Monday, January 28, 2008 Updated: February 7, 11:50 AM ET
By Eric Adelson ESPN The Magazine
The magical tale of the hockey hero and the sick little boy came to an end on a warm spring day in Detroit in 2006. Braxton Davis, the sick little boy, stood silently inside the Red Wings' locker room as the players streamed out, the day before a first-round game against Edmonton. The room was empty, save for one man, Steve Yzerman, who lingered in khakis and a long-sleeved shirt. The Captain, holding a stick in his hand, walked over to Braxton. The boy reached up, took the stick, held it tight. He looked so happy, so blissfully unaware. Maybe Yzerman's friendship with the 11-year-old, a relationship forged five years earlier, was one reason the boy had lived this long. And maybe, in the boy's final moments, he'd hold on to this memory the way he grasped the stick.
Whatever the case, though, this was the end. And Yzerman would not see Braxton Davis again.
The incredible tale of the hockey hero and the sick little boy began with another hockey stick. It was a Vic, made of wood and no longer than a man's arm. Brant Davis says he gave his son that stick soon after he was born, in March 1995. The boy, Braxton, looked just like his dad, round face and big cheeks, dark blond hair and wide eyes. But in those wide eyes was a problem: Braxton's pupils were different sizes. For months, doctors ran all kinds of tests, until they delivered terrifying results. Braxton had neuroblastoma, cancer of the nerves. Babies are one of the only things a human can create, Brant thought, and I did it wrong. He says he cringed as he pulled the Vic from Braxton as nurses wheeled the 9-month-old to surgery.
Braxton made it to his first birthday, but soon after, his mom, Karrie, had filed for divorce. The boy's life had changed twice before he was old enough to know it. Three years later, Brant says, he moved Braxton from their home in Salt Lake City to Denver to be close to doctors. Father and son adopted a hockey team they could grow with—not the hometown Avalanche but their bitter rivals, the Detroit Red Wings. Brant liked to stand out. So did his boy.
Braxton kept fighting his disease as Brant fought to be a good father. In 2001, Brant wrote the Wings an e-mail. In it he explained that he had a 6-year-old with cancer, a swarm of Avs fans around them and a love for Steve Yzerman. The Wings were coming to town soon. Could they set aside tickets for a sick boy and his dad? Within hours, Brant says, his phone rang. The caller ID read "BLOCKED." He picked up. Then: "This is Steve Yzerman."
Amazing. Days later there they were, father and son, at Wings practice at a local rink. A tall, graying man named John Hahn introduced himself as the director of media relations for the Wings, then listened to Brant's story about surgeries and chemo and hospital bills. Hahn says he couldn't take his eyes off the boy with no hair. He looked so sick.
Then Yzerman walked over, and Braxton stared in awe. The hockey hero looked the little boy in the eye and smiled. Braxton beamed. Yzerman didn't ask about the disease. Good thing, because Braxton still didn't know what neuroblastoma was. "There are people who know he's sick," Brant said later. "They ask how he's feeling. That makes him feel different. Steve didn't do that."
Braxton changed after that. "Before, nothing motivated him," Brant said. "Then it was, 'Can we get to the rink? I want to play for the Red Wings.'" Never mind that Braxton was teased at school for being a Wings fan, or that he was the only kid without hair. Brant remembers SportsCenter's Make-a-Wish series, in which athletes reach out to sick kids, and his son saying, "Those kids don't have anything compared to what I have."
Brant stayed in touch with the Wings over the next five years, asking for tickets whenever the team came to town. He says Yzerman invited him and Braxton to training camp in Traverse City, but it didn't work out. And when the little boy turned 11—incredible for a kid with cancer—in the winter of 2006, Yzerman asked Braxton and Brant to come to Detroit for the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He put up father and son at the tallest hotel in Michigan and invited them into the locker room after practice. That's where the hockey hero handed his stick to the sick little boy.
It's also where I met Brant. He told me Braxton was one of only 78 humans in whom both neuro-blastoma and lymphoma have been diagnosed. He talked about surgeries and chemo and hospital bills, told me about deciding to shave his head in sympathy. I wrote about Braxton and Yzerman briefly in The Magazine, then for ESPN.com: "Want to Know the True Stevie Y? Just Ask Braxton."
The horrible tale of the hockey hero and the sick little boy began on a frigid, rainy night last fall in Salt Lake City. A pretty woman with shoulder-length brown hair sat in a high-backed chair in a hotel lobby, an arm around her son. The woman was Karrie Nash-Hanberg—Brant's ex-wife, Braxton's mom. Her 12-year-old sat next to her; perched on the edge of his chair, he looked down at his feet. Karrie handed me a manila folder. A letter inside from the director of pediatric oncology at the University of Utah read, Braxton Davis was diagnosed in December of 1995 with neuroblastoma. He was treated with surgery only. No radiation or chemotherapy. His last scheduled follow-up with our clinic was in January of 1998, and he has done very well ever since. The chance of relapse or recurrence at this time is extremely low.
"Braxton," I said, "do you have cancer?"
"No," he replied, then burst into tears.
Karrie said her son has been healthy since he was 2. His father? That was another story entirely. Karrie met Brant in 1992 at Salt Lake Community College. "He sat behind me in class," she said. "He had a fun, outgoing personality." Brant was warm and innocent and always ready with a cool story. He was so charming that when he confessed to prior run-ins with the law, it didn't stop Karrie from falling for him. "I was shocked," she said. "But you like to give someone the benefit of the doubt." What he didn't tell her was that his troubles included theft and unlawful use of an ATM card in 1988. Karrie married Brant a year after they met, and Braxton was born two years after that."SAY YOU MOVED TO UTAH TO BE CLOSER TO YOUR
DOCTOR," HIS DAD SAID. THE CONFUSED BOY BALKED, AND BRANT SNAPPED, "JUST TELL HIM."
Not long into their marriage, though, Karrie began to have doubts about Brant. Even his most mundane stories began to unravel. "He'd tell me something," she recalled, "then I'd say, 'Wait a minute, I thought you said this.' And he had a different job each week. I'd call, and someone would say, 'He doesn't work here anymore.'"
In July 1994, Brant used a stolen check to pay for baseball cards at a collectibles show. Karrie didn't find out until a few months after Braxton was born, when Brant got into an argument over a traffic incident with an undercover policeman. When the cop ran Davis' name, he turned up an outstanding warrant. That was the last straw. "I gave him chance after chance," Karrie said. "I loved him. He's got a charisma that draws you in. But I've got this little boy here. I have to look out for him."
The divorce was finalized in 1997, giving Karrie full custody of Braxton and Brant visitation rights every other weekend and once during the week. Karrie said that when she remarried and moved from Salt Lake City to Denver, she took Braxton with her and Brant soon followed. When she moved back to Salt Lake in 2007, Brant followed again.
Somewhere along the line—Karrie forgets when—her son and her ex showed up from a weekend together with their heads shaved. She figured it was a father-son bonding ritual. But looking back, she regrets not asking more questions. She figured that when Braxton came home with stories about Steve Yzerman he was just spinning tales. Didn't all kids do that? She stopped asking Brant for explanations, because she never got any. Then, last year, a friend passed along an ESPN.com story about the hockey hero and the sick little boy.
Her eyes bulged as she read it. The Vic stick? Karrie was there when Braxton was wheeled into surgery, and she doesn't remember any hockey stick. The Red Wings? She has a picture of Braxton in an Avs jersey. "What's this about lymphoma?" she asked Brant. "Well," he shrugged, "there used to be a tumor near his lymph nodes."
Braxton said he didn't know he was sick until that day in the Detroit locker room, when he heard his dad talking about cancer. "I felt weird," he said in the hotel lobby, composed again. "I thought I had a normal life." He added that once, Brant called Yzerman and told his son to leave a message. "Say you moved to Utah to be closer to your doctor," his dad said. The confused boy balked, and Brant snapped, "Just tell him."
Davis has been convicted of several felonies in Utah over the past 20 years, including theft by deception and forgery.
"I know it's not the right thing to lie," Braxton said, voice quivering again, feet dangling above the floor. "But my dad never told me he lied."
Even after reading the story, Karrie was ready to let it slide, like she had all the other stories Brant had told over the years. She worried about Brant getting angry, and about Braxton being humiliated at school. Wouldn't another fight with Brant just hurt her son? "I would love to keep Brant away from Braxton," she said. "I think he's a bad influence. But I can't prevent him from seeing his son. I'd be in contempt of court." Her attorney told her she could probably get Brant's parental rights revoked but that the process would cost $6,000. "I don't have the money to fight it," she said.
She had no doubt that Brant loved Braxton, but how could he keep telling such a terrible lie about his own son? "I think Brant likes to be the dad who everybody says is so great," Karrie said. "He wants it always to be, 'He'd do anything for his little boy.' But that's not about Braxton. It's about him."
The maddening tale of the hockey hero and the sick little boy took another twist last September, at the Utah Olympic Oval, outside Salt Lake City, on a chilly afternoon. An overweight man in shorts and a Red Wings sweatshirt parked his green Range Rover in the lot, got out and pulled a hockey stick from the trunk. A white sticker covered the last letter of his Colorado license plate, making the number difficult to read. I ASKED BRANT IF HIS SON STILL HAS CANCER. "AS FAR AS I KNOW," HE RESPONDED. AND WHAT ABOUT THE RECORDS THAT SHOW HE'S HEALTHY? "I'M NOT A DOCTOR," HE SAID.
Brant had driven to the Oval from his job, where, even though there were always plenty of spaces out front, he parked in back. As he talked on his cell, parents dropped off their sons for practice with the Rocky Mountain Renegades. Brant was the head coach of the U-18 team.
He hit the locker room, then emerged in a Denver University warmup suit. A mother stood outside the rink, watching her son as she praised the coach. She said the coach had "credentials" in the form of "two rings" from his time at DU, unaware that the DU athletic department had no record of his ever having worked there. Another parent praised Coach Davis too, although, she confessed, "he didn't tell me his first name."
Brant skated onto the ice, flapped his arms, blew his whistle and started a drill by performing it himself. His ankles bent inward and he mishandled a pass. He was the worst skater on the ice. Still, the kids looked up to him, and the parents grinned. After an hour, he allowed breakaways. His players flew toward the net, scoring pretty goals. Then, Brant skated in, tried to scoop up a puck and whiffed. The disk slid harmlessly into the goalie's pads. Laughing, he put his glove to his neck in a mock choke and smiled toward a mom. How funny that the coach, of all people, couldn't get off a shot.
Brant was last off the ice. When I introduced myself, he seemed not to recognize me from that day in Detroit's locker room. When I asked him why he'd told the Red Wings his son had cancer, he looked as if he were about to cry. "Braxton fell off a high dive a few weeks ago," he said, fumbling for an answer. "And we saw the doctor who took out his tumor."
So &hellip did Braxton still have cancer?
"As far as I know."
What about the records that show he's healthy?
"I'm not a doctor."
Any comment for Steve Yzerman?
"Braxton has cancer, and he can do whatever."
The sad tale of the hockey hero and the sick little boy is nearly put to rest when I call John Hahn to tell him Braxton Davis doesn't have cancer.
"What does he have?" a worried Hahn says.
"Nothing," I respond. "He's healthy."
The line falls silent. It's Hahn's department that leaves tickets at the door of Joe Louis Arena for sick kids, that distributes the season tickets Red Wings coach Mike Babcock leaves for children in need, that passes on thankful letters from parents of children who've died. Turns out, it was Hahn—not Yzerman, as Brant claimed—who first called Brant that day to reach out to the father and the sick little boy.
Hahn says that shortly after he got Brant's first e-mail the Red Wings were preparing for the Avs at a public rink in Denver, so he invited the dad and son. "When a mother or father brings a child with cancer to a game, they look exhausted," Hahn says. "Not just from one night of lost sleep, but months and months. My mistake was looking at Braxton, not Brant. He never had the look of the parents I see every night."
Hahn says Brant contacted the team repeatedly after his locker-room encounter with Stevie Y, going so far as to call Yzerman's cell (a number The Captain gave him) to look for tickets when the Wings came through Colorado. Each time, the hockey hero paid for the tickets out of his own pocket. Looking back, Hahn says, it was a little weird when Brant asked if he and Braxton could visit Yzerman at his family cottage in Toronto over the summer. Yzerman stuttered at the idea, politely suggesting they instead plan something around training camp, which Brant mistakenly took as an invitation to Traverse City.
A few months after that conversation with Hahn my phone rings. The caller ID reads "BLOCKED." It's Yzerman. I tell him the whole story. "Really bizarre," Yzerman says, without sounding angry or frustrated. In a way, his calm makes sense. Yzerman began his career with one of the worst teams in NHL history. And though he lifted that club into the playoffs, he was nearly shipped to Ottawa, then asked to play second fiddle to a flashy Russian. Over the years he rehabbed from crippling injuries and, by the end of his career, needed to prop himself up on the ice with his stick. But who ever saw Yzerman angry? Who ever saw him give up?
"I'm not going to stop reaching out," Yzerman says. "Actually, I think I might do it more often."
And the little boy?
"Braxton is a nice young boy who seems to have been manipulated. I hope he can realize he did something wrong. It's not too late for him."
The true story of the hockey hero and the healthy little boy begins now.