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Pushing forward in the memory of his brother and overcoming three surgeries, Kevin Hayes found his way back on the ice this season when many thought there was no point.
In actuality, there were plenty of points — important, meaningful points to play again this season.
And it turns out, Hayes has been arguably the Flyers' best player in his return, providing a much-needed positive in a long and disappointing 2021-22 season for the club.
Battling an adversity-filled year personally, Hayes was voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association's Philadelphia chapter as the Flyers' nominee for the 2021-22 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. The NHL award is given annually to "the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey."
The 29-year-old's life changed forever last summer. His brother and mentor Jimmy Hayes died tragically on Aug. 23 at the age of 31. Just about a month later and two days before training camp, Hayes suddenly had to undergo abdominal surgery, his second procedure of its kind in fewer than four months.
"It's been a tough month," Hayes said Sept. 24. "Life is fragile, honestly. It's never fun to lose someone who's your best friend, someone you've looked up to and been paired with your whole entire life."
It's been pretty cool to see the Flyers support Kevin Hayes by wearing hats honoring his late brother Jimmy Hayes, whose nickname was "Broadway." pic.twitter.com/FXclSlnAE3
— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) December 30, 2021
Hayes made his season debut Nov. 13 and was forced out one game later. The 6-foot-5 center returned Dec. 1 and played through pain until mid-January, when he came back out. Hayes underwent a third procedure Jan. 18. It was discovered that he had developed an infection in his groin area.
"It's been a lot of ups and downs for me," Hayes said March 4. "Tried playing, still didn't feel too good, tried coming back again, tried seeing a bunch of people, still never felt so good. Found out that I had a real bad infection in my groin that kind of spread through the whole upper leg on my left side. Got to a point where surgery was needed, we did that, waited for the infection to get out and waited for this lump that I had to settle down. Feel pretty good now."
Despite the Flyers' season being lost, Hayes made his return the next day. Since then, through 25 games, he has led the Flyers in scoring with 21 points (six goals, 15 assists) while playing 19:20 minutes per game.
"It's definitely been a whirlwind of a year for myself and my family," Hayes said last week. "After everything that went down in August, I didn't really know how this year was going to play out. It's been a bit of an up-and-down year surgery-wise and just kind of trying to stay really connected with my family, trying to check in on them every day while I'm trying to focus and play.
"It's been difficult, but playing hockey this year was something I knew was going to be emotional. It definitely was, it's had its ups and downs. But definitely proud of what I've been able to accomplish this year and definitely been thinking a lot about my brother when I do play.
"It was difficult this year trying to come back and play and not really knowing why I wasn't getting better. When you get three surgeries, you should start feeling better. That point was never really happening for me. I'd feel better for a couple of days and then right back to square one. Ultimately we figured out that I had an infection in my blood. Thankfully we figured that out and once that settled down, that's when I started feeling a lot better.
"I feel like my game is starting to get back to where it was. Obviously our team game isn't where it needs to be; I don't really care what happens with my stats individually if the team's not winning."
Oskar Lindblom won the Masterton Trophy last season, becoming the fourth Flyer to ever take home the award. He joined Bob Clarke (1971-72), Tim Kerr (1988-89) and Ian Laperriere (2010-11) as the Flyers' recipients.
"Kevin is an excellent choice and is deserving of this nomination," Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said in a statement released by the team. "To return from both the physical and emotional challenges he faced this season speaks volumes about his character as a person, but also his commitment to our club and to his teammates. Kevin not only fought through many issues during the year, he performed at a high level and was one of our best players each time he was in the lineup."
Following a vote by the PHWA, the winner of the honor will be announced among the NHL awards.
Here are the voted Masterton nominees for each club:
Anaheim Ducks — Ryan Getzlaf
Arizona Coyotes — Andrew Ladd
Boston Bruins — Jake DeBrusk
Buffalo Sabres — Kyle Okposo
Calgary Flames — Chris Tanev
Carolina Hurricanes — Antti Raanta
Chicago Blackhawks — Dylan Strome
Colorado Avalanche — Jack Johnson
Columbus Blue Jackets — Justin Danforth
Dallas Stars — Tyler Seguin
Detroit Red Wings — Marc Staal
Edmonton Oilers — Kris Russell
Florida Panthers — Anthony Duclair
Los Angeles Kings — Blake Lizotte
Minnesota Wild — Jared Spurgeon
Montreal Canadiens — Carey Price
Nashville Predators — Mark Borowiecki
New Jersey Devils — Nico Hischier
New York Islanders — Zdeno Chara
New York Rangers — Chris Kreider
Ottawa Senators — Anton Forsberg
Philadelphia Flyers — Kevin Hayes
Pittsburgh Penguins — Brian Boyle
St. Louis Blues — Vladimir Tarasenko
San Jose Sharks — Brent Burns
Seattle Kraken — Jaden Schwartz
Tampa Bay Lightning — Alex Killorn
Toronto Maple Leafs — Ondrej Kase
Vancouver Canucks — Luke Schenn
Vegas Golden Knights — Jack Eichel
Washington Capitals — Nicklas Backstrom
Winnipeg Jets — Josh Morrissey
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