Stars' Game 1 Hero Joel Hanley's Tale of Tragedy, Triumph and Faith - The Hockey News on Sports Illustrated

Stars' Game 1 Hero Joel Hanley's Tale of Tragedy, Triumph and Faith

The Dallas Stars defenseman picked the perfect time to score the first goal of his NHL career. And the journey to that goal is one that is long and winding and full of life lessons.
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At the 5:40 mark of the first period Saturday night – at the age of 29, playing in his 434th pro game in his seventh season for his eighth team in his third league – Joel Hanley jumped into the slot, took a perfect pass from Roope Hintz and went high blocker for the first goal of his NHL career. If you’re going to wait that long to score your first, there are worse times than Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final to get it.

As Joel Hanley sat on the Dallas Stars’ bench in a daze after the goal, he thought a little bit about the long and winding journey he’d taken to be in that moment at that time, about how he almost gave it all up to become a firefighter in his first year of pro, how playing in the Cup final was so far removed from his days of playing Jr. C hockey in his hometown after being an overwhelmed 16-year-old at the London Knights training camp. He thought about his parents, Robert and Roseanne, and reflected on everything they’ve sacrificed and all they’ve endured along the way. And he thought about his older brother, Jordon, because Jordon and hockey have been intimately intertwined through his entire life. Every time his skates hit the ice, no matter what level he’s playing or where, Joel Hanley thinks about his older brother.

Jordon Hanley was four years older than his brother, but that didn’t stop him and Joel from being both inseparable and hyper competitive with each other. Despite the age difference, they were able to play together one season, in 2007-08 with the Georgina Ice Jr. C team in their hometown of Keswick, Ont., when Joel was 16 and Jordon was 20. They won a Central Ontario Jr. C title together that season, which provided the springboard for Joel to play Jr. A hockey the next two seasons, which then led to a scholarship at UMass-Amherst, which led to a pro career.

Fred Shero told the Philadelphia Flyers before they won the Stanley Cup in 1974, “Win today and we walk together forever.” Winning a championship is as strong a bonding experience as you’re going to have in life and it’s usually between players who are randomly brought together through their hockey careers. To share that triumph with the person closest to you in the world is even better. “It was one of the most fun seasons I’ve had playing hockey,” Joel said. “I looked up to (Jordon) so much. I felt like I could always do what I wanted and he would have my back. I felt like I had a protector out there and if anyone touched me, he’d be right there to have my back. That was a nice thing to have as a 16-year-old.”

Not long after that, people closest to Jordon began to notice some changes in Jordon’s behavior. He was still personable and outgoing, but his emotions seemed to range from euphoric highs to the depths of despair without notice or explanation. Then on Oct. 11, 2010, when Joel was barely into the first month of his freshman year at UMass, he got a phone call from his parents telling him that Jordon had taken his own life. Joel was crushed, not only at losing his brother and closest friend, but at the seeming randomness of it all.

“We think that he developed some kind of bi-polar disorder,” Joel said. “I wish I had known more about mental health when I was 19. I was not a punk, but looking back I only cared about myself and I only cared about hockey, so it was really hard for me to see his down times. He was so upbeat and he cared about everyone, so it was really tough for that to have happened. But I know Jordon is in a better place and I know that one day, I’ll see him again. That’s kind of what gets me through the day.”

Joel went back to play and learn at UMass that year and on the ice acquitted himself very well, leading all Minutemen defensemen in scoring with three goals and 18 points, despite playing in only 28 games. But much of the time, his head was not in a very good place for obvious reasons. He had always had his strong Christian faith, another thing he shared with Jordon, but his off-ice habits were becoming a concern. “After Jordon passed,” Joel said, “there was a year or so where I don’t know if I went off the rails a little bit.” Not long after that, Hanley met Kate Farnham, who played for the UMass women’s lacrosse team along with her identical twin sister, Anne. (If the surname sounds familiar, it might be because their first cousin, Bobby, played briefly for the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils and Montreal Canadiens. In fact, he and Joel were teammates in 2016-17 for the St. John’s IceCaps in the American League. This past season, Farnham played for the Belfast Giants in the British pro league.)

Kate Farnham helped Hanley get back on track in all areas of his life and the two fell in love. They were supposed to be married near Boston this past summer, but had to postpone it because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the couple had chosen June 28 for their wedding date, but instead of walking down the aisle, Hanley was in his first day of training camp with the Stars. “We had our rehearsal dinner in a Chick-fil-A in Arkansas on our way to Dallas,” Hanley joked. “Hopefully when this all ends, we’ll be able to have something small before next season starts, whenever that is.”

Through all of his stops in pro hockey, most of them in the AHL, Hanley has felt like a very lucky man, able to chase his dreams and make a pretty decent living at the same time. But Jordon is rarely far from his mind. Hanley studies the Bible every day and since his brother’s death, has approached his faith with a renewed vigor. Joel said Jordon read voraciously about Christianity and would dig deep into the theological side of spirituality, something Joel does now. Since Jordon’s death, Hanley doesn’t pray for outcomes, but instead for guidance on what God’s will is for him. “When a lot of people pray, they kind of use Jesus as a genie,” Hanley said. “It’s like, ‘Help me play well today, or help me do this or that.’ I know there are going to be struggles in life and that things aren’t always going to go my way, but the one thing I do know is He is going to be there for me.”

And that extends to the ice. Hanley played eight games for the Stars this season, spending most of the season with their Texas AHL team after signing a two-year, two-way contract in the summer of 2018. The inner peace Joel Hanley feels is also on display when he plays the game, which makes him an asset and a valuable fill-in on the NHL roster. “Every time we brought up Joel Hanley, this what he does,” said Stars coach Rick Bowness. “He’s so steady, he’s so smart, he’s so calm and he stays within his strengths. He doesn’t try to step out of what he does well, nor does he chase the game. He lets the game come to him. We can take Joel Hanley and we can put him in any situation and we’re going to feel very confident on the ice.”

Joel Hanley wonders sometimes what God’s will was for his older brother and why Jordon was taken so young. “I do know that when Jordan was here, he was really good at articulating the Christian faith and what it’s all about,” Joel said. “And he was really good at witnessing to people. There were probably about 50 people who reached out to me and said that Jordon changed their lives. We live in a fallen world and I know that Jordon’s passing wasn’t particularly God’s plan, but I know that He worked it out for the good and that Jordon touched a lot of people while he was here.”

Joel said a number of times during a 30-minute conversation that he knows one day he and Jordon will be reunited. Until then, Joel Hanley will continue to live his best life, whether it’s in the best league in the world flying charter or riding buses in the AHL. And if the Stars can manage to win three more games, his name will be engraved on the Stanley Cup.

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