Content warning: This story addresses suicide and other mental health issues and may be difficult to read and emotionally upsetting.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or at 988lifeline.org. In Canada, resources are available online at www.crisisservicescanada.ca or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566.
Gadzhi Kazbekov watched the water fall from his brother’s body as it was gently washed during the burial ceremony inside the mosque. His father, Zaur, stood beside him as they both tried to hold in their grief. They were almost 5,000 miles from the rest of their family. Elmira Kazbekov and her six younger children remained in Russia, unable to make the journey to Canada. No tears could touch the body after it was cleansed. He was wrapped in white cloth. Gadzhi and his father prayed.
Later at the Toronto Muslim Cemetery, Gadzhi knelt and sobbed as Abakar Kazbekov’s body was lowered into the ground, near a tree on a hill.
Gadzhi was moved by the number of Abakar’s teammates and friends who showed up to say goodbye. All of the London Knights, the major junior hockey team he played for, were there. So were the billet parents he’d lived with while pursuing his dream at the highest level possible. There were close friends, who Gadzhi knew well. But also people he’d never met. One of the strangers asked Gadzhi if they could hug. After they embraced, the young man handed him a letter. He’d known Abakar through a summer training program at Chesswood Arena, the letter read. They’d skated and worked out together. Abakar had become an inspiration to him. He was the brightest, most passionate player he’d ever met.
Gadzhi read the letter to his father, translating the English to Russian. He told him how surprised he was that Abakar seemed to have reached so many people in just a few years.
“It was shocking to me that he’d become such a big thing in the world,” Gadzhi said.
It had been three years since Abakar first arrived in Canada. Gadzhi and his father drove to Pearson International Airport to meet him as his plane arrived that day in late October. They walked into the immigration office at the airport and saw Abakar standing there, trying to explain to an official his purpose for arriving in this new place. Why had he come? There were many reasons. To play hockey, primarily — to one day make it to the NHL, but also to help his family back in Russia find a new beginning in Canada and, he hoped, to give them a life they could only imagine.
Gadzhi remembered Abakar mostly as the little kid he’d wrestled and played with. They shared a love for hockey, watching HC Vityaz games together and played in the KHL team’s minor hockey system in their hometown near Moscow. But now Abakar was 15 years old. His hair was cut short. He was still skinny, but taller than Gadzhi remembered. Their eyes were level.
Abakar smiled and rushed to hug him.
“I felt only joy,” Gadzhi remembered.
As the eldest of eight children, Gadzhi moved to Canada from Russia first, when he was 16 years old. It was a lonely journey. He came to find a future in hockey, but he quickly learned that he was already too old. Gadzhi played for a lower-tier junior league and studied English, hoping to find permanent residency in Canada for his family.
Gadzhi’s younger brother still had a chance in the game though. Abakar was a dominant player in the HC Vityaz minor hockey program. There was still time for him to be drafted to the OHL, still time to achieve the dream of making it to the NHL.
Shortly after arriving in Canada, Abakar joined the Vaughan Kings after Marty Iazovtsky — the player agent who helped bring both of the Kazbekov brothers to Canada — convinced coach Mark Filippone to save a spot for him on his roster.
Abakar knew almost no English when he first walked into the Kings dressing room and sat down with a shy smile. His new teammates were impressed by his lean, muscular build, but Abakar at first seemed out of place and unsure on the ice. Filippone briefly worried that Iazovtsky had made a mistake. But after a few games, Abakar quickly found his stride and confidence. He made simple, smart plays and seemed to see the game the way others didn’t.
Abakar lived with his brother and father in a one-bedroom apartment a short drive from Chesswood Arena, north of Toronto. A small den was used to air out the brothers’ hockey gear. Abakar and Gadzhi slept in the apartment’s open-concept kitchen and living room area. They’d tuck their mattresses away in their father’s room if a guest visited. Despite the close quarters, the brothers cherished their time together.
“Even if it was uncomfortable, it was one of the best memories,” Gadzhi says. “A warm place to remember.”
Iazovtsky, who became close with the Kazbekov family, managed to secure Abakar a spot in a small school focused on athletics, where he could be more comfortable as he worked through the curriculum while learning English. Everest Academy waived Abakar’s tuition fees.
The only two students in Jheanell Lumsden’s ESL class darted through the door of her portable classroom at least five minutes late each day. Abakar and Mike Levin were always in some sort of race, despite Ms. Lumsden’s constant warnings that they might slip on the icy steps outside.
Though Levin grew up in Israel, Russian was his primary language. He moved to Canada to live with family while pursuing hockey at the highest levels. With so much in common, Abakar and Levin became close friends as soon as they met at Everest.
That winter, in 2020, the boys spoke often about home and everything they missed. On Mondays, they’d tell their teacher stories of their weekend journeys together — a movie they went to see, or a new part of Toronto they explored.
On the ice, Abakar excelled that first year in Canada. The Kings weren’t expected to be one of the league’s best, but Abakar led them to the Greater Toronto Hockey League finals. His play caught the attention of Rob Simpson, the London Knights associate general manager. But Abakar hadn’t been in the country long enough to be eligible for the OHL’s standard U16 draft that spring, so he couldn’t be selected by a team until the following year in the league’s U18 draft.
When rinks were shuttered the following season because of the pandemic, Abakar and Levin invented ways to continue improving their game. That winter they found a frozen pond near a subdivision that they would visit in the middle of the night. They strained to see each other as they weaved through practice drills under the dim glow of a distant streetlight.
In June 2021, Abakar and Levin watched a livestream of the OHL’s U18 draft together. Levin, who is a year younger, had been selected by the London Knights in the 10th round of the OHL’s U16 draft a month earlier. They’d hoped to be taken by the same team, though it seemed unlikely.
Gadzhi was on site at a landscaping job as the draft unfolded, but checked his phone every few minutes for updates. When he saw Abakar’s name flash across the screen — selected first overall by London — he leapt in the air and cheered.
Across major junior hockey, the London Knights are as close to a professional organization as you’ll find. Home to more than 400,000 people, London is the largest city in southwestern Ontario. It sits between Toronto and Detroit, a two-hour drive both ways. In the region, the Knights are an enormous draw. The players become local celebrities, often recognized as they walk down the street.
Budweiser Gardens seats more than 9,000 people for hockey games. The team’s financial records are rarely disclosed, but court records from a proposed class-action case against the Canadian Hockey League revealed that in 2015 the Knights brought in $1.87 million in net income. The arena was sold out for nearly every Knights game during the 2022-23 season. The franchise has led the OHL in attendance for nearly two decades.
There is good reason for the popularity. In major junior hockey, the Knights are a powerhouse. The franchise has had 230 players drafted to the NHL, more than any junior or amateur team in the world. A Knights player has been selected by an NHL team every year for a CHL record 54 years, including four players taken in the 2023 NHL Draft in June. The team’s recent alumni include stars like Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk and Patrick Kane.
Paulie O’Byrne was a Knights fan long before he first met with the team in fall 2022. Growing up as a hockey player in southwestern Ontario, it was impossible to avoid the orbit of the storied franchise.
As an addiction and mental health worker with the Canadian Mental Health Association, O’Byrne focused on street outreach and community wellness initiatives — but he grew up in hockey and he knew all about its joys but also about the pain it can bring. He was molested by a minor hockey coach for years. When O’Byrne was 21 years old, the coach was charged and convicted of sexual assault. O’Byrne dealt with drug addiction for a decade, ended up homeless and survived three suicide attempts. He was also close friends with Rick Rypien, an NHL player who died by suicide in 2011.
O’Byrne was enthusiastic when he arrived at the Knights’ facility that fall. He was there to present the CMHA’s “Talk Today” seminar on mental health and suicide awareness, which every team in the league has completed each season for nearly a decade. The program started after Terry Trafford, a 20-year-old player for the Saginaw Spirit, died by suicide after being cut by the team in March 2014.
In Canada, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-olds, according to the CMHA. And it accounts for a quarter of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds. Males are three times more likely to die by suicide than females.
O’Byrne knew the stats, but he also knew that there was a unique culture framing the experience of junior hockey players that needed to be considered with care.
“There’s 12-year-olds out there with posters of these 17-year-olds on their walls,” he says. “They’re idolizing these players because they’re good hockey players and because we [treat] them as adults. We pay 20 bucks to go to the London Knights game to sit in the last row. We expect a win. And we expect them to play like perfect athletes … These are only kids.”
During the seminar, the Knights players reacted as O’Byrne expected. The three-hour session was simply endured by some, while others appeared moved by the conversation. The team’s veterans were more engaged than most of the younger players, which O’Byrne felt was typical. He made particular note of the three Russian-speaking players who sat at the back of the room. He wondered what they were experiencing, being so far away from home.
When the seminar ended, O’Byrne gave the players and staff his contact information. But he felt uneasy.
“There’s got to be more,” he thought. “We have to do more.”
He didn’t meet with the Knights organization again until December.
When Abakar first arrived in London for training camp, in September 2021, he was as close to reaching his dream of playing professional hockey as he could have hoped for. He prepared for weeks before camp began.
Zaur, Gadzhi and Abakar drove to London together and stayed in a hotel near Budweiser Gardens. When they arrived, the Knights invited Abakar to a private skate. The 17-year-old stepped onto the ice with a few NHL players from the London area, like Drew Doughty, Corey Perry and Nick Suzuki.
“My brother was speechless,” Gadzhi says.
He quickly settled into the flow of the scrimmage. When he scored a goal, several of the NHL players tapped their sticks on the ice to congratulate him. Abakar carried that confidence into training camp. Mark Hunter and his brother Dale, the team’s head coach and co-owner, were impressed enough to sign the Russian winger.
Within days, Abakar was living with Sheila and Mike Goring, a couple who billeted Knights players at their condo a five-minute walk from the home arena.
Abakar kept his room clean with an attention to detail that Sheila had never witnessed among the teenage boys she’d cared for. And whenever Bear — the Gorings’ 11-year-old, 100-pound Australian Shepherd — was too weak to stand, Abakar rushed to pick him up.
A devout Muslim, Abakar often prayed in his room. He shared the customs of his faith with the Gorings, while inquiring about and engaging with theirs. That first December, he helped Sheila decorate her Christmas tree with bright lights and ornaments.
“You have a lot of toys on your tree,” he said, laughing.
Nine games into his first season with the Knights, in fall 2021, Abakar suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery. It sidelined him for the rest of the year. Despite the disappointment of another lost season, Abakar remained around the Knights each day working with the team’s training staff on his recovery. He often spent afternoons in the gym at the Gorings’ condo building. After his shoulder surgery, the couple tried to make sure he was comfortable. They knew how much Abakar missed home. He spoke regularly over Facetime with his mother, Elmira, who got to know Sheila as she waved in the background. Sheila bought him a gray Roots hoodie and track pants that he wore constantly, along with a pair of Crocs with a Canadian flag on them. They took long walks through London’s downtown core and hunted for bargains at a local mall.
Away from the team and the gym, Abakar spent most of his time with Mike Levin and Ruslan Gazizov, another Knights player from Russia. They made funny faces together in a photo booth at the mall and printed out the images for each of them to keep.
Abakar kept his copy of the photo in the top drawer of the wooden dresser beside his bed. The room was often warm so the friends would cool down on the balcony off the kitchen and living room. They could see across the entire city from the 16th floor. Levin would often look out across the horizon, but Abakar always stayed a step back from the glass barrier, too fearful of heights to get close to the edge.
When Abakar asked the Knights to allow him to fly home in July 2022, the team worried that he might be unable to return. But Abakar insisted — he needed to see his family again. The team bought his ticket, and the two-month trip home was rejuvenating. He returned for training camp in September 2022, hopeful he’d play meaningful minutes with the Knights.
But through his first 11 games, playing in a limited role, Abakar registered only one assist. There were discussions about the possibility of trading Abakar to another team where he might have a better opportunity to play, but the team felt it was challenging to move him because of his injury. In late October, Abakar re-injured his shoulder during a routine face-off drill.
Gadzhi, who left Toronto to find work in Calgary, spoke with Abakar almost every day.
During those calls, he avoided talking about hockey. He knew Abakar and their father spent hours on the phone talking about how he could improve his game. It was common for the brothers to be hard on themselves, Gadzhi felt. It was how they were raised. But he encouraged his brother to consider a Plan B.
“Buddy, whatever you do, just don’t think that hockey is the only way,” Gadzhi said.
But Abakar said that he didn’t want a backup plan because that would weaken his will to put 100 percent of himself into hockey.
Gadzhi became more acutely concerned about his brother that day in October, after Abakar re-injured his shoulder and called him sobbing. When he was able to find the words, he told his older brother that he believed his chance to reach the NHL was slipping away. Abakar told Gadzhi that he felt he should quit hockey and join him in Calgary, where they could work in flooring together.
“If you want to leave the hockey, I will support you one hundred percent,” Gadzhi told him. “But do you really want to do that? Because you still have a chance.”
Abakar’s mood lightened as they spoke. The brothers laughed talking about their future plans together.
“Listen to me,” Gadzhi repeated. “Hockey isn’t the only thing.
“Thanks brother,” Abakar said. “I really needed to talk.”
About six weeks later, Mike Levin brought his new stick with him to Budweiser Gardens to show his best friend and have him help cut and tape it for him. After sawing the shaft and taping Levin’s blade, Abakar told Levin that he felt that things were finally about to go his way. The Knights would host the Owen Sound Attack that evening.
“I feel like I’m going to have a game,” Abakar told him.
Earlier that week, Abakar went to Marshalls, his favorite store, and bought a present for the Knights’ secret Santa gift exchange. He also bought a snow globe that sits on a blue and red train, carrying Santa Clause and a Christmas tree. Abakar told his father he planned to give it to the Gorings as a gift before the league’s winter break, which would start after the Knights’ weekend games.
Levin was happy to see his friend seem so positive that morning, Friday, Dec. 16. Though he carried the same smile in the locker room, chatting with teammates and staff, those closest to him knew he was frustrated. In early December, Abakar had buzzed off the curly dark hair that parted across his forehead and curled over his ears. He said he needed a change to help him play better.
Abakar and Levin spoke often of how lucky they were to have found each other. They shared the anxieties they felt as international players, and they grappled with feelings of isolation and the language and cultural barriers.
“Everyone knows you’re different,” Levin says. “You’re not a Canadian. You speak slow English. You still have the accent. You’re not the same.”
Many OHL teams work with local universities, schools or cultural centers to connect with interpreters for their players. If possible, players are put in a home with billet parents who speak their language. In London, the Knights do not have Russian-speaking staff members. But players had access to tutors through an arrangement with a local school and were able to access language training using the online Rosetta Stone program.
On the ice, Levin could relate to the frustration that comes with being one of the best players growing up before reaching the pinnacle and no longer being on top. Though he practiced and trained with the Knights, Levin was playing with the team’s Junior B affiliate in nearby St. Thomas.
“Back home [Abakar] was the best on every team,” Levin says. “So then we came to London … and he wasn’t the best player. He didn’t feel comfortable.”
Abakar walked with Levin to the Uber that waited for him outside the arena that morning. With his new stick cut and taped, Levin was ready for his game. As they said goodbye, Levin expected to speak with Abakar again several hours later. They always called each other after they played. When the Knights beat the Attack 5-2 in front of more than 9,000 fans that night, Levin received a standard text message that is sent out to every Knights player relaying practice plans for the next day. He noticed “15” — Abakar’s number — listed amongst the players instructed to attend an on-ice training session on Saturday morning. The ice time was reserved for the development of affiliate players or Knights players who weren’t in the lineup for the team’s game that Saturday evening against the Flint Firebirds.
Levin called Abakar, realizing that his friend had been scratched from the Knights lineup and would be upset. He didn’t answer Levin’s call. His texts went unanswered too. Levin sent one last message, telling Abakar they’d talk at the rink the next morning.
“I went to the rink Saturday morning and he didn’t show up,” Levin says. “That was it.”
After learning of Abakar’s death by suicide on the morning of Dec. 17, 2022, Paulie O’Byrne, the CMHA mental health consultant, spent every moment he could with the team — in the locker room at practice and games, across the table over morning coffees and lunch. O’Byrne learned about the small details of their lives beyond hockey and came to care deeply for each. They spoke of simple things, like fishing, and complicated things, like girlfriend troubles — and of big things, like the anxiety and pressure some felt. And they also talked about the immeasurable grief that enveloped them all.
Mid-winter through spring, one stall in the Knights locker room sat empty. The initials AK and the number 15 were placed above the door. The players wore the number on a patch on their white and green jerseys, and it was painted behind the nets on the ice at their home arena.
As the Knights surged toward the OHL playoffs, the shared loss bonded them, O’Byrne says. He witnessed players checking in when they noticed that a teammate seemed down, which he was surprised to see in a hockey locker room.
When the Knights fell to the Peterborough Petes in the OHL final in late May, O’Bryne embraced each player as they left the ice. Mark Hunter gave O’Byrne a hug that night. “You’re a part of this team now, forever,” he said.
Abakar’s memory will continue to loom over the Knights this season. His initials and number will remain above the Knight’s dressing room door. The team’s annual award for the hardest-working player on the team has been named in his memory.
And the difficult questions that follow the death of a teenage player under the care of a major junior franchise will continue to be asked. The team prides itself on the care it gives its players, but Abakar’s death brought reflection on the stress and pressure those players face.
“How can we support our players better?” Simpson asks. “How can we communicate better?”
David Branch, the longtime commissioner of the OHL, says the league has the necessary programs in place to provide support for its players — but that a tragedy like Abakar’s death will hopefully help others who are struggling with thoughts of suicide to make use of the support systems the league provides.
While some major junior teams employ mental health coaches or psychologists within their franchise, many do not. The OHL does not mandate that a team hire someone specifically in that role, Branch says.
But O’Byrne wanted to see more done. Each team needs someone dedicated solely to the mental wellbeing of its players, rather than just reacting when a tragedy happens, he says. But that kind of position requires resources. O’Byrne spent nearly $10,000 of his own money to travel with the team, he says. The CMHA didn’t cover any of his mileage and the organization doesn’t receive any funding from the Knights.
“(We’re) going to talk about funding or we’re going to talk about people’s deaths,” O’Byrne says.
In August, O’Byrne met with the Hunters and Simpson to discuss these questions. The Knights asked O’Byrne to join the organization in a formal position, funded by the team.
On the way from the rink to the grave, Thomas Stewart stops to pick up flowers for the friend he used to spend these summer days with. He drives alone, northeast from Toronto toward the quiet of a wooded sideroad off a busy highway, to a hilly cemetery marked with small sticks and translucent sheets that share the burial date of lives laid there. He finds the mound of cracked, gray dirt surrounded by patchy grass and dandelions by memory — just beyond the crumbling farmhouse, up the hill, near the tall tree.
He visits the Toronto Muslim Cemetery on the 17th of each month to bring his flowers and to tell his friend all that he’s missed since he’s been gone. Today, in mid-July, Stewart speaks of Chesswood Arena, where they’d train for hours on the ice, in the gym, and passing time in the foyer that smells of hockey gear and is lined with the photos of players who skated there on their way to the NHL.
Stewart thinks about the last time they saw each other. Opponents on the ice — Oshawa Generals against the London Knights — 11 days before he died. The familiar tap on the shin pads as they skated through warmups on opposite sides of center ice at the Budweiser Centre in London. The scrum in the corner, when they looked at each other and smiled as their teammates threw punches and obscenities.
He remembers that smile well, that unforgettable full-faced light. It appears again and again, as the people left rewind his life.
It’s the same smile Marty Iazovtsky sees when he remembers how Abakar played with his children the many times his wife invited the teenager over for dinner. And Lucas Buzziol came to recognize as his 15-year-old linemate from Russia dazzled their Vaughan Kings GTHL opponents, helping them to an unlikely trip to the league finals. His teammates called him Abi. And as he grappled with English, they learned to understand each other through the language of the game they shared.
“I don’t think you’d ever see him without a smile on his face,” says Buzziol. “Always smiling, always laughing. That was the biggest thing — you remember someone like that.”
Sheila Goring remembers that smile each time she thinks of that rainy spring day, when Abakar picked pears from a tree in her father’s yard. And whenever a tiny sparrow lands on the railing of her balcony — so high that, she swears, birds never landed there before Abakar died.
Mike Levin describes it over the phone in Israel, sharing stories of the best friend he found in Canada.
“He was the last guy who could do this,” he says.
Abakar’s smile lives in Gadzhi’s mind with every quiet thought as he pushes forward alone in Saskatoon, where he went to find work while his father returned to Russia, broken in grief.
Gadzhi can’t bring himself to listen to the voice message Abakar sent their father just before he died. He worked through the last night of his brother’s life, not knowing that he was in crisis. He thinks about that all the time: What if he’d called when his shift ended that morning, instead of trying to catch some sleep? What if he’d never encouraged his brother to come to Canada at all?
He knows that there is no answer, but it doesn’t make the questions less constant.
So Gadzhi holds the happy moments close, because they are the only way his brother lives. He remembers that day at the airport, when all he could feel was joy — and Abakar moved to hug him, smiling wide.
It’s the smile Thomas Stewart chooses to see now. He places the bouquet next to the plastic yellow rose he rooted there months before, rising next to the stake that marks the beginning of this endless if only:
Date of burial: December 27, 2022.
If only time could unwind, Stewart thinks about what he would say. He shares that message now, through tears — reaching back to a friend, now gone, and calling forward to anyone who just might need to know:
“You are more than just a hockey player.”
(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic. Photos: Courtesy of Gadzhi Kazbekov, Mike Levin and Sheila Goring)