By Murat Ates (The Athletic)

It was quarter past seven on Friday, June 21 — the longest day of the year — and Winnipeg was on the clock.

Four days prior, the Jets had shipped Jacob Trouba to New York, granting Trouba and his fiancée, Kelly Tyson, a living arrangement that worked for both of them. The return was light, but it did include the 20th overall pick in the 2019 draft — a chance for the Jets to restock their prospect pool in a meaningful way.

Kevin Cheveldayoff took to the stage in Vancouver, then introduced Marcel Comeau — Winnipeg’s soon-to-be-retired director of amateur scouting. Comeau announced Ville Heinola’s name and a small section of Rogers Arena erupted. The promising puck mover from Honkajoki, Finland, was welcomed into the NHL with one simple sentence.

Heinola hugged his mom and dad for the first time as a Winnipeg Jet. He then made his way to the stage and shook hands, ranging from Comeau’s to Cheveldayoff’s to Gary Bettman’s, before posing for a Jets family photo.

Flash. A milestone is achieved.

The last hand Heinola shook prior to putting on his Jets jersey and posing for his new family photo belonged to Paul Maurice.

Maurice, for his part, has a smaller role at the draft than he does at most Jets functions. He spent his spring concerned with Winnipeg’s second-half slump and its first-round playoff exit, not obsessing over the world of amateur scouting. When Heinola’s draft photo was taken, Heinola smiled between Mark Hillier and Mark Chipman while Maurice stood well off to the side.

The last flash went off and all parties exited the stage. Heinola had interviews to do, while Cheveldayoff, Comeau, and Hillier had to prepare for Winnipeg’s next pick.

Maurice followed those three men back to the Jets table on the arena floor.

He took a seat.

He checked his phone.

There was a text from his friend, Matthew Lagacé, that hurt.

“And all I could think was: Couldn’t this young man please catch a break? He’s already dealing with enough.”

Lagacé, a 30-year-old professional stage manager on the Jets season-ticket-holder waiting list, had texted Maurice from his family home in La Salle, Manitoba. He was gathered there with close friends and family, wearing the Mark Scheifele jersey that Maurice had presented to him earlier in the week. True to form, Lagacé was laughing despite an unfortunate circumstance: the power went out right before the Jets made their pick.

Whereas Vancouver was baked in summer sun, La Salle had been pelted with rains. As Lagacé’s father, Claude, relays, it’s normal for those rains to knock out the family satellite dish.

Maurice texted Lagacé back.

“Well, at least you didn’t have to look at my ugly mug on TV.”

Lagacé laughed, enjoying the joke and his connection to the man who made it. Then he asked for a scouting report on Heinola, which Maurice shared in detail. Lagacé thanked him and returned to his friends, “proudly exclaiming, “Paul Maurice texted me back!” The draft continued in Vancouver as the Lagacés’ satellite feed was restored in La Salle. The sun had begun to set on the longest day of the year but, for a moment, there was still light in the southern Manitoba sky.

Two months before the draft, it was Lagacé who was on the clock.

As a stage manager for theatre and opera productions, he’d found no shortage of work in a field — just like hockey — where professional success is reserved for the brilliant few. He was in the middle of a contract for the Prairie Theatre Exchange when he received an urgent phone call from his friend Kelly Jenken, a Winnipeg-based theatre director.

Jenken was in need. One week before rehearsals opened for “The Bolshie Bash,” a Winnipeg story about “a factory owner who single-handedly exacerbates and then foils the Great Strike of 1919,” her stage manager quit the production.

Directing is the closest theatrical analogue to coaching a sports team, but stage management is more complex. There are too many moving parts. For a typical production, a stage manager will schedule and run rehearsals, coordinate stage-hands and crew, call cues for sound, lights, and actors’ entrances, and oversee the entirety of a show’s technical elements every time it’s performed. It’s a demanding job — one that Lagacé preferred to do while wearing a Winnipeg Jets jersey backstage.

Problem solving is precisely what Jenken needed when she called Lagacé.

“We had no time to find a replacement,” she explains. “I reached out to Matt, not expecting him to save me, but more to get him to ask everybody he knew if they could help.”

The rush to find Jenken a last-minute stage manager became a team effort. She and Lagacé reached out to every professional stage manager and then every apprentice. When that yielded no results, they turned to the prospects and up-and-comers.

“Nobody in the city was available. So Matt stepped up. We didn’t have a show without him.”

For Lagacé, the will to help was the easy part. To accept the job, he had to finish up his contract with the Prairie Theatre Exchange. That was similarly easy — Lagacé quickly transitioned from the end of one show to second-week rehearsals with Jenken.

The difficult part was when Lagacé’s back pain started. It was occasional at first, then it came on more often and was more severe.

“His breath was laboured as he sat next to me in rehearsals,” says Jenken.

Lagacé attributed his aches and pains to the frantic pace of going straight from one production to the next. He promised Jenken he’d get checked out after the show’s eight performances, which started on May 9th and wrapped on Friday, May 17th. His next contract was in Saskatoon, he told her, but he would have time to see a doctor before heading west.

Soon, though, Lagacé’s family could see that he was unwell. He’d been increasingly exhausted and had trouble staying awake to watch the Jets’ first-round playoff series. When he tried to stay up to watch round two — particularly the Western games between San Jose and Colorado — he found that he simply couldn’t.

Work was a different story. Lagacé had committed to be there for his friend. Despite increasing pain, his May 9, 10, and 11 went smoothly.

Then his mom, Suzie, noticed that something else was wrong.

“Matthew had been complaining about being tired for a long time,” she says. “But then, when we were out for lunch, I saw his eyes.”

They were yellow — jaundiced.

Lagacé went straight to the ER but was made to wait. He told his family he needed an answer by 5:30 pm because he had a job to do — he had to call the cues at Jenken’s show. He’d been told as a developing stage manager that the only excuse to miss a show was if you were hit by a bus. He sincerely believed that.

“On the day of our second-last performance, Matt called me at my desk at work,” says Jenken. “Told me he was at the hospital. Told me the whites of his eyes were yellow. Told me they wanted to run some tests, said he wouldn’t make it to the theatre, and he asked if I could call the show that evening.”

Lagacé’s sister, Bernadette, got a different sort of call. Bernadette is an educational assistant who works at Collège St. Norbert Collegiate by day and often provides additional support for families with special needs through Manitoba’s Respite program after school hours.

“He phoned me at work. I got an all-call to pick up the phone, which was weird. I answered it and it was Matt, which was even more weird. He said. ‘What are you doing after work? Do you have Respite?’ I said,  ‘Yeah, but I can cancel it. What do you need?’ He goes, ‘I just need you to take a costume from my car and bring it to an actor. I said ‘Yes, but why can’t you?’”

“And then he told me he was in the hospital. He was still more worried about his show than telling me that he was in the hospital.”

Lagacé was kept for evaluation and missed calling the second-last show.

He was released later that night, but the doctors said they needed to perform more tests on Friday, May 17 — closing night of “The Bolshie Bash.” Bernadette went to the hospital with him on Friday afternoon.

Matt turned to his sister and, with work on his mind, made her a promise.

“I’m out of here at 5:30,” he said.

“Matthew, you need to wait for the doctors to say it’s OK,” she replied.

“No, I’m out of here at 5:30. It’s closing night. I need to go to the show. I’m doing the show.”

“And that was the day we found out it was cancer,” she says.

It was a crushing blow. Or, at least, it should have been. If Lagacé felt defeated, it was only for a moment. He shared a private conversation with his mom while the doctors scheduled a biopsy to identify the cancer’s origin.

And then he went to work.

“On closing night, knowing he was ill, not having answers to the medical tests yet, he came to the show and called the last performance,” says Jenken. “Because that’s Matt.”

Lagacé, left, with the cast of “What to do with Albert” during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs

The weeks following closing night came with progressively worse news about Lagacé’s health. On May long weekend, he learned that he probably had cancer. On June 12, he had a biopsy taken, and on June 13, he got its results. At 30 years old, Lagacé had stage four pancreatic cancer. It was not curable. Treatment became about his quality of life.

The night he got his final diagnosis, Lagacé posted “GREAT JOB RAPTORS!!!!!” on Facebook.

Publicly, he celebrated Toronto’s first-ever NBA championship. Privately, he was worn down. The pain in his back had intensified. He developed nausea, then dehydration, fatigue, and yet more pain while his eyes progressively jaundiced. Formerly indefatigable, Lagacé ran out of breath after walking just a few steps. He was exhausted.

Then, on June 17, Lagacé woke up in his hospital room to the sound of his phone ringing. Claude was with him. It was Bernadette calling.

“Why are you calling me this early?” Lagacé asked her, annoyed.

“Just so you know, Paul Maurice might show up and visit you today,” she said.

Bernadette felt her brother’s energy soar on the phone. Claude could see light shine in Matt’s face in his hospital room. For the first time since his diagnosis, Lagacé felt sincere joy.

As head coach of the Winnipeg Jets, Maurice receives a number of requests for his time. Winnipeg’s True North Youth Foundation is active in Winnipeg schools, hospitals, and summer camps. Maurice regularly participates in these programs, partly because of a responsibility he feels based on his position with the Jets.

“But this one was outside the team,” says Maurice. “A friend from outside the organization contacted me and I just felt I should do this. I don’t do nearly as much as I could — you could turn it into another full time job if you wanted — but I felt that I should.”

Lagacé’s aunt had originally contacted Maurice’s mutual friend wondering if a player might be willing to visit Matt. It was late June and not very many players were around. Would Maurice be an acceptable alternative?

For Matt, Maurice was better than that.

“I would know what to ask a player,” Bernadette remembers him saying. “But it’s Paul Maurice!”

He asked Bernadette and their mom to bring him his Patrik Laine jersey.

When they arrived, they found him excited, nervous. Then, when a text came in half an hour before Maurice’s arrival, Lagacé’s energy reached a new height.

“Off came the hospital gown,” says Suzie. “Get me the jersey!”

Four days after his terminal diagnosis, hours after beginning the day exhausted, Lagacé was on his feet cleaning the hospital room. It was a scorching June day. The room was warm to everyone in it. Lagacé began to sweat but refused to take off his Jets jersey.

“He didn’t care,” says Suzie. “He just kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this! It’s Paul Maurice!’ It was really good to see him excited because every message that he had gotten, he felt defeated. This was something he could look forward to.”

Maurice recognized the room by the Jets jersey. Lagacé’s Mémère, Eveline, is the matriarch — the woman whose home Lagacé would visit as a child where hockey would always be on TV. It was through her that Lagacé’s love of hockey was sparked; she was the reason he cheered for Jonathan Toews before the Jets returned and for Winnipeg every day after it.

“I’m nervous walking into the hospital,” says Maurice. “You’re anxious — you’re nervous about how it’s going to go. Then, about five minutes into it, it was like sitting around the kitchen table at my wife’s family’s house.”

Maurice approached Lagacé in his bed, shook his hand, and noted the Jets jersey. He saw the number 29 on it and furrowed his brow.

“Is Laine your favourite player?” he asked Lagacé.

“Well, Mathieu Perreault, actually,” Lagacé replied. “And Laine.”

Maurice stomped his foot and fussed a little, according to Bernadette, and then tried from a different angle.

“OK, but what do we think about Scheifele?”

“I like Scheifele too.”

At this, Maurice reached into a black garbage bag that he’d brought and presented Lagacé with a signed white Mark Scheifele jersey. And then the two of them talked hockey for 45 minutes as if they’d known each other a very long time.

The Lagacés remember it the same way.

“He was such a nice guy,” says Suzie. “So down to earth. They talked hockey. But we started out talking about family and friends, what everyone did, and it all felt very familiar.”

There is a Lagacé family story Matt wanted to share with Maurice. For years, he’d given his Mémère “heck” about her French-Canadian way of saying “goaler.” She laughed it off as the two exchanged grief over the word for years but, when he first heard Maurice use the word in a press conference, Lagacé finally admitted defeat.

“If Paul Maurice can say it, then it must be right. I guess I can’t give Mémère heck anymore.”

For the first time in a long time, Matt’s family saw the spirit they knew. The brother. The son. The grandson.

“It just made us so happy to see the smile on Matthew’s face,” says his mom. “I’d seen him smile like that before, but not since he got his diagnosis.”

Adds Bernadette: “Matthew didn’t want pity from anyone. He still wanted to see the good in life and wanted everyone to treat him like they always did. Paul Maurice made him feel that way. He didn’t treat Matthew like he was sick or with any kind of pity. He was just such a kind-hearted, down-to-earth guy who made it feel like we were talking to a family friend who we’ve known forever.”

The initial exchange of stories turned into a half-hour visit. That half-hour turned into 45 minutes. And for the entirety of those 45 minutes, Lagacé’s family saw a Matthew who wasn’t sick or tired — they saw him light up and talk about one of his life’s biggest passions with a man he admired.

“He had an understanding of the game,” says Maurice. “He really did. Matthew had a really good handle on the game so it was an easy conversation for me.”

The two talked about hockey — mostly about the upcoming draft and the possibility of an impending trade. Jacob Trouba to New York was finalized the next day.

One question Matt had for Maurice that he couldn’t answer? What kind of gum he chewed on the bench. He didn’t know, he said, because it’s not labelled and the training staff always had it ready in advance.

It was an uplifting, spirited day in what was otherwise a tumultuous month.

“When I left the hospital, I didn’t understand my emotions,” says Maurice. “I left in a great mood because these people were so nice and, at the same time, really sad because everybody knew what was coming. You’re also going, ‘They have a good family. The family is wonderful. Just wonderful, wonderful people. As tough as this is going to be, they have a good family there. I walked out of there having felt that I experienced a fellow that had a great life with his family — albeit way too short.”

When the visit was over, Maurice shared hugs with everyone in the family and gave Matt his phone number.

Bernadette and Suzie walked Maurice to the hospital exit.

They hugged one more time.

“Make sure he uses that number,” Maurice told them.

Lagacé did, almost immediately, to say thanks. And when he did, Maurice shared his preferred brand of gum. He’d reached out to Winnipeg’s trainers to confirm.

“When Suzie and Bernadette returned to the room, Lagace had the biggest smile. He looked up at them and exclaimed, “Oh my God, that was fricken Paul Maurice! He came to see me!”

Three days later, Lagacé was sent home for palliative care. The smile he had on the day he talked hockey with Paul Maurice stayed with him.

“That was his smile every time he talked about that visit,” says Suzie.

In the days that followed, Lagacé told that story many times — once for every visiting family and friend. “That was fricken’ Paul Maurice!” he would say.

“When we got him home on the 20th, anybody that came to visit here, we had to tell that whole story,” says Claude. “And he told the story. His face lit up every time he talked about it.”

He told it again on draft night, as he and Maurice exchanged texts about Ville Heinola.

“It’s fricken’ Paul Maurice!

In the days between his draft party and his death on Sunday, June 30, Lagacé kept beaming his way through the story. Then he told only parts of it. Eventually, he just nodded while his mom or his sister told it, gesturing at the Scheifele jersey that’s still draped prominently above flowers and photographs in the Lagacé family room.

But he would always smile.

Bernadette called Maurice from Matthew’s phone to share the news of his passing.

Maurice expressed his condolences and asked about funeral arrangements. She shared the details, saying that Matthew’s viewing would be for family and close friends. She insisted that this included Maurice.

“For somebody to take that time just knowing that it would make my brother happy and smile, you just can’t thank somebody enough for that,” she says. “I’ve always had respect for Maurice, just as a person and as a coach, but seeing what he did for my brother is just beyond what I could ever imagine.”

Maurice had initially accepted the invite to meet Matt because it was a small thing he could do for someone at a difficult time.

“But after I met them, it changed. The family is wonderful — just wonderful, wonderful people. I go to the hospital and he’s got a smile on his face. I’m looking at a guy that’s going through something that is so significant but he had a big smile on his face and we’re having a great family chat like it’s at the kitchen table. Then he’s watching the draft and the power goes out and he misses it and he’s joking about it, right? And I’m thinking, Come on. Give the guy a break. And then he’s gone.”

“He had met my Mémère in the hospital, so he sat with her at the viewing, after paying his respects to my brother,” says Bernadette. “He talked to everyone. He stayed for quite a while.”

Theatre was the number one passion in Lagacé’s life. Hockey was number two. So as Maurice spoke to more of Lagacé’s family and friends, he took some gentle ribbing.

Whether it was about the playoffs, the Trouba trade, the need to sign Laine and Connor, everything was fair game.

Toward the end of his battle with cancer, Lagacé was not troubled by the disease so much as he was bothered by the decisions he had to make because of it.

“He knew what cancer was,” says Claude. “He could handle that. It was time that bothered him.”

Carefully balancing his energy levels with the time he had left, Lagacé donated specific Jets memorabilia to close family and friends. He donated his theatre textbooks to companies across Winnipeg. He chose four organizations that people could donate to in lieu of flowers: Manitoba Theatre for Young People, the Prairie Theatre Exchange, the Children’s Hospital Foundation, and the True North Youth Foundation. He even joked about making a video to roast attendees at his own funeral but ran out of time.

One decision he was not able to make for himself was about his Winnipeg Jets season tickets: He never knew he had them.

A few weeks after Lagacé died, a letter arrived at the Lagacé home. He’d finally made it to the front of the waitlist. His family signed up for a pair of season tickets in his name — which he certainly would have wanted — and now sit just a few rows behind his Mémère. Timing is a funny thing.

Eveline, Claude, Suzie, and Bernadette Lagacé were in the building on Sunday, October 20, 2019 — the day that would have been Matthew’s 31st birthday. Ville Heinola, the 18-year old defenceman whom Maurice had texted Matthew about from the draft floor, skated in his seventh NHL game.

With all of the Lagacés watching, Maurice won his 700th.

“My Mémère took my dad and then my mom and I took Matthew’s tickets,” Bernadette says. “So we were all together for Matthew’s birthday.”

(Top photo: Bernadette, Suzie, Matt, Paul, Eveline; all photos courtesy Bernadette Lagacé)