Life-changing injury, nights in the hospital made Kevin Hayes a fit for Philly

Life-changing injury, nights in the hospital made Kevin Hayes a fit for Philly

Kevin Hayes remembers the days and nights in the hospital.

Those were dark doses of reality.

Life-altering times.

He didn’t have them when he arrived at Boston College in 2010. Hayes, 18 years old then, was just taken in the first round of the NHL entry draft by the Blackhawks and was joining his older brother Jimmy Hayes with the Eagles.

Boston College is about a 15-minute drive from the Noble and Greenough School, where Hayes was a force at the prep level. As B.C. recruited his brother, it built a seamless connection with Hayes, who was a growing center with natural ability.

“I went to that school as a first-round draft pick, thought I was super cool. It turned quickly,” Hayes said last month in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I had a very average first year, very average second year and realized that it was going to take a lot more work.”

More work than he ever imagined.

It would take the feeling of nearly losing it all.

(Chris Szagola/AP Images)

Following his “very average” freshman and sophomore seasons, Hayes was playing a home game against UMass Lowell on Feb. 26, 2013. During the second period, he took a knee to his left leg. Hayes was in the hospital by the end of the night.

“It was compartment syndrome and I popped all my blood vessels,” he said.

His junior season was over, his hockey career suddenly up in the air.

“There was some question of whether he would ever play hockey again,” Boston College head coach Jerry York said during a July phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “It was a major surgery to his quad muscle in his left thigh — it just kind of blew up on him.”

Hayes spent multiple weeks in the hospital and underwent multiple surgeries.

An unexpected nightmare put his whole future in jeopardy.

To this day, he is thankful for the night of Feb. 26, 2013, and that hospital bed.

It was probably the worst best thing that's ever happened to me in my life. It definitely changed me as a human being. Everyone says the words, 'Don't take things for granted' — it's pretty easy to say, but you don't really realize anything until things that matter to you get taken away. That was the case for probably about four, five months my junior year. I decided since then, I was going to change the way I live my life — be a better teammate, be a better friend, be a better son, be a better brother, be a better person. It was probably the worst two months of my life but in the long run, it was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me.

I'm a true believer in you need your own little community to get through life and I had a great one — family, friends, coaches, Coach York, couple of roommates, couple of buddies from home, my brother Jimmy. It's crazy, you sit in a hospital bed for 23 days and you don't realize how many people come and visit you, and you don't realize what you almost could have lost.

(Chris Szagola/AP Images)

Who knows if Hayes would ever have found his way to the Flyers this summer if it were not for that injury at Boston College.

“In retrospect, it was probably the best thing that could happen to him in his career because he was probably on the line to sign after his junior year,” York said. “That kind of put everything in slow motion — it was the catalyst to send him back to B.C. for his fourth year. Then he just blossoms and he really became a player.”

Hayes was back for his senior year.

"I didn't have a choice,” he said.

Good thing he didn’t.

A determined Hayes alongside a diminutive Johnny Gaudreau made up college hockey’s most prolific duo in a special 2013-14 season. Gaudreau, a junior, led the nation in scoring with 80 points (36 goals, 44 assists) through 40 games, while Hayes was second with 65 points (27 goals, 38 assists) in 40 games.

The two were a combined plus-76.

“I got to play with Johnny and we kind of took off from there,” Hayes said. “I don't think I would be where I am today if that injury didn't happen.

“I was thankful that it happened in the weirdest way possible.”

The Eagles went 28-8-4 but fell short in the Frozen Four semifinal at the Wells Fargo Center, losing to Shayne Gostisbehere and eventual national champion Union College.

“Johnny was just hitting his stride going into his junior year,” York said. “Johnny had a chance to leave after his sophomore year, so he decided to stay through his junior year and with Kevin his senior year, boy, they were dynamic together. I always would like to see them at some point in their professional careers get back together, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen.”

You never know.

"Terrific players for B.C., but together, they were a package that was so hard to handle for anybody,” York said. “They just continued to get better. John has gone on to become a legitimate NHL All-Star and I think Kevin's on his way to that level. They were fun to coach — on and off the ice, I enjoyed both young guys."

(Chris Szagola/AP Images)

Little was York aware that he was actually getting to know two of his future players when he had a home visit with the Hayes family as Boston College was recruiting Jimmy Hayes.

“Kevin must've been in seventh or eighth grade, maybe even a little younger than that,” York said. “He was just kind of hanging around the house and chatting with us. I had no idea he was going to turn out to be this type of player.”

As Jimmy committed to the Eagles, York and his staff kept an eye on Kevin, the younger brother by two and a half years.

“It was obvious to any knowledgeable hockey person that he had size, he could skate, good with the puck,” York said. “What impressed me the most was just his instincts of the game — when to pass, how to get open. Just a natural feeling for the game of hockey. A lot of us call it hockey sense or hockey IQ, but he had that. He had the skating and the size to go with it. We actively recruited him after watching him play."

York, college hockey’s all-time winningest coach with over 1,000 victories, molded Hayes through an environment at Boston College that emphasized qualities greater than the sport.

“When you go to that school, Jerry York wants to win games, but he cares more about graduating and leaving that way as a professional person, instead of a professional athlete,” Hayes said. “He taught me a lot — whether it was my family teaching me things or Coach York, it's stuff that has stuck with me to this day. 

“How to treat people, how to act the right way in front of teammates, in front of coaches, in front of fans. That school was the best four years of my life and I go back there to this day."

(Matt Rourke/AP Images)

In the summer following his huge senior year, Hayes signed with the Rangers as a free agent. He played his first four NHL seasons in New York under Alain Vigneault and developed into a 200-foot player with untapped offensive potential.

When Chuck Fletcher decided to pursue Hayes as the Flyers’ big acquisition this summer, the general manager did his homework. Adding Hayes would mark a major investment for the franchise in Fletcher’s first offseason as GM. He made sure the decision was calculated and thorough. In an effort to expedite the Flyers’ process to contention (and brighten the future), Fletcher traded for Hayes’ contractual rights during June before signing the 6-foot-5 center later that month.

The deal: A headline-grabbing seven years, $50 million.

A part of Fletcher’s research was contacting York.

One of the key things I know, when Chuck Fletcher talked to me, he went back through history — because that's a big commitment for the Flyers. They were convinced that Kevin had the character and the drive to really become a key player in their organization. I fully backed Chuck in his rationale to sign Kevin.

I've known Chuck for a long time. Two of his children now are at Boston College, so he's got a good connection to us. He's a knowledgeable hockey person. When I talked to him, I was 100 percent with Kevin. I think he's a remarkable young man, great teammate, good character — he's a consummate pro when I look at him.

Fletcher and the Flyers liked a lot about Hayes — from his age to his do-it-all game and tough-to-play-against makeup.

The GM’s vision for acquiring Hayes was validated with the help of York’s recommendation.

"I've known Jerry for over 30 years since he was coaching at Bowling Green in the 80s,” Fletcher said last month in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I knew Jerry knew Kevin as well as anybody, having recruited him to come play at Boston College, coached him for four years, helped develop him into the player that he's become.

"He was one of my first calls when we were doing our due diligence to find out about Kevin, the background with him, his family, how he was at school, how he was with his teammates. Certainly Jerry gave a very strong endorsement."

Hayes played 15:44 minutes per game in parts of five seasons with New York. He scored a career-high 25 goals in 2017-18 and a personal-best 55 points last season between time with the Rangers and Jets. With the Flyers, he’s primed for his biggest role yet. Many believe Hayes is only scratching the surface at 27.

"I think he can take another step,” York said. “He's a really good professional player now, but I think he gets to that elite level, I really do.

“His compete level is very good. Just his desire to become the very best Kevin Hayes he can be, it's right there. You're going to notice that when you see him more. He really wants to become the very best player he can be — he's got that drive.”

It was one of many reasons why the Flyers were drawn to the multifaceted Hayes.

“We feel he's still evolving, he's 27 years old, he's played only five years in the NHL,” Fletcher said. “He played all four years at Boston College, so he turned pro a little bit later. I still think every player can continue to evolve, particularly as you gain more experience in the league and learn the league and find out how your game translates. 

“The great thing about Kevin is we're not going to judge him just by his offensive production, but by how he can impact our penalty kill, how he can help us defensively through the middle of the ice and how he just gives us more depth. He's the right player for our team at this time."

(David Banks/USA Today Images)

Hayes is “ecstatic” to be with the Flyers. He can call Philadelphia home, finally with long-term security in his NHL career. He earned his contract and wants to make the most of it. As a Northeast guy, from growing up in Boston and playing in New York, Hayes understands a passionate market like Philly.

Along with the city, the chance to reunite with Vigneault was attractive.

So, too, were the talent and fit.

"I don't want to trash anything that's happened to me in the past in the NHL, but I think this will be the first year where every single night, I'm playing with elite players,” Hayes said at the beginning of training camp. “I've played with some good players in the past, but where my game is at right now personally, and playing with the guys I assume I'm going to be playing with, I think it's going to be an unbelievable year.

“I think the fans should be excited — I think they're excited, some of them might not be too excited — but I feel great, this is the best I've ever felt and probably the most in shape, most excited I've ever been in my hockey career."

And when Hayes ever feels the pressure, he can remember what he almost lost.

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2020 NHL draft lottery: Rangers win No. 1 pick, also known as the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes

2020 NHL draft lottery: Rangers win No. 1 pick, also known as the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes

The Metropolitan Division was pretty loaded in 2019-20.

On Monday night, it got even better for the 2020-21 season.

That's because the Rangers won the first overall pick in Phase 2 of the 2020 NHL draft lottery. Alexis Lafreniere, a 6-foot-1, 193-pound winger, is the consensus No. 1 pick. The 18-year-old is a dynamic scorer who put up 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games for the QMJHL's Rimouski Oceanic during the 2019-20 season.

In the 2019-20 NHL regular season, four Metropolitan Division clubs (Capitals, Flyers, Penguins, Hurricanes) had top-10 point percentages and six (Capitals, Flyers, Penguins, Hurricanes, Islanders, Blue Jackets) finished among the top 15. The Rangers, not exactly lacking talent (Artemi Panarin is a Hart Memorial Trophy finalist and Mika Zibanejad scored 41 goals), were in the top 20 but bowed out of the NHL's return-to-play 24-team tournament during the best-of-five qualifying round.

Not only is the Metropolitan Division deep, but it has also landed some big picks in recent past. In the 2019 draft, the Devils took Jack Hughes No. 1 overall and the Rangers selected Kaapo Kakko No. 2 overall. In the 2018 draft, the Hurricanes nabbed Andrei Svechnikov with the second overall pick, while the 2017 draft saw Nico Hischier go No. 1 to the Devils and Nolan Patrick No. 2 to the Flyers.

With the 2020 draft tentatively scheduled for Oct. 9-10, the Rangers are expected to add Lafreniere to a young, building picture. For Flyers fans, New York landing the No. 1 pick was probably the lesser of two evils. The Penguins had as fair of a chance (12.5 percent) at Lafreniere but the Rangers were the lucky ones to have their ping-pong ball selected.

The Flyers are happy to not be worrying about the lottery. They open the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Wednesday as the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed.

Below is the 2020 draft order for the first 15 picks, while the remaining 16 first-round selections will be determined by the results of the playoffs.

1. Rangers
2. Kings
3. Senators
4. Red Wings
5. Senators
6. Ducks
7. Devils
8. Sabres
9. Wild
10. Jets
11. Predators
12. Panthers
13. Hurricanes
14. Oilers
15. Penguins

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Flyers Talk podcast: What to like and dislike about Canadiens matchup

Flyers Talk podcast: What to like and dislike about Canadiens matchup

On the latest Flyers Talk podcast, NBC Sports Philadelphia's Brooke Destra and Jordan Hall discuss everything about the team's first-round matchup with the Canadiens.

From our series X-factors to the importance of Jakub Voracek's status, let's dive in:

1:30 — We know the Flyers' first-round schedule; what sticks out?

4:05 — Could we see Brian Elliott during the series?

7:30 — Picking our Flyers X-factor

12:05 — Picking our Canadiens X-factor

16:50 — Analyzing the Voracek situation

20:15 — Why we like the Flyers' chances in this series

 26:00 — Why there could be some concerns about this matchup for the Flyers

 28:55 — The start of the series will be crucial

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