WASHINGTON -- Troy Brouwer skated backward, slow and steady, ahead of his wife, Carmen, and 2-year-old daughter, Kylie, as the three made meandering loops around the ice at Nationals Park on Wednesday during the Washington Capitals' family skate.
Carmen was hunched over, holding Kylie upright and helping her daughter's tiny pink skates find their footing on the makeshift ice as Brouwer looked on and other families skated by.
It was one of those small, simple moments that make the Winter Classic just a bit more special than any other regular-season game -- players spending time with family, reconnecting for quality time amid an otherwise whirlwind, travel-jammed schedule.
This will be one of many of those moments for the 29-year-old Brouwer, however, because this Winter Classic will be one for the family to remember.
That's because Brouwer's dad, Don, will be in attendance Thursday. Brouwer's father hasn't had many opportunities to watch his son play live in recent years, not since he suffered a serious stroke in 2010 that left him in a coma for six days. His vision was affected. He lost a fair bit of movement on his left side.
Traveling can be tough. But Don will be there Thursday, as Brouwer takes the ice in front of the sellout crowd of 41,546 as the Capitals host the Chicago Blackhawks in the league's annual marquee outdoor game. It will be a moment that Brouwer treasures because there was a time he wasn't sure he'd get another one like it.
Carmen got the call from Troy's mom, Kathy, during a day game against the Calgary Flames back on Sunday, April 4, 2010. Brouwer was playing for the Blackhawks at the time and as soon as he heard the news, the two jumped on a flight to Vancouver and went straight to the hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia.
When Brouwer first saw his father, lying there unconscious, he was shaken.
"You always see your dad as this big, strong guy. [He was] very tough, almost this immortal-type of person. When he got hurt, he didn't cry. He was a big manly-man to us when I was a kid," Brouwer said. "To see him in a vulnerable situation like that, for the first time, it was very tough."
Brouwer told the Blackhawks he wasn't coming back until his father woke up, despite the team being on the precipice of the playoffs. Brouwer said the organization could not have been more understanding. The Blackhawks made travel provisions for him and told him to take his time. So Brouwer went to the hospital almost every day, from morning until night, hoping his father would regain consciousness.
The doctors weren't sure that was going to happen. They had no idea how long his father had been unconscious after suffering the stroke. He had gone golfing that morning and when Kathy got home after dark, the lights were all out. Brouwer was given no concrete prognosis.
Doctors could tell there was some brain activity, but the first few days yielded very little information. Then, positive signs began appearing. Brouwer's father moved his hands. He'd flinch when nurses would perform a pin test on his feet.
And then, six days after he was admitted to the hospital, he woke up.
The first thing he said to his son? "Why are you here?"
Brouwer's father had enough wherewithal to know the playoffs were starting. He told his son to go back, rejoin his team and get ready for the postseason.
"The other thing he asked was if me and my wife were going to have any bambinos any time soon," Brouwer recalled with a laugh.
Brouwer returned to his team before the beginning of the 2010 playoffs. But early that spring, he struggled in the Blackhawks' first-round series against the Nashville Predators. With so much on his mind, Brouwer had trouble focusing on his play.
But then a semifinal series against the Vancouver Canucks came -- a blessing in that Brouwer was able to see his father and witness his recovery firsthand. Brouwer was blown away by his father's devotion to rehab and dedication to recovery. It's only in talking about this that Brouwer gets a little choked up.
"For me, and for a lot of kids as well, they don't have a lot of opportunities to be or say they are proud of their parents," Brouwer said. "For him to be able to have that recovery and work so hard, I'm very proud."
He said as much to his father, on more than one occasion. That pride was reciprocated by Brouwer's father, who was overjoyed when his son was able to hoist the Stanley Cup at the end of that playoff run. Brouwer's father couldn't be there in person for the game -- he watched from the hospital with friends and Troy's godparents as the Blackhawks dispatched the Philadelphia Flyers -- but spoke to his son immediately after the game during the on-ice celebrations.
He was crying -- "He's a bit of a crier now," Brouwer said -- and he was so happy. The two savored that moment.
"I would've loved for him to be there, to be on the ice and to share it directly, but you could tell he was so proud and so excited for me," Brouwer said. "And for him -- he gets to brag a little bit now."
Eventually, Brouwer's father got his "bambino" too, when Kylie was born in October 2012. But because of the distance between the two families -- Don resides in North Delta, British Columbia -- he doesn't get to see his grandchild often. That's hard for Brouwer; his wife, who grew up in the prairies of Saskatchewan, has sisters who all live within 20 minutes of each other and still talks to her mom on the phone every day.
In fact, that has probably been the biggest change for Brouwer since his father suffered the stroke -- his priorities.
"The best way I can put it is family is a lot more important to me," he said.
That's why Thursday's game represents so much more than two points in the standings. It represents a time for the Brouwers to get together and enjoy each other's company, rather than the rushed half-hour visits they usually get when Brouwer is in town for a road game in Vancouver.
Because of his father's limited vision, Brouwer isn't sure that the Winter Classic will be the best setting for actually watching the game, but the overall experience will likely make up for that.
Brouwer said his father loves everything hockey. Watching all of Troy's games. Talking to him on the phone about it afterward.
Sometimes, Brouwer thinks his dad enjoys it even more than he does himself.
"I call him once a week -- I probably should call him more -- but I could just listen to him on the phone for hours and sometimes, I do," Brouwer said. "He loves to talk and he's a good friend of mine. He's not just my dad."
And maybe that's the facet of their relationship that has evolved the most in the past handful of years. Brouwer said that whereas his mother was the type to think her son could never do wrong, his father could be hard on him. In retrospect, he feels lucky to have had that.
Brouwer recalled one story from his childhood that was particularly telling. He was around 10 or 11 years old and he remembered mouthing off to a referee during a game, incurring a couple of penalties for his attitude.
After the game, unbeknownst to Brouwer, his dad took his hockey bag and removed one glove, one skate, one sock, one of each element of his gear. When Brouwer arrived to play his next game, he couldn't find half of his belongings and went running to his father for help. His father did not oblige.
"He said, 'You'll sit with me in the stands tonight until you learn to respect the game,'" Brouwer recalled.
Brouwer had a smile on his face as he recalled the memory, perhaps revealing a different sort of appreciation now that he himself is a parent.
"You can laugh about it now, but a lot of things he did around the rink and away from the rink had a huge influence on how you turn out as a person as well," Brouwer said.
Brouwer has turned out just fine, by NHL standards and others. He's seen as a high-character, glue guy in the Capitals' dressing room. When he got the Cup for a day in 2010, he made sure to bring it to all the doctors and nurses and medical personnel who helped his father through that tough time.
In the days leading up to the Winter Classic, Brouwer was involved with the Capitals' gesture to wear a "CR" sticker on their helmets, honoring Blackhawks equipment manager Clint Reif, who recently died.
He's both well-liked and respected. He's a family man. Because of that, Brouwer doesn't take a minute with his father for granted. He relishes the memories the two have together and, looking toward Thursday, he looks forward to making more.
"You always picture your family members, especially your dad, as this invincible-type person," Brouwer said. "I know he's a little bit older now ... but he still has a lot of good years left."