Player Profile 9: Thomas Garrett Cavanagh (Warwick, Rhode Island)

I’ve been a storyteller on here before. I’ve told stories that inspire, sadden, mystify, inform, or do a combination of any or all of those four to my readers. What I want is for there to be some sort of takeaway from what I pass onto you. I want this to be a story that will impress you with the merit of human accomplishment as well make you think afterwards, a story that teaches you to be on the lookout for warning signs and to understand what they mean. It might make a life-changing or even saving difference.

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Tom Cavanagh was born in Rhode Island on March 24th, 1982 to attorney Joe Cavanagh and his wife Carol as the middle of nine children. This family always placed great emphasis on two things – Their Catholic faith and hockey. Joe was a standout star in hockey at Harvard and was enshrined into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 1994 and still holds the record for most points in the Beanpot tournament. Naturally Tom was rushed out onto the ice as a kid, pretty much always average sized and not the greatest of skaters, but a great worker and an honest player. In time he worked his way onto squads at Toll Gate High School and subsequently Phillips Exeter Academy for his college preparatory year. In 2001 he enrolled at Harvard College and in time became a permanent fixture on the Crimson’s roster, a reliable player that was well-liked by his teammates whom have noted his ability to strike up conversations on anything from sports to history, current events and politics. When all was said and done, Tom became the first player in Harvard history to appear in every single game in his college career, making his 138th consecutive appearance in the Crimson sweater during their last game of the 2005 NCAA tournament. Iron man streak.

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Tom would get his jump into the pros in the fall of 2005. The San Jose Sharks, whom had drafted Cavanagh before his first college season, gave him a minor league contract to play for the Cleveland Barons, their then-AHL affiliate. His first year pro stats were 10 goals and 11 assists in 62 games, along with providing a steady all-around game. The AHL franchise was then relocated to a locale much closer to home for Tom in Worcester, MA and renamed to match the parent team. It was here the centerman became an AHL star. Over the course of the ’06-’07 and ’07-’08 seasons, Cavanagh would post a combined 99 points and become a key player leader for the team in many ways, being a likable guy off the ice and a respectable one on it. It was only a matter of time before Tom reached “the show.”

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His first chance came towards the end of San Jose’s ’07-’08 campaign. Getting the first shift on a line with perennial All-Stars “Jumbo” Joe Thornton and Jeremy Roenick, Tom set the still-standing franchise record for quickest point by a rookie by assisting on Thornton’s goal 36 seconds into the game. Though this was a brief moment in time, it was Tom’s sports pinnacle and an accomplishment that many others will never be able to lay claim to. He would achieve more the next year giving some modest but nonetheless noteworthy contributions in the context of Tom’s story to the Sharks during their President’s Trophy winning season, tallying a goal and an assist during his seventeen game call up. During his return to Worcester he would bring his career point total with the team to 138, a franchise record which still stands.

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Things would start to slip both in and outside the rink for Tom after this. He would change organizations in 2009-10 to the Los Angeles Kings’ AHL team, the Manchester Monarchs, and mustered only 8 points in seventeen games before suffering a shoulder injury and met with similar disappointment after signing with Edmonton’s farm team, the Springfield Falcons (only an assist in five games before being released on November 9th, 2010.) This lack of production was almost certainly a byproduct of personal issues that were clandestine to those that knew him in the hockey realm, as his psyche was not in the healthiest state. He was prone to lashing out and breaking furniture at home and was showing strong signs of mental illness, such as walking completely unclothed through the Falcons’ front office after what turned out to be his final hockey game. Odd behaviors were something that his father had began to notice in Tom at ages 13-14. But regardless of what had been identified, nobody was prepared for the impact of Tom’s next (and final, as it sadly were) major life decision…

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Thomas G. Cavanagh’s lifeless body was found in the parking garage of the Providence Place Mall in Rhode Island’s capital on January 6th, 2011. The cause of death was determined to be blunt force impact and was ruled a suicide. Only his family knew of his struggle – Tom was schizophrenic and had been institutionalized four times in the last months of his life. All of his friends and teammates throughout the years had known him as the happiest guy they could ever have met and were absolutely shocked by the news. He was a strong, determined and talented young man, but also very good at hiding his personal demons. At the rink, he performed at such a high level and was so swell in the dressing room that no one could ever imagine the torture he had to endure.

Tom’s funeral, attended by a bus load of players from Worcester and Harvard amongst many others from his past, was held on January 11th in East Greenwich. On this day, Tom’s father was looking for a sign from God that this was all part of His plan and that his son was at peace. During the mass, a double rainbow was spotted in the sky, seemingly coming from nowhere. The upper half was inverted, resembling a smiley face, indicating to Tom’s family and friends that despite the sadness befallen upon them, all had occurred for a reason. Closure is an important thing.

Thanks to the memorial fund started by his family, Tom’s legacy still lives and awareness about mental health has grown through activism by the hockey community. A benefit jamboree is held annually, as is a scholarship run. These events along with donations are slowly and subtly but surely making a difference. If you would, take a second to look into some of the information and promote the cause if you are unable to donate directly. Anything will help: http://tgcfund.org/index

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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