The next days were a whirlwind as family came to town and a funeral had to be arranged.
Stevenson missed a pre-season game. But on Sept. 7, he attended the Express’ regular season opener, watching his teammates from the stands.
“Going to the rink takes your mind off things,” Stevenson said. “When I come here, I know it’s going to be a normal day. Just go out there and play hockey.”
Express coach Jason Fortier said creating that sense of normalcy was key to helping Stevenson and his teammates get through the tragedy.
“We’re here to support the players in any way we can,” he said.
By Sept. 10, Stevenson said he was ready to play, saying it’s what his mom would have wanted.
“My mom loved hockey,” he said. “She wouldn’t want me to mope around.”
COURAGE & RESOLVE
Stevenson said he was nervous about how he would get through his first game knowing he would never see his mom smiling up in the stands again or receive one of her texts after a good performance. He pulled a chain through one of her rings that she often wore to twist away her anxiety and wore it around his neck.
Stevenson said that first game back after her death got easier as it went on.
“After the first period, I knew I had to be clear and present, and knowing what I had to do out there.”
He was all that and more. His shutout earned him recognition as the game’s first star. More importantly, he set an example for his team that has reverberated through the season.
“The way I was able to handle myself in that situation was a symbol of strength for my team,” he said. “We can get through anything and come out on top.”
Fortier said Stevenson’s courage and resolve to get through his first game became a bit of a rallying point for the whole team.
“It built confidence in themselves at how good they can be to help their teammate achieve something special,” he said.
The clarity Stevenson achieved in that first game hasn’t waned. He has posted 22 wins and just two losses. He has three shutouts and his goals-against average is a miserly 1.45. He was the league’s player of the month for November.
And while his mom may not be physically present at the rink or on the phone to share his success, Stevenson said he still feels her presence.
“I don’t know if I’m a spiritual guy, but I like to think she’s looking down and watching me when I’m playing,” he said, adding she may even have a hand when a shot he’s missed hits the post behind him.
“I want to keep making her proud.”