Ryan Reaves wears heart on sleeve

They're hard to find on a left arm covered with tattoos, but St. Louis Blues forward Ryan Reaves wears the tributes proudly on his forearm.

There's the nickname "Philly Bluntz" for Phil Haiart. Another nickname, "T-Bone," surrounded by water for Trevor Price. And a microphone dangling from a locker for Bruce Oake, who enjoyed boxing and competing in area rap battles.

Three close friends, all gone before getting the chance to truly begin their lives. They still motivate Reaves as he chisels out his place in the NHL.

"It's crazy. For how young I am, I've lost a lot of people. I've lost three really good friends that have been really close to me," Reaves, 28, said. "You can't take anything for granted. Here I am now trying to make a career for myself and I have friends back home that are dying at a real young age and parents who are burying them."

Growing up in Winnipeg, Reaves and his younger brother, Jordan, both came by their athletic prowess naturally. Their father, Willard, was a standout running back at Northern Arizona University who starred for the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Named the CFL's Most Outstanding Player in 1984, the elder Reaves was a local legend when he retired in 1990 before joining the local sheriff's service.

When Ryan and Jordan were young, their dad once locked them in a jail cell for an hour, just to instill in them a healthy appreciation for what could happen should they follow the wrong path. But there was nothing Willard Reaves could do to shield Ryan from the tragedy he would encounter again and again.

Playing for St. John's-Ravencourt School in January 2004, Reaves was days away from his 17th birthday and competing in the Winnipeg High School Hockey League Tournament of Champions. It was there that he first heard that Price had collapsed on the bench while competing for the school's junior varsity squad. Later that day, Price passed away at age 16.

"He had a heart attack playing hockey," Reaves said. "A minor heart attack, I guess, and he never made it."

Price's legacy has been preserved with the Travis Price Classic, a charity golf tournament now entering its sixth year. Reaves makes a point to attend the event, which last year raised $318,000 for a children's summer camp.

Reaves was barely 17 and still coming to terms with the loss when the unthinkable happened again.

It was the 2005 trade deadline day in the Western Hockey League when Reaves, playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings, was summoned by the team's general manager. Assuming he had been traded, he bid his junior teammates a swift farewell.

He was instead greeted by his mother, Brenda, who had made the 135-mile drive from Winnipeg and was sobbing in the GM's office. She shared the news that Haiart, another close friend from St. John's-Ravencourt, had been murdered during a gang shootout in Winnipeg's West End.

Haiart had done nothing more than land in the wrong place at the worst possible time. He was 17.

Reaves grieved in the way that came most naturally. He strapped on his gear and took to the ice. In an empty Brandon arena, Reaves skated alone for close to two hours.

"I kind of broke down on the ice at one point. Nobody else was out there. So it was good to have my alone time," Reaves said. "I drove in for the funeral two days later and then had to drive back. We had a game that night."

The shocking murder drew considerable attention to a local drug turf war that Willard Reaves had witnessed through his work. The crisis hit close to home following Haiart's murder, culminating at the Winnipeg courthouse where Willard was responsible for escorting inmates from their correctional facility to the courtroom where they stood trial. One fateful day, he found himself escorting Haiart's killer, a gang member named Jeff Cansanay.

"I had to make sure his personal safety was protected," Willard Reaves said. "Being in the elevator with them, I know what I would love to do. But I had to leave that at the door. I had to separate that, and I did."

In the wake of these losses, Reaves threw himself into hockey. All that grit and grief and motivation got the attention of the Blues, who drafted him in the fifth round of the 2005 draft, seven weeks after Cansanay received a life sentence for second-degree murder.

After two brief stints with the Blues early in 2010-11, Reaves was called up again for a late-season playoff push and showed enough to cement a roster spot. Then came the news.

On March 29, 2011, Oake died of a drug overdose at age 25. Ryan and Jordan Reaves had grown up next door to Oake and his younger brother, Darcy. The boys had been practically inseparable their entire lives. When Reaves got married last summer, Darcy and Jordan shared best man duties while Bruce's father, acclaimed CBC sportscaster Scott Oake, was the master of ceremonies.

Again confronted by tragic loss, Reaves had an unimaginable decision to make: continue fulfilling his NHL dream or take a step back in that quest to attend the funeral of a lifelong friend.

"What I said to him was you need to seize the opportunity and we'll see you when you get home at the end of the season. We left it at that," said Scott Oake, who is working to establish a non-profit rehabilitation facility in his late son's memory.

"Bruce wouldn't have wanted him to leave a golden opportunity in the NHL to come home and mourn. We know Bruce's passing affected Ryan. He's got the ink to prove it. There was much more to be achieved by chasing his dream. We had that discussion and everybody was good with it."

The day after losing a close friend for the third time in seven years, Reaves earned an assist in a 10-3 win against the Detroit Red Wings. Through it all, Oake's memory weighed heavily on him.

"It was tough. Especially not being able to go to the funeral," Reaves said. "That made me think about him a lot more, that I couldn't be there for his family."

As the Blues head down the stretch toward the hard road of the playoffs, Reaves continues to play for his three friends. He honors them with his play and his tattoos and with any time he can share with their families. Collectively, the spirit of these young men has guided him through this season, in which he's posted career highs in goals and points while earning the trust of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.

Ryan Reaves has made it. And Price, Haiart and Oake have been with him the entire time.

"I think about them a lot. Sometimes it's in a weird dream where they pop up. It's fun to see them once in a while in a weird way like that. Just thinking about how short life is, I think that's what keeps you motivated," Reaves said.

"They're really good friends and really close to the family. Guys who were lost too early. It's a tough situation, but it makes me stronger thinking about them."