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Justin Braun fights through grief, inspires Sharks in Stanley Cup

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Justin Braun knew his father-in-law was going to die.

Tom Lysiak, the former NHL center with the Atlanta Flames and the Chicago Blackhawks, had been diagnosed with leukemia three years ago. The 63-year-old’s health had reached a point of inevitability as the San Jose Sharks defenseman’s team journeyed through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

“You’ve got the distraction of hockey. But you still go home and look into your wife’s eyes and feel the pain,” he said.

Lysiak passed on May 30. It was the same day Braun, 29, was playing in his first Stanley Cup Final game. His mind, admittedly, was elsewhere.

“Long day. A lot of stress. A stage like that, how fast they are, you can’t be mentally slow. But that’s just what happened. You just felt slow,” he said of the 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“You want to be there for your family, but you can’t. It eats at you.”

Jessie Lysiak Braun met Justin on a blind date a few years ago. She was a chef for a yacht company in the Bahamas, and his friend rented one of the yachts. Soon, he was playing matchmaker, and the match was made. The couple was married in Aug. 2014.

He got to know Tom Lysiak well through the years, bonding over his playing days and Braun’s current line of work. "He was great; full of life," Braun said after the Sharks’ Game 1 loss, via NHL.com. "Loved to hang out with the boys, hearing about the hockey days when he played. He was just one of the guys, loved hanging out. [He] was a great husband, a great father; was great to me, welcomed me into the family.”

Braun rejoined his family after Game 2 of the series: Another loss, but one in which Braun scored his first goal of the playoffs. Rudy Staedler, one of the Sharks’ owners, flew Braun down to Atlanta, where his wife Jessie and their four-and-a-half-month-old daughter Madison were waiting to pay their respects. 

He arrived at 8 a.m. They left at 8 p.m.

“It was good to spend some time with family,” said Braun. “My wife and young child got to come with me after the funeral. To get to see them, have that support and give them support. You have to have that at this time.”

Braun said he also needed some closure, to regain his focus for the series. 

Despite the mutant ability of professional athletes to compartmentalize off-ice emotional strife, occasionally those distractions creep through the firewall. 

“You’ve been doing it for so long. When you’re on the ice, you want to shut your brain off and focus on the game. When other things are creeping in, that’s when you’re making slow plays and making reads,” he said.

In Game 3, played back in San Jose on Saturday night, Jessie and Madison and his mother-in-law Melinda were in attendance to see Braun play outstanding hockey, shutting down Sidney Crosby while scoring yet another goal in these playoffs in the Sharks’ 3-2 overtime win.

“I thought he was excellent last night,” said coach Peter DeBoer. “He's one of those quiet guys that just shows up every day and punches in, does his job.”

Braun is averaging 21:19 per game, skating on a shut-down pairing with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. He has two goals – scored in the last two games – and four assists. The Minneapolis native is a career Shark, debuting in 2010-11 after being drafted in the seventh round in 2007.

“Really, we wouldn't be here without him. He's been exceptional,” said DeBoer.

And inspirational, according to the coach.

“I don't know if you can understand the emotions of the last week for him, the last couple weeks. He's known this day was coming. For him to play through and do what he's done for us, I can't say enough about that. I know his teammates appreciate it," he said.

Braun appreciates the accolades, but mourns the context.

“Under the circumstances, it’s not really the best way to become a household name,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it has to be the case, but the guys have been great to me. Get a couple of goals, and it feels like you’re playing above yourself.”

It’s been an effort that Tom Lysiak would have no doubt appreciated. And it was a night Braun hoped gave hs loved ones the kind of emotional oasis that hockey has provided him during this time of grief. 

“I’m sure it was a nice escape for everyone last night,” he said. 

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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