To an outsider, the Tyler Cragg Memorial Tournament was a chance to capture a gold medal; to take home bragging rights.
For those in the Toronto Jr. Canadiens organization – and to anyone who had the pleasure of knowing the tournament’s namesake – the event was a way to honour a man that dedicated his life to the game, touching so many others along the way.
Tyler Cragg first got involved in the Jr. Canadiens organization in 2000 and went on to serve the club as a head coach and president, while also acting as general manager of the Canadian Ice Academy in Mississauga.
“Tyler started coaching in the Markham Islanders organization in the late 90s,” wrote Toronto Jr. Canadiens general manager Johnny Winstanley in an email to Breakout.
“He took over the 1990-born JRC team for the 2000-01 season and then coached in the organization for 15 years, was president and general manager for six years and also coached the inaugural season with our Jr. A program.”
A leader in every sense of the word, Cragg was the driving force behind the creation of the Canadiens Cup tournament, the event that now bears his name.
“He took pride in everyone he coached,” Winstanley praised. “His 1990 team was a very special group to Tyler. He had Alex Pietrangelo on that team and he would love to sit and tell us stories about how good he was as a kid.”
Not as a player, but as a kid. That’s what mattered most to Cragg, ensuring his boys developed as human beings as well as hockey players. Pietrangelo is a perfect example of Cragg’s goals coming to fruition – he now captains the St. Louis Blues.
It was in April 2013, while preparing for the Jr. Canadiens’ year-end banquet, that Cragg had his first seizure. Within two days he had a lesion – a damaged or abnormally functioning area – removed from his brain.
The ensuing diagnosis was a shock to everyone who knew the otherwise healthy 41-year-old: Glioblastoma Multiforme, a form of brain cancer.
Cragg tackled the news the only way he knew how – with unbeatable spirit and unmatched determination. He hardly missed a beat at the rink, returning to both the Jr. Canadiens and the Academy as he began treatment at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto.
Through it all, Cragg continued to pour his heart and soul into his greatest passion.
“He dealt with his illness in a very positive manner and fought every minute,” said Jr. Canadiens president Peter Friedmann.
Born in British Columbia, Tyler grew up in a military family and his parents, Erik and Karen, eventually landed in Orleans, Massachusetts, where his father opened a dentistry practice. In the spring of 2015, Tyler joined his family in the small town on Cape Cod to continue his recovery from a stroke that followed his third brain surgery in two years.
On August 18, 2015 – Cragg’s 44th birthday – a Go Fund Me page with a goal of $55,000 was established to raise money for his treatment. The target was surpassed within days, thanks in large part to the generosity of those in the JRC, GTHL and Ontario Junior Hockey League communities.
“Coaches he competed against for years stepped up,” recalled Winstanley. “People donated who had never even met Tyler, but had kids in the JRC organization. I’m sure his family read every name that donated to him.”
“Tyler was fully aware of the efforts and they were very much appreciated by the Cragg family,” added Friedmann, who, along with his family, visited Tyler on a regular basis and is remains in touch with the Craggs.
Less than four months later, on Dec. 7, 2015, Tyler died after “courageously fighting cancer without complaint for nearly three years.” He was surrounded by family and had recently had a visit from Rick Crumpton, Joe Pietrangelo and Brian Hood, some of his closest friends from the JRC organization.
Cragg’s impact on the players he led and the organization he represented with such high esteem for more than a decade, continues through his name – from the tournament he helped create to the newly renamed Jr. Canadiens Coach of the Year Award to the bursary fund established in his memory.
“When you think or speak about Tyler the same thing always comes up,” said Winstanley. “He was a great hockey guy and an even better person.”
And that’s how he’ll always be remembered.