Saturday night, January 5, 2019, the Boston Bruins hosted the Buffalo Sabres in a crucial divisional game. This was the fourth, and final, time these two teams met in the regular season. Boston was 2-1-0 in the previous three, having won both games in Buffalo and dropped the previous game played in Boston.

For Chris Wagner, a native of Walpole, Massachusetts, the game was helping to take his mind off the loss of his maternal grandfather, Jim Phelan, who passed away on Friday morning, January 4, 2019.

“It’s been obviously a tough couple weeks for my family. We’ve been going through some struggles, especially—it’s my mom’s dad—so I feel bad for her, but, sports is a great outlet and he loved sports. It definitely meant a lot,” Wagner said after the game.

Twenty seconds into the game, you had to wonder if perhaps he had a guardian angel or was under a lucky star, because he got the first goal of the game. Like almost all hockey players he gave a little celebration for the goal—unaware that it had been disallowed—and acknowledged his grandfather.

“Yep, yeah, give him a little tribute. He’d probably be a little upset that I even acknowledged him. He’s a humble guy and I’m going to miss him a lot,” he said.

Unfortunately, the call on the ice was no goal, the result of his linemate Sean Kuraly losing his footing and running into Linus Ullmark who was in net for Buffalo. The Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy, challenged the call, which was upheld after the video review. And Wagner’s teammates felt bad for him.

“You kind of clench your teeth a little bit when the first one gets called back,” said David Backes, who was in his first game back after serving a three-game suspension.

The hockey gods, and perhaps his grandfather, were not to be denied in seeing him score and celebrate because 9:50  later he would again score the first goal of the game, an almost identical goal, and this one would count, and he again did his celebration.

“This was a special game for me. Maybe he was watching out for me, making the puck follow me around, who knows, but he was probably laughing after that first goal was disallowed,” Wagner said, a little huskiness in his voice.

It was obvious that he was taking the death of his grandfather hard, and yet there he was talking to the media after the Bruins got a 2-1 win over the Sabres—the game winning goal coming from Backes. Despite it being difficult to share, Wagner seemed to want to talk about his grandfather.

“He’d drive me around when my parents couldn’t and went to all my games and watched all these games even up till the Winter Classic the other day, so, it means a lot,” Wagner offered. “If anyone knows Norwood, he was a Norwood guy through and through, so, yeah, he watched anything, by himself, if we were playing or we weren’t—my brothers, my cousins—so, yeah, special.”

Had he not mentioned during the intermission about his grandfather’s passing, it is unlikely that anyone watching the game would have known what he was going through. And while he was clearly dialed into the game, as evidenced by his goal(s) and the six shots he had on net, he admitted his grandfather was in his thoughts.

“You think about it. You think about it on the bench too, to be honest, but then I started getting so many chances, maybe this was a night to get a couple more,” he said.

His grandfather, as Wagner said, was a humble man, and it was clear that some of that humbleness runs in Wagner’s veins as well as he talked about the disallowed goal.

“That happened so quick, I was like ‘too good to be true, that shouldn’t happen to our line,’ but then luckily we got another chance. We kept getting chances. I thought we played a pretty solid game tonight and it was nice getting off to a good start, even though that goal didn’t count,” Wagner chuckled.

For the team it was an important two points in the standings. For the individuals who make up the team, they were happy for Wagner.

“You know, Chris Wagner’s effort tonight, in the rears of his grandfather passing it—that’s a pretty special night, you couldn’t be more happy for the guy. Good for him and well deserved, and hopefully he can have a day off, more family time, and bid farewell to his grandfather,” Backes said.

“Yeah, we knew he was hurting and it was really cool, unfortunately the first one didn’t count, but just being able to follow up with another one and, as a team, we feel for him, but it was really cool to see that for him,” linemate Noel Acciari offered.

For Wagner, it was his fifth goal of the season. And while normally game pucks are saved and given to a player who has achieved a milestone such as a hat trick, Wagner was given the game puck after the Bruins victory.

“I got the game puck, so keep that one around for a couple of days,” he said after the game.

Perhaps having that puck will bring him a little comfort when he looks at it and remembers what he was able to do and to consider that his grandfather really was watching over him.

A family historian by profession, Rhonda R. McClure has loved hockey since she was a child in New Hampshire. Any opportunity to combine her love of writing, hockey and research is something she looks forward to with much enthusiasm. She's been accused of seeking out shinny games when there are no other hockey events taking place. She is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research. Follow her on Twitter at @HockeyMaven1917.


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