VANCOUVER, B.C. - Putting life and hockey in perspective didn't come easy Friday for the Vancouver Canucks.
While they should have been feeling good after clinching an NHL playoff berth, teammate Taylor Pyatt was returning to his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ont., after his fiancee died in a car crash.
Players said it was difficult to get through practice. They talked softly in halting sentences after hearing of the death of Carly Bragnalo in Jamaica where she was on holiday.
Pyatt and Bragnalo, both 27, were to be married this summer.
"Obviously rooming with Taylor on the road I knew he cared a lot about her and was really looking forward to his wedding," said forward Alex Burrows. "I was looking forward to it too."
The couple would talk by phone every night when the team was on the road, Burrows said.
"It's really sad and a trying time right now but we're a tight group. We've faced adversity in the past and we'll try to battle through it."
The team learned of Bragnalo's death as they arrived at GM Place for practice.
"No one can say or explain anything to make us feel better," Burrows said. "Only time will tell. Right now it's really challenging."
It's the second tragedy to strike the Canucks in less than a year. Promising defenceman Luc Bourdon was killed in an off-season motorcycle crash in New Brunswick.
It also came just as the Canucks earned a single point from Thursday's 6-5 shootout loss to the Anaheim Ducks to clinch a playoff berth for the second time in four years.
They have become the NHL's hottest team, going 20-5-2 after a club-record nine-game home losing streak and are battling the Calgary Flames for first in the Northwest Division.
But that was secondary on Friday.
"It puts life into perspective, obviously," said goalie Roberto Luongo, the team captain. "It makes you cherish life a bit more."
According to the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, Jamaican police said Bragnalo was one of five passengers in a cab, including her mother Debbie. Police say the car lost control on a corner, hit a utility pole and overturned.
Debbie Bragnalo, 48, was treated for injuries at Black River Hospital. It was not known when of if she was released, the Chronicle-Journal said.
Marcie Kawahorne was the other Canadian in the vehicle driven by Craig Sutherland of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. The names of the other two passengers were not released.
"There's not much information," Pyatt's mother Kathy told the Chronicle-Journal. "The (Bragnalo) family is all down there. I'd rather not talk about it right now."
Bragnalo was well liked among Pyatt's teammates and their spouses. Forward Ryan Kesler said he and his wife Andrea were close to both of them.
"To hear the news this morning, I couldn't imagine what Taylor's going through," Kesler said, still speaking of Bragnalo in the present tense.
"Carly's a great person, inside and out. She was always the life of the party. She lit up a room when she walked into it."
General manager Mike Gillis said in a statement that the hockey club will support the families of Bragnalo and Pyatt any way it can.
"Carly was a lovely and generous young woman who shared her spirit for life with our players, their spouses and their extended families," Gillis said.
Luongo described her as a person high on life.
"Taylor loved her so much so I'm sure it's not an easy day," he said.
Kesler said practice was difficult to get through before weekend games Saturday in Edmonton against the Oilers and here Sunday against the Colorado Avalanche.
"It's going to be important to make sure that we come to play and play hard for Big Pye (Pyatt)," Luongo said.
Burrows said hockey might also ease the pain.
"Once you're on the ice, you forget about what's going on outside the ice surface but at the same time it's tough when you're alone or your mind's away.
"You don't really understand why."
The adversity will make the Canucks stronger, said coach Alain Vigneault.
"We've faced adversity before and we got closer together and pulled through it. This is what we're going to do at this present time.
"We have to deal with it on a personal level and on a professional level we still have work to do."
In practice, Vigneault had Pavol Demitra skating in Pyatt's place on the third line with Kyle Wellwood and Steve Bernier. Mason Raymond moved into Demitra's spot on the second unit.
Defenceman Shane O'Brien, whose locker stall is next to Pyatt's, said the tragedy shows life can't be taken for granted.
"Life can be taken away that quickly," said O'Brien as Pyatt's equipment dangled from hooks over his shoulder. "Some days you're not feeling good or you're having a bad day, tragedy puts it in perspective...how precious life is."
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