In our nation, July 1 is Canada Day and the first day of NHL free agency. For the bulk of Canadians, it goes in that order; red and white face paint, followed by constant refreshing of their Twitter timeline.
But on that day in 2012, it was much more the latter for Capital City Condors president Jim Perkins and former Senators defenseman Matt Carkner. July 1 was the inevitable departure between Ottawa’s only special needs hockey team and their beloved honorary captain.
For the past couple years, Carkner had been a catalyst for the Condors’ development, helping grow the organization from just 20 players in Ottawa to three full squads in three separate cities.
In March of 2015, the team hosted the world’s largest ever hockey tournament for disabled players, bringing 73 teams to the capital. They currently have 103 kids on their roster for the 2017-18 season and in early April, the group will travel to Chicago for a four-day hockey festival.
Five and a half years ago, however, friends and family gathered at the Carkner household, Perkins was losing hope. In his mind, with the Senators refusing to extend Carkner’s contract and the Islanders persuading the then 31-year-old to sign in New York, all the progress they had recently made seemed to be coming to a halt.
Carkner wouldn’t let that happen, though.
At first, Perkins didn’t believe that anyone could possibly fill the shoes of their inaugural leader, but it didn’t take long for him to be convinced otherwise.
“Before I left (Carkner’s) house that day, Matt showed me a text from Kyle,” Perkins remembered during a phone interview with Silver Seven. “He texted him and let him know that the deal had happened with the Islanders, and told him he was going to pass him the torch. And Kyle responded and Matt tried to read Kyle’s response to me, but he choked up and said, ‘you read it.’
“Not what you think of hockey players, right?” he said with a laugh.
Turris was at former teammate Nick Foligno’s wedding in Niagara at the time, but made it remarkably clear that he would do everything and more to continue what Carkner had started.
“I read this text from Kyle, a young guy that I hadn’t even met yet, and two minutes later when I finished reading, I was like, ‘this is a quality guy who gets it already.’”
During the following years, Turris didn’t just carry on what was previously accomplished and keep the status quo; he created his own legacy.
In the early days, he took home a yearbook of the kids to memorize names and faces with wife Julie - who is on the Condors’ board of directors - before meeting them all for the first time a week later.
He became the face of an annual golf tournament in which all funds raised go directly towards supporting the athletes with ice times, equipment and travel. The seventh tournament is scheduled for June of next year.
And just months ago, hours after scoring the overtime winner against the New York Rangers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semi Final, Turris attended the Condors’ end-of-year banquet. As if he would’ve missed that.
The kids get to play hockey, share a special bond with a superstar athlete, attend dinners and parties, but it might be mom and dad who are the biggest winners.
“Everybody realizes their importance, what they would bring to the kids,” Perkins explained on Monday morning. “But I can’t tell you how many times parents walk by me shaking their heads and saying, ‘I can’t believe Kyle and Julie care so much for our kids.’ All of us who have kids, we value someone who values our children, so I think that’s especially true in this case where they’re deeply, deeply valued by the players, obviously, but also by their parents.”
Before the season started, if you’d asked any diehard Sens fan which players seemed like Senators for life, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson would likely top the list, but following close behind would be Turris in the three spot. His presence in the city just felt right.
On the ice, he scored meaningful goals, played the No. 1 centre role for years after Jason Spezza’s departure in 2014, and it looked like he was going to be a key part of the forward group for seasons to come. Off the ice, well, what more is there to say?
So when Turris hinted in September of 2016 that if contract negotiations weren’t going well in the upcoming summer it wouldn’t be a good sign, Perkins didn’t think anything of it.
But things got real rather quickly.
“I kept prodding him (during the summer) and he just gave me a raised eyebrow, like he didn’t know what the delay was,” said Perkins. “But in September (of this year), when we sat down, he said things weren’t progressing and since then I had to keep my mouth shut, obviously, but had some pretty significant concerns that this may not actually work out.
“You can brace yourself, but you can’t fully prepare for something like this.”
Unlike when Carkner left in 2012, the Condors community didn’t have much time to say goodbye when the news hit on Sunday night. While most parents had already put their kids to bed, contemplating how to break the news in the morning, all the while keeping their own composure, Perkins went over to the Turris household for a last-minute visit.
“They were devastated, beyond saddened,” Perkins recalled. “They had made Ottawa home and had every hope that it would remain their home.
“It only hurts this much because of the depth of the relationship they’ve built. If the relationships are shallow, movements like this aren’t that impacting, but the deeper the relationship goes, the more impact the transition has.”
Immediately, they thought of what was next for the Condors.
“Through tears, Julie was saying, ‘we’re going to do our best to pass the torch on,’ said Perkins. “She couldn’t even get the sentence out.”
Defenseman Mark Borowiecki has formed a pleasant relationship with the Condors, as has former long-time Senator Chris Neil, but as of right now, there’s no guaranteed replacement. However, there will be one.
As for Turris, he’s already looking to remain involved with the special needs community. There’s no doubt that he and Julie will stay in contact with the Condors and visit in the summer, but on Sunday night, he asked Perkins if there was an organization similar to theirs in Nashville.
When Carkner left in 2012, Perkins and wife Shana thought they were doomed. Five and a half years later, with help from the Turrises, who they call their adopted family, their organization is stronger than ever and continuing to produce amazing stories of perseverance, recovery and acceptance.
The Carkners and Turrises will always be around. The same goes for the next lucky couple who get the opportunity to lead the Condors through new adventures, but are potentially forced to move on by the business of the sport.
The wound is still fresh and so much is yet to be repaired, but a devastating event like this one has the Perkinses feeling fortunate to have experienced the last several years, growing and improving their tight-knit community.
“We sat there in our kitchen last night and thought, ‘how did this happen to little old us?’”