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Dumba, Fleury tattoos honor friend lost to suicide

Wild, Hurricanes defensemen discuss unique tribute, aim to spread awareness of mental illness

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

Matt Dumba is trying to keep his composure, but his eyes are welling up. He begins talking, and his voice cracks even more.  

The Minnesota Wild defenseman is trying to tell the story behind his first tattoo, an intricate design that covers most of his back. 

But to Dumba, it's more than a tattoo; it's a constant reminder of the immeasurable and unseen pain mental illness can inflict on someone, the quiet suffering no one, except for the person experiencing it, can see or feel.   

It's a tribute to his friend Kale Williams. 

"The first piece on my back was a memorial piece for one of my friends who passed away when I was [playing] in junior," Dumba said. "It's pretty emotional. I don't think I've ever talked about it, really, but it's a memorial piece for him."

He chose to talk about it on this day, in Chicago in early September. He's not sure why he finally opened up about it, but he was finally ready to tell the story.

Williams was from Red Deer, Alberta. He was the kid who made everyone smile, the friend everyone wanted to have, Dumba said.

Williams didn't play for the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League like Dumba did from 2010-13. He was unable to play hockey because of a neuromuscular disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease that attacked his nerves, deteriorating his limbs enough to create ankle and foot problems. 

But Williams felt like part of the team.  

Kale Williams didn't play for Red Deer, but he was close with players like Matt Dumba and Haydn Fleury. Williams killed himself on Feb. 10, 2013. "No one knew he was hurting like that," Dumba said.  

 

Because his stepfather, Dean Williams, worked for the Rebels, Kale Williams was a longtime fan. One of his closest friends, former Red Deer forward Scott Feser, introduced him to Dumba and Haydn Fleury, now a defenseman for the Carolina Hurricanes. They took to him like he was one of them.

"He started coming to our games, coming to our parties," Fleury said. "He was the life of our team parties. He was a really cool, really charismatic kid."

Williams killed himself at age 17 on Feb. 10, 2013, a tragic and shocking turn of events for Dumba, Fleury and all those who knew him. 

"No one knew that he was hurting like that," said Dumba, who was 18 at the time.

His friends and family said they believe Williams was suffering from an untold mental illness, which is the cause of approximately 90 percent of suicide deaths, according to research documented by the Boston Children's Hospital.

"I was in shock for the three days after, and then the funeral came and I just remember breaking down," said Fleury, who was 16. "The Victoria Royals were in town and it worked out that two of Kale's friends played on Victoria. I remember seeing this picture of him in a blue car as a little guy, and I just broke down and cried. I'll remember that for the rest of my life."

The two players remember him each day with the tributes they wear on their bodies; like Dumba, Fleury also has a tattoo honoring Williams.

A year after Williams' death, Dumba had the tattoo put on his back. It has a sugar skull with an Afro and a pick in it because he said Williams liked to grow out his hair. On the skull is a chain with a small Jesus piece around the neck because he and Williams liked to rap together.

"A lot of cultures use a sugar skull for a celebration, like they grieve through the celebration of that person's life," Dumba said. "That's why I put it there. He was always the happiest kid ever. You see him dancing. Really funny. Witty kid."

Nearby is a lion and the word "courage" because, Dumba said, "I'm a Leo and I love 'The Lion King.' It's for the courage to come back and the courage for my friend Kale. 

"It's about having the courage to talk to those you might think are going through some tough times. Bravery. Stand up. Be there for whoever needs you."

Fleury's tattoo, which he got when he was 19, is on his left arm. There are four playing cards; the letters K and W are on the clubs and diamonds, respectively, to represent Williams' initials, and there is a two of hearts and a 10 of spades to represent the date he died.

The tattoo on the left arm of Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Haydn Fleury honors his friend Kale Williams, who killed himself at the age of 17 in 2013. 

 

Under the cards is a pair of dice with the numbers four and six, representing Williams' favorite number, 46, which was worn by Colin Fraser, his favorite Red Deer player, who shares a birthday with Williams' brother, Kobe, now 20, and used to come to the Williams house for birthday cake before he played in the NHL.

Fleury also honors Williams in each game by writing "KW" on each of his sticks. 

"I'm always thinking of him," Fleury said. "This game can produce some hard times, but if you keep it in perspective, you realize it's just a game and there are bigger things out there. When it comes to something like that, experiencing it at such a young age, 16, it was really hard. That puts life into perspective. As much as hockey is a passion and a love, at the end of the day it's really just a game, and there are a lot of things people can go through in their lives. Things can be a lot tougher than a bad game or a bad day at the rink."

Dumba and Fleury don't hide the impact Williams' suicide has had on them, how it has shaped them to be the people and professionals they are today, and how it has made them aware of the impact mental illness can have on someone.

"Now if someone wants to talk, I'll be the person who is the good listener," Fleury said. "A lot of people just have to get things off their chest. If they're struggling, they just need support, people being there for them. You can be the friend, the brother."

Keeping perspective helped Dumba get through last season, when the pectoral muscle injury he sustained on Dec. 15 put an end to what was shaping up to be the best season of his life. He had 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists) in 32 games.

Perspective has helped Fleury get through the tough times in the game, including being demoted to Charlotte of the American Hockey League last season and taking longer than he and many others thought it would to fulfill his potential as the No. 7 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.

In addition to his tattoo, Haydn Fleury honors his friend Kale Williams by writing "KW" on each of his sticks.  

 

"When you do have that positive attitude look at life, knowing things can be taken away from you just like that, it forces you to live in the moment, in the now, with the people you're around," Dumba said. "I don't think I've always had this outlook. I've been full circle with this whole topic. It's taken years to build it up. Through the trials and bumps, relationships, you kind of get a different perspective for what's going on.

"When something you love gets taken away from you it's a hard adjustment, a tough reality. On a simpler scale, that was hockey for me last year, but on a grand scale, the loved ones, the people around you, it's a whole different level."

Dean Williams said he believes Dumba and Fleury are keeping the memory of his son alive.

"I guess in a way that is Kale's legacy," said Williams, Red Deer's vice president of marketing and sales. "The fact that those guys in their position are still talking about it means that mental health is getting out into the public and it's not such a stigma anymore. Before if you had a mental health issue it was kept quiet because they were embarrassed. We have learned through Kale that it's nothing to be embarrassed about. It needs to be talked about."

Williams said the Rebels have made a five-year commitment to help fund mental health initiatives in Red Deer. He said Ciara Williams, Kale's older sister, now 26, is working for the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta so she can be in the business of helping others.

"One of the things that society doesn't do is they don't treat mental health issues like an injury," Dean Williams said. "If you break your arm by falling off your bike, you go to the hospital and they treat it. With mental health it's a little more difficult because there are different causes and different elements. We need to get it out there in the public, find out what causes it and guys like these two NHL friends of Kale's that are getting it out there, that helps."

Fleury will be the Hurricanes spokesman for their Mental Health Awareness Night at PNC Arena on Jan. 31, when they play the Vegas Golden Knights. 

He and Dumba have discussed arranging a summer golf tournament in honor of Williams to raise money to support mental health awareness.

Since the death of his friend Kale Williams, Matt Dumba has become passionate about helping those struggling with mental illness. 

 

"It's something I'm really passionate about it, and I definitely want to get more into it, more involved as my life progresses," Fleury said. "Everyone has a voice, and I think more importantly everyone has a set of ears and can be a good listener."

Dumba said he has done work in the Twin Cities with children, including some who have eating disorders.

"I was a little naive to begin with about it, and as I talked to the nurse there I kind of found out mental health issues can come from anything," Dumba said. "Some of these girls are little girls, cute as can be, and you're wondering, why are they going through this? It's great to talk to them, listen to them and let them know that there is someone here to just try to understand more about them. Some of them just choked on food when they were younger and now they have a phobia of eating. It's crazy how powerful the brain is, how strong it can be and how susceptible it can be."

Dumba said he wants to study more about mental health awareness for later in his life.

"I've talked to my mom and little brother about that being what I want to get into, to raise awareness for, support initiatives," Dumba said. "I just want to keep building my knowledge about it. You have to know what you're jumping into. There is so much I don't know."

If they knew more as teenagers, maybe they would have seen the problems Williams was having. They only saw the smiles, the dancing, the rapping. 

"You'd think he was joking if he said something out of context," Fleury said. 

Now they memorialize him with body art, remember him by telling stories, and live their lives the way they believe he would want to live his. Maybe by doing that, they'll one day prevent someone else from becoming another victim.

"Oftentimes, the happiest people are just the best at hiding it, which is also very scary," Dumba said. "I encourage people to speak to their loved ones, open up and express themselves. You want to bring light to this darkness."

 

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