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BEHIND THE BEARD

BY CHRIS WESCOTT

The loud crack of the thick ice expanding and forming below makes a sound akin to that of train cars joining together. At night, the sound strikes an eerie, ominous tone that would send those with weaker nerves running - sliding - for the shoreline.

In a small ice-fishing shack on Slave Lake, in the dead of the Canadian winter, in temperatures ranging from -11 to -31 Celsius that week - and with nothing to block the biting wind - Eric Gryba and his wife, Cate, were enjoying the bye week in a way that was uniquely them. The sound of cracking ice was mildly unnerving, but nothing to abandon their vacation for.

They loved it.

The shack was small, with two single bunk beds and a small, wood-burning stove as the lone sources of comfort and warmth. A generator powered the lights they could play cards by, and a small radio allowed for some noise other than the howling, unabated wind and cracking below. The small community of fellow ice-fishing shacks dotted the lake nearby, and provided some intermittent company and conversation.

While some… most… players would look to get away to some warm destination, preferably near decisively unfrozen water, the Grybas are a much different breed.

"(Eric) is kind of one of a kind," said Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot. "He walks to the beat of his own drum there. Not too many guys want to go ice fishing when you could go to Mexico or the Dominican or someplace like that and sit on a beach.

"I definitely wouldn't want to go with him."

Eric is a burly, 6-foot-4 NHL defenceman. He's most recognizable amongst his peers when his face is covered in a bushy beard. It's some small alleviation of the cold wind out on the lake, but it also fits the narrative of one who has spent much of his life outdoors.

"As a kid, my earliest memories are doing something like hunting or fishing outside with dad," said Gryba.

Cate is much like her husband.

"Hunting, fishing, anything outdoors - she's the same," said Eric. "She loves being outside, so we're quite compatible that way."

Braving the elements is less about life-and-death survival and more spousal bonding for the Grybas. It should come as no surprise they'd head out onto a frozen lake during the bye week instead of some sandy beach.

It should also come as no surprise that the two have adapted well to life in Edmonton. With the city just a few hours' drive away from the Canadian Rockies, and close enough to plentiful hunting and fishing spots, the husband and wife duo is very much at home in Alberta.

That comfort with Edmonton was part of the reason a string of text messages between the couple went viral, as Cate thought Eric was the subject of an NHL Trade Deadline transaction at the end of February.

"We were in St. Louis," said Eric. "I was out to dinner with one of her best friends who was actually a bridesmaid at our wedding. I was out with her, her husband and their new baby and my best friend from home texted my wife and asked 'hey, is Eric getting traded? There's a rumour he's getting traded and might be in a package deal right now.'"

Cate tried calling her husband, but he of course was preoccupied. Panic set in.

"She didn't know what he was talking about so she tries calling me, but I'm out to dinner with her friend and not looking at my phone," said Eric. "Then I see that series of text messages, so I started laughing and called her and told her I'm not going anywhere, we're fine. And I told her 'I might tweet this.'"

Eric, of course, tweeted a screenshot of the conversation, and it gained popularity across the hockey community.

"It's a great city for us to be in. Throughout the fall, we do a ton of hunting around here. We are five hours from Saskatoon, so that's great for us because we have so many friends and family who come visit us. It's easy for us to hop home on breaks. We're big fans of Edmonton so she didn't really want to leave."

The humorous trade confusion wasn't the only "viral" social media moment for Gryba this season. The Oilers blueliner used his social media presence to help a cause he's passionate about.

On the ice, Gryba is an imposing figure with a physical style of play. His rough, outdoorsy appearance hides a much different side. Behind the beard, Gryba is much more.

BYE, BYE, BEARDY

Inside his ice-fishing shack, Gryba recorded a video of himself beseeching fans to help raise funds and awareness for Teammates for Kids - Garth Brooks' charity, which focuses on children's health, education and inner city outreach.

Gryba's involvement with the charity began when he entered the League as a member of the Ottawa Senators.

"A lot of these sick kids don't have the opportunities that we have," he said. "They're going through such terrible times with illness and disabilities. We couldn't even fathom what it's like. To give back to them and hopefully bring them more joy and more comfort to their life, it's pretty easy to get behind something like that."

In his video, Gryba pledged to donate $5,000 for 5,000 likes on his video, posted to the Oilers Facebook page. As a trade-off, Gryba also pledged to shave his beard if fans could get to 5,000 likes.

The post blew up to the tune of more than 25,000 likes, boosted by the promise of Garth Brooks himself, who vowed to match the $5,000. The Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation chipped in $2,500. Garth's wife Trisha Yearwood donated $10,000.

With an assist from Ethan Hughes, a 10-year-old patient from the Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton, Gryba said goodbye to his facial hair, happy to do so.

"That says a lot about the person that he is," said Talbot. "He's always trying to help out people less fortunate. He's a good person. Him and his wife are a part of all different causes and stuff like that. Knowing him pretty well off the ice and know what kind of person he is and that's the type of guy he is. He's very selfless."

Such compassion and generosity does not come as a surprise from the people who know Gryba personally. But if you would just judge this book by its cover, you may not get the whole story.

"I come off as having a little bit of a rough exterior, that's definitely true," Gryba said. "I think people do get a little surprised when I show that softer side once in a while but I think they maybe appreciate it a little more when it does come from a guy with a rougher exterior."

Gryba's oft-times defensive partner Darnell Nurse is not surprised at all by the person behind the beard, plaid shirts, camouflage and cowboy boots.

"That's the funny part about this sport is there are a lot of guys that go out there and play really hard, then they get in the room and they are some of the happiest guys in the room," said Nurse.

"It's funny how this sport works like that."

Without his beard, Gryba is hardly recognizable. But he's still the same person.

When Eric is not leveling a big hit on the ice, he's involved with pranks in the locker room. He claims to be behind most of them.

"His problem is everyone knows he's involved so they know exactly where to go when something is missing in a stall or something like that. He's definitely a prankster," said Nurse.

Or, when he's not doing that, Gryba is working on his duck-call business, Capital Waterfowling, of which he is a co-founder. Or, he's fishing, hunting, trading meat with his hunter friends or sending the spoils to his dad Shawn, who turns it into superb, hearty, home-cooking.

"I love to make fun of him and say he's a Saskatchewan bush person with the stuff he does on the lakes and in the woods," said Nurse.

"Eric is just a big, goofy lumberjack-looking guy," said Talbot. "He walks in and he's always wearing plaid and cowboy boots and stuff like that."

Joking about hobbies and appearance aside, you'd be hard-pressed to find bigger fans of Gryba than his Oilers teammates.

"He's just a down-to-earth, good dude," Nurse said. "The best part about Eric is no matter what his situation is, he comes in every day with a smile on his face. He brings everyone's spirits up. He's great to have around the room.

"He's one of the best guys I've been around playing hockey."

Talbot agrees with Nurse.

"You don't expect him to be a hockey player (when you first meet him), but he goes out there and does his job really well," said the goaltender. "He's a great guy off the ice and a good team guy. He's great to have in the room."

Talbot has grown close with Gryba, beginning with the friendship between their wives and common interests, evolving into dinners on the road. That being said, it's unlikely you'd find the two ice-fishing together in the harsh Canadian winter. Gryba is one of a kind.

When you meet Eric Gryba, you almost instantly understand his passions in life. It's also not hard to see - when it grows back that is - there's more to the person behind the beard.