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Hockey family is Boston strong

In Tom Fitzgerald's hockey career, it was one of his worst days. Yet, he couldn't help but smile.

Fitzgerald, a favorite son of Massachusetts schoolboy hockey, watched Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals as a visitor at TD Garden. The assistant to Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero, Fitzgerald saw his team's season come to an end. The team Fitzgerald helped assemble -- even to the trade deadline, when Jarome Iginla spurned the Bruins in favor of the shoo-in, Cup-contending Penguins -- was being swept into the offseason.

As the Bruins' celebration poured off the Garden ice, there was a man many of the players wanted to share the moment with. He hadn't been with the team for most of the season, but remained in the thoughts of many of the players, several of whom can trace their beginnings in the organization directly to him. In fact, that day marked one of the first days in a long time that he'd seen anything but the walls of a hospital room.

But Scott Fitzgerald was there. Still unable to stand on his own, the Bruins' assistant director of amateur scouting celebrated his team's advance to the Stanley Cup final from his wheelchair.

His big brother Tom, not for the agony of defeat, struggled to keep his composure.

"I told my own people," Tom Fitzgerald said, "it's hard to feel a loss after watching my brother celebrate that way."

***

On March 3, Scott Fitzgerald was heading home along Route 125. He was driving to his house in Wilmington from Phillips Academy in Andover that Sunday night when Roberto Leon's Toyota Corolla crossed the double-yellow line into Fitzgerald's lane. Fitzgerald tried to veer his Chevy SUV out of the way, but struck Leon's car head-on.

When State Police troopers dispatched from Andover arrived on scene around 8:30 p.m., Leon, 47, was pronounced dead. They found Fitzgerald badly injured and in a daze.

"The first thing I remember thinking was, 'Where's my son?'" he said.

Fitzgerald's eldest son, Nolan, 12, was riding in the passenger's seat. He emerged from the crumpled-up chassis relatively unscathed. Perhaps from the flood of adrenaline, Scott Fitzgerald paid little mind to what should have then been an excruciating amount of pain radiating from his lower extremities. His legs were crushed in the impact. His pelvis shattered. His bladder ruptured.

"It's the scariest thing that's ever happened to our family," said Scott's nephew and godson, Ryan. "I'll always remember that night, when my aunt called our house and we all got in the car and drove out to the hospital. It was so scary not knowing what happened."

***

Scott and Tom Fitzgerald were part of the bumper crop. Born in the late '60s in Massachusetts, they were of the generation that emulated the Big Bad Bruins during their street hockey games. Yet, hockey was different then.

"We didn't get on airplanes to play hockey as kids," said Tom Fitzgerald from a cellphone after dropping off his son, Casey, at a hockey rink.

"After our skates came off, the baseball cleats went on. There was only maybe one hockey camp in the area, one at UMass-Lowell, out-of-season," he said.

In between hockey seasons, the Fitzgeralds, who lived in Charlestown before moving to Billerica, played whatever was in season. Tom played soccer and even a season of football in his youth. Scott, who's a year younger than Tom, always tagged along. The brothers never played hockey together but for a year at Austin Prep when they won the state title.

"I think my parents would still tell you that's one of their best memories in a hockey rink," said Tom, who earned his first Stanley Cup ring as a member of the Penguins' staff in 2009 after a 17-season playing career in the NHL.

"I felt the same way when my boys did it," he added.

Tom and his wife, Kerry, recently experienced the same with the two oldest of their four sons, Ryan and Casey. Together, the Fitzgeralds earned an MIAA Super 8 title with Malden Catholic (winner of three straight such titles) in 2012.

Casey, a defenseman who just completed his sophomore year at MC, is already committed to Boston College and on the move to Ann Arbor, Mich., to join the United States national team development program next season.

Ryan, after graduating from MC and spending a season with the Valley Junior Warriors of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, is headed to BC next year. A little more than a week ago, Ryan became the second Fitzgerald selected into the NHL. A 5-foot-10 center, he was taken by the Bruins with their fourth-round selection (120th overall) in the draft.

***

"He was like Jekyll and Hyde," Tom Fitzgerald said of Ryan's demeanor on draft day.

Tom had experienced the same emotions in 1986, though under different circumstances. He didn't have to wait long, going 17th overall to the New York Islanders. But Ryan had other histrionics to go along with his big day. With a large contingent of family, Ryan waited along with the hundreds of other draft hopefuls at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

"He didn't say much," Tom Fitzgerald said. "He just kept looking forward for most of it, waiting for his name to be called. I told him it didn't matter when he was taken. If somebody takes you, that's all you're going to remember."

And then, it was the Bruins.

"Just being drafted, it takes a while to sink in," Ryan Fitzgerald said earlier this week. "There are just so many emotions, the connections you have with that team."

There are many. Memories of skating the Garden ice with his dad, meeting the players in the locker room when Tom finished his career with the Bruins in the 2005-06 season.

After hearing his name called out by his hometown team, the North Reading native made his way to the floor. He met members of the Bruins' front office, but also took a swing by the Penguins' table, which was nearby. His dad spent the first round of the draft working that table before retiring to the stands to offer guidance to his waiting son.

The lone person Ryan didn't get to share draft day with was his uncle Scott, the man who helped make his dream a reality that Sunday.

***

On Friday, May 24, the Bruins took a return flight from New York City following an overtime loss to the Rangers. It was the day after the butt-flop heard 'round the world. That's when the man at the center of the embarrassment showed up at Scott Fitzgerald's room at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

"I couldn't believe it, there was Tuukka [Rask], sitting in the chair," Scott Fitzgerald recalled. "I knew he must have been tired, but it shows what kind of guys we have on our team.

"I'll always remember what he said, he looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I promise we'll beat them in Game 5.'"

Rask and the Bruins closed out their Eastern Conference semifinal series the next night.

That casual meeting between friends wasn't the only one to go down in Fitzgerald's room. Following the accident, he was put under strict orders from Bruins management not to engage in his typical duty of turning over each and every rock on draft prospects. But in the weeks leading up to the entry draft, general manager Peter Chiarelli assembled Fitzgerald's staff in a boardroom at Spaulding to go over prospects.

Undoubtedly, during such a session, Fitzgerald would have gone to bat for those kids he believed in. It's something specific the Bruins are looking for these days. When talking about what goes into the ideal makeup of a young player, Fitzgerald even went so far as to drop the "We can't have passengers" line that Claude Julien did during this year's Cup run.

It's something he saw in a kid he wasn't able to watch play during the past season.

"I don't even think Ryan knew we liked him though," Scott said. "We talk about skills though, and we view competitiveness as a skill. Now, people might look at Ryan and see a kid they think is undersized. But Ryan is a kid that has the character we want.

"We're not saying everybody's going to be Patrice Bergeron, but that's the mold. He did what he did out of straight competitiveness. That's what we want in the room."

In a word, that is toughness -- not pugilist toughness, but the desire to play hockey, no matter what.

***

After a series of nearly a dozen surgeries, Scott Fitzgerald hopes to take his first steps sometime later this summer. Then, he'll be able to start getting back out to the rinks and looking for the next class of Boston hockey greats.

He remembered all the time family members spent by his bedside throughout the spring. He thanked the Bruins for giving him the time he needed to heal. He thought about the frequent visits from people in the hockey community and what the game meant to his recovery.

"Hockey people, to me, they're generous people," Scott Fitzgerald said. "They're genuinely kind people. It's a fraternity."

More than that, it's family.