GLENDALE, Ariz. — Dec. 1, 2011, was an off day in Oklahoma City. Then-Barons forward Gilbert Brulé was home alone, except for the company of some distant and painful memories.
He already had spoken with his mom, Lori Johnson, the only living person who truly could understand his current feelings. So he lit a fire in his backyard, built a tiny cross, said a few words and then tossed the cross into the fire.
He wasn’t praying for an end to the rash of injuries, illnesses and minor league stints that had stunted his playing potential — potential that made him the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first-round pick (sixth overall) in the 2005 draft.
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He wasn’t praying for a rebirth with the Phoenix Coyotes, who claimed him from Edmonton off re-entry waivers in early January.
This moment wasn’t about him at all.
"It was more like a little ritual," Brulé said. "Just a way of remembering."
Fifteen years earlier, on that same day, a 9-year-old Brulé was at General Motors Place (now Rogers Arena) in Vancouver for a Disney on Ice show when he got called to a nearby hospital. Several family members were waiting for him with life-altering news.
His sister, Leah, had died after a 12-year battle with cerebral palsy.
"Gilbert just dropped to his knees," Johnson said. "It was hard for him to accept it."
Leah Brulé was born with CP, a condition caused by damage to the motor control centers of the developing brain. CP limits movement and often is accompanied by sensation, vision and communication impairment.
Leah was confined to a wheelchair for most of her life, but that’s not the snapshot Brulé carries in his mind — and on a large tattoo that covers his right shoulder.
"I remember pushing her in a wheelchair one day and I wanted to go really fast," Brulé said. "I did, and I turned too fast and the wheelchair flipped over. I think she landed almost on her head.
"I was terrified. I was so worried that I had hurt her badly, but I guess she didn’t hit very hard because when I looked at her she was laughing."
That’s the daughter Johnson remembers, too.
"For some reason, every little knock she took or bad word she heard would make her laugh," Johnson said. "I know it was a terrible scene when she passed and it was hard on Gilbert, but I still try to remember all the good things. She always had a smile on her face. How could you not be happy around her? It was contagious. It took away any sort of burden you felt."
That contagion spread to others.
"One hundred people came to her funeral, and the girl never even talked," Johnson said. "It’s amazing that she had that kind of connection with people. I was told what to expect from doctors but as she grew and developed, I thought, in some ways, ‘I don’t believe them.’ She didn’t have droopy eyes and an off-to-the-side head. She looked right at you and she could easily follow the puck when Gilbert was skating."
Johnson knew from Leah’s physical appearance that something wasn’t right at birth. But she didn’t find out Leah had CP until she got a phone call from a doctor while she was at a friend’s house.
"I remember sitting on a staircase in someone else’s house, trying to comprehend it," she said. "What really captured my attention was the question: What’s going to happen with this young girl? What kind of life can we give this girl?"
Johnson and Gilbert’s father disagreed on the best course of care — a disagreement that led to their divorce and her decision to move with her kids from Edmonton to Vancouver, where she had the support of her sister and other family members.
"It entailed restructuring my whole life, and it’s not a life like anybody else’s," she said. "You’re put into a scene with a rotating front door of nurses coming in and out, professional physiotherapists. You don’t have your own space and you don’t have any time. The only free time I had was to go to work. I barely had time to buy the groceries."
Brulé never complained. His admiration for his mother just grew.
"I love my mom even more as I’ve gotten older and understand what she did," he said. "She basically sacrificed her whole life to take care of my sister and me."
Brulé calls Johnson every Dec. 1, and he brought her to tears two years ago when he told her he had tattooed Leah’s smiling face on his shoulder, along with Roman numerals to signify the years of her birth and death.
Brulé has been a nice addition to the Coyotes since being claimed on Jan. 10. He assisted on their first goal in Tuesday night’s victory over Dallas, giving him five points (three goals, two assists) in 11 games. And while the storyline on his NHL career has been dominated by talk of untapped potential, injuries and that fateful day when he picked up hitchhiking U2 lead singer Bono on a rainy day in West Vancouver, Brulé has a far different perspective.
"Sometimes, you think you’re having a bad day but really, in retrospect, it’s nothing compared to what (Leah) was going through," he said. "That gives me a lot of hope, and I guess I’m more positive because I can see how things really are for me in life and how they can be.
"I’m playing hockey for a living. Maybe things haven’t gone how I hoped they would so far, but I’m playing hockey. How can that be a bad thing?"