You know who you are. You know what you did. And to the driver who killed Nathan Beaulieu’s dog in a cowardly hit-and-run, the Winnipeg Jets defenceman wants you to know he can’t shake the ache, or the anger.
On the phone Wednesday from his off-season home in Montreal, Beaulieu’s voice cracks as he speaks publicly about the September 2019 incident for the first time. Nearly eight months have passed, but it’s clear emotions remain raw. The 27-year-old, reflecting on nightmarish year that included three separate bone breaks followed by a global pandemic that shut the season down, is ready to share details about the tragic way it all began.
A driver, speeding through a south Winnipeg suburb where Beaulieu and his fiancée, Katie Carpenter, were living, mounted the curb and clipped his beloved best friend, a five-year-old Doberman he named Joey after his favourite character on the TV show Friends.
The impact was so severe, the licence plate of the small grey car flew off. The young man behind the wheel stopped, surveyed the damage, retrieved the piece of tin from the ground that could identify him, and took off.
Beaulieu, who had just returned home from training camp at Bell MTS Iceplex, got a call from his frantic fiancée, who had taken Joey out for a late-afternoon run in the field behind their residence. He rushed outside, cradled the 100-pound rescue and rushed him to a local animal hospital.
It was too late. Joey died in his arms.
“It was by far the most difficult thing that ever happened to me in my life. More in the sense of how it happened. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s like a pain you’ll never get rid,” said Beaulieu.
“When you have a companion like that… I like dogs more than most people. When I was in Montreal, after getting him, you’d have a tough game, you’d come home and he didn’t care how you played. He just wanted to hang out with you and be your best friend.”
“It was by far the most difficult thing that ever happened to me in my life. More in the sense of how it happened. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s like a pain you’ll never get rid.”
— Nathan Beaulieu
There was an investigation, and Beaulieu himself tried to find the person responsible by canvassing the neighbourhood, to no avail. The driver continues to live with the deadly secret to this day.
“They know what they did. That’s the world we live in, I guess,” said Beaulieu.
Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of what would be the worst year of his life, one Beaulieu admits took a major toll on both his physical and mental health.
“To start off the season like that, it was like ‘I’m gonna kind of go out there and do it for him this year.” And then you keep getting hit hard,” he said.
Just days later, skating in the final pre-season game against the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul, Beaulieu went to throw a routine bodycheck.
“Third period. Maybe 10 minutes left. Fluky thing. I kind off rolled my wrist the wrong way and fell on it funny. Fractured it,” said Beaulieu. “It was a solid hit. We both kind of fell. I tried to brace myself with my hand but didn’t get it out on time. A lot of my weight fell on my fingers, which almost touched my wrist the way it snapped back.”
After signing a one-year, US$1-million free agent contract to play for the Jets for a second year, this was Beaulieu’s chance to prove he could be an NHL regular, especially with so much off-season turnover on the blue line. The 17th overall pick in the 2011, with prior stops in Buffalo and Montreal, had a golden opportunity staring him in the face.
Only to have life once again punch him right between the eyes.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice then did something rarely seen in the NHL, suggesting the injured Beaulieu accompany the team for their season-opening four-game road trip that began at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was all about compassion, not rehabilitation.
“A lot of people around the organization understood what I was going through. There’s a lot of dog people. The fact he did that, mentally it allowed me to be around my teammates instead of thinking about what happened,” said Beaulieu, who called the Jets “one big family” and credited everyone from team owner Mark Chipman to general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to his teammates for repeatedly checking in on him.
“A lot of people around the organization understood what I was going through. There’s a lot of dog people… it allowed me to be around my teammates instead of thinking about what happened.”
Beaulieu returned in early November to make his regular-season debut, only to suffer another fluke injury near the end of the month. While killing a penalty in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, forward Pierre-Luc Dubois took a wrist shot that shattered one of Beaulieu’s thumbs.
“It broke the nail right off and everything,” said Beaulieu.
The injury only cost him a couple of weeks, and Beaulieu was back in the lineup in early December. Then came the New Year’s Eve game in Denver, when Colorado Avlanche sniper Nathan MacKinnon one-timed a slapper off of one of Beaulieu’s feet, breaking a bone.
A fitting way to end a horrific 2019.
Beaulieu returned in early February and was finally starting to feel his game rounding into shape, on a Jets team that was as deep and healthy as they’d been all season, when COVID-19 brought everything to a screeching halt in mid-March.
“It was definitely mentally degrading for me. This was a year I took a contract trying to prove myself in a city I feel like I fit right in and a team I feel like I fit right in. It was really, really difficult.”
“It was definitely mentally degrading for me. This was a year I took a contract trying to prove myself in a city I feel like I fit right in and a team I feel like I fit right in. It was really, really difficult,” said Beaulieu.
“In a year where you kind of want things to go your way, it kind of went the opposite.”
Now pending unrestricted free agent waits and wonders if there will be another opportunity to play again this year.
“I’m hungry. That’s the only way I could put it. I feel like I haven’t played hockey for so long. For me, I’m all in on anything they decide,” said Beaulieu. “I definitely feel like I have a lot of unfinished business in Winnipeg. I love this team, this team’s built to win and built to win soon. I feel like being a part of that would be beneficial for everyone. I want to be a Jet.”
There’s one silver lining to the current situation. Beaulieu and his fiancée recently welcomed a new addition to their family in Tony, a nine-month-old Italian Greyhound. They’re also thinking about another four-legged adoption in the coming weeks.
“At first we couldn’t even imagine having another dog in the house. But we realized, about six months after (Joey died), that we needed to have another dog. We’re just dog people,” he said.
“This was the most tragic thing that ever happened to me and my fiancée. It’s something you never get over. You just learn how to cope with it.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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