ST. LOUIS - With each passing moment, Justin Garrels' smile grew larger.
As his heroes paraded through the Bruins' dressing room on Sunday afternoon to greet him, the 40-year-old struggled to find the words to express his appreciation for their support and well wishes.
It was the culmination of a grueling journey. And it was those men, he is certain, that had helped him survive.
Last September, the Anchorage, Alaska, native was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident. Over 30 broken bones, damage to his organs, and a massive brain contusion left him in a coma.
His doctors were hopeful that he would wake up given his young age, but Garrels and his wife, Shana, believe it was the men in Black & Gold that truly helped him through.
Doctors told Shana that talking to Justin could help him come out of the coma, so each night - 26 in total - as Justin lay in his hospital bed, she would update him on how the Bruins were faring. It was then that she also made him a promise.
"I reminded him every day," she said, "if he woke up and the Bruins made it to the Stanley Cup that we would go. I told him he can't go if he doesn't wake up."
With his hospital room decked out in Bruins memorabilia, including a special B's gown and blanket, as well as his lucky Bruins hat, Justin - after nearly a month in the ICU - had a breakthrough as he began to flutter his eyes and fingers. A few days later he awoke from his coma.
"The Bruins were with him," said Shana.
"Tons," Justin said of just how much he believes the Bruins aided his recovery. "I had Bruins stuff in my hospital room…we would listen to how the games were going, even when my brain [was still recovering]…it's helped me. It was very incentivizing for me."
And that is where his journey to the Stanley Cup Final began.
With Justin out of the coma, he was transferred to a long-term care hospital for two months, before moving onto a rehabilitation center in Colorado for another 10 weeks.
In early March, Justin returned to his home in Alaska to continue his rehab and regain the ability to walk. At the same time, the Bruins were charging towards the postseason, which provided him with plenty of motivation to make good on his wife's wager.
"It was amazing," said Shana. "For him to progress each time with learning to talk and learning to walk and being able to track and finally being able to watch them on TV and then progressing…oh my gosh, I don't know if I can put it into words."
That progression has coincided with Boston's postseason run. With each passing round, Garrels seemed to make another step in his recovery, as the prospect of a trip to the Cup Final - for both him and the Bruins - became more and more of a possibility.
"When it looked like they really were going to go to the Cup this year [he was] determined to be able to walk," said Shana. "He's one hard worker and he has fought and fought. I'm so proud of him."
Eventually, just days before the start of the Final, Justin shed his wheelchair and began walking with the assistance of a walker and cane. At that point, it was official. He was going to St. Louis for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.
"Now we're here," said Justin. "Oh my gosh."
Justin and Shana - also celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary - arrived in St. Louis on Saturday night and watched the Bruins' Game 3 victory over the Blues on television. They were planning on enjoying the sights around town as they counted down to Game 4 on Monday night.
But the Bruins reached out to Shana in response to a letter she wrote detailing her husband's experience - they were going to be special guests of the team for Sunday's practice at Enterprise Center.
"It's incredible. This is an unbelievable time for me," said Justin.
Upon their arrival to the rink, the Garrels were greeted by Tuukka Rask, who invited them into the dressing room for a tour.
One by one, the Bruins came by to say hello. Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Bruce Cassidy, David Pastrnak, Torey Krug, and Brad Marchand - whom Justin told he defends until the end no matter where he is - all bringing out a joy that had been escaping him for far too long.
"It was an out of body experience for me that I've always dreamt of for a long time," said Justin, who became a Bruins fan as a child because bears were his favorite animal. "It's something that's materializing for me. I still can't believe it. It's one of those pinch me [moments] - no, no, no…it's way more than that…I'll never forget it."
And while Justin was ecstatic to meet everyone that came his way, calling out their names as they approached, there was no one he was happier to see than David Backes.
As the 13-year veteran approached, Justin's eyes lit up as he bellowed, "David Backes!"
Justin told Backes how much he respected the winger's toughness and leadership and that he roots for him every time he hits the ice.
"His reaction was pretty shocking to me," said Backes. "He was talking to Bergy and March, which are kind of the Mt. Rushmore of our team, and all of a sudden, his reaction to me…I was almost trying to double check to make sure he knew who he was talking to.
"He talked about toughness and being an inspiration that way - something I take pride in with my game - that he could see through the TV screen. And to be able to meet him face to face and give him a hug and wish him continued recovery and continued good health…it was a cool moment today to put things into perspective all around."
Like Backes and the Bruins, Justin - who grew up playing hockey in Alaska - approached his recovery with a blue-collar, hard-hitting style.
"I told the doctors while he was in a coma - they were hopeful because he was young. I said he's a fighter, I said he's a hockey player, these hockey players are tough," said Shana. "I can't imagine what they go through. I said he'll be just fine and he's fought like they have."
That fight continues. For Justin - and the Bruins.
"Through thick and thin…I don't care if they're losing or winning, it's all about the Bruins for me," said Justin. "I probably make people [angry] when I start screaming when I'm in bars if the Bruins are winning. It's OK. I get excited."