PHILADELPHIA — The tattoo runs along Kevin Hayes’ left forearm, a permanent reminder of what the Philadelphia Flyers center is missing, a solemn quote overlaid by a thick, script J for his late brother that serves as an indelible tribute to a bond he believes isn’t broken, merely changed.
The inscription Hayes never wanted to get reads: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
At just 31, former NHL player Jimmy Hayes, married for three years and a father of two young boys, was found dead this summer inside his family home. Kevin says his brother was healthy and happy. He said he had no reason to believe anything suspicious about his brother’s cause of death, which has not been determined.
Nearly two months later, the idea of starting a season without his brother weighs on Kevin.
“We were best friends our whole life,” Kevin said.
Through bowling and baseball as kids to homecoming clashes at TD Garden, the Hayes brothers were as tight as a double knot; Kevin in step with big brother Jimmy, a couple of kids from Boston’s largest neighborhood who attended the same boarding school, same college and, ultimately, played head-to-head in the NHL.
They were part of a five-sibling Irish family from Dorchester, and everyone knew celebrity — they shared a bloodline with cousins who made the NHL — was destined for the boys.
They became stars at Boston College and both reached the NHL. The brothers lived together, trained together, golfed together, could be the life of the party together and were in each other’s corners, even as Kevin developed into a top-line center while Jimmy’s career ended in the minors after parts of seven NHL seasons.
“I think he accepted we were different players, that I was a little bit more skilled than he was,” said Kevin, in the third season of a $50 million, seven-year deal with the Flyers. “But I swear there was no more bigger supporter of me than my brother. He told everyone how good I was.”
In August, Kevin stood behind to a lectern inside a jammed Catholic parish church, steeled his nerves and told mourners about the man he considered his hero. He choked back tears as he spoke about a time his brother met with a cancer-stricken child named Michael McHugh Jr. and brought him into the Bruins’ locker room.
“Jimmy stayed with Michael, taking pictures, giving him sticks, and giving him a bunch of Bruins swag,” Kevin said. “Unfortunately, Michael passed away just a month later. His dad told us it was the greatest night of his son’s short life. Michael loved Jimmy and he felt for the first time that he didn’t have cancer that night. His dad was awestruck by Jimmy’s kindness and was so grateful that Jimmy gave Michael one of the happiest days of his life.”
Kevin, now the big brother, stayed home as long as he could with his family and that of his brother’s widow, Kristen.
“It was tough being in Boston because everyone knows us,” he said. “I couldn’t go get coffee or go for a walk without someone awkwardly staring at me, wanting to say sorry or give me a hug. It just kind of got draining. Instead of just sitting on my parent’s coach or Kristen’s house the whole time, it was nice to actually get back and look forward to the season.”
Kevin is back in Philadelphia and out another few weeks following abdominal surgery. He skates at the rink but misses the FaceTime chats with Jimmy on the 20-minute ride home. He admires how strong Kristen has remained for sons Beau and Mac through the tragedy.
“I lost my best friend and my brother. She lost her husband and her father to her kids,” Kevin said. “It’s tough. I can accept what happened, that my brother’s gone and he died. I’m 29 years old and I understand what death is. The thing that I can’t get my head around, the whole, not to get spiritual, but God. Being mad at God.”
“I don’t understand how those two kids don’t have a dad anymore. I can’t accept that. I don’t think I ever will.”
He pauses, and adds, “But I also look at God sending different messages.”
A season after missing the playoffs, the Flyers added Dorchester native, Hayes family friend and NHL iron man Keith Yandle along with Jimmy’s Boston College roommate, Cam Atkinson. Two guys who knew the Hayes brothers from back in the day now share a line; Yandle and Hayes are roommates.
The Flyers center called it a sign that both players found their way to Philly in the wake of tragedy.
“We both don’t like to be alone, so we are able to hang out every day,” Yandle said. “It will be good, too, especially during the season to be able to sit down and watch games. I think it is going to be a lot of fun. We watch a lot of TV, a lot of couch time and a lot of laughs.”
Kevin is a fan favorite in Philly and won the team award for player who showed the most heart, had a beer brewed in his honor and turned the Flyers into contenders in 2020.
“As you develop as a team and do the team bonding stuff, Kevin is a huge part of that for us,” Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk said. “He is the life of the locker room in that sense. People tend to gravitate toward him and love being around him.”
Kevin wears a bracelet with his brother’s initials. That tattoo also has his brother’s No. 11 and his birth and death dates. Kevin vowed to keep his brother’s legacy alive through his nephews, and those who loved him best.
Playing in his honor this season isn’t enough: Kevin has dedicated his life to his brother, living with the unyielding faith that the tight, brotherly bond in life is unbreakable in death.