Vegas Golden Knights rising defensive star Shea Theodore reflects on an emotional, enormous year

Shea Theodore

When the NHL put its season on indefinite hiatus and instructed players to self-quarantine in mid-March, Shea Theodore faced an important decision—retreat to his Vancouver condo or lock down in his suburban Vegas home.

The Golden Knights defenseman discussed the options with his girlfriend, and it didn’t take them long to come to a decision. They were staying. “I’ve got a big yard for the dog to run around,” Theodore says. “It’s definitely a comfortable life here.”

Theodore has lived in the Valley for less than three years, yet he’s already tethered to Las Vegas. He’s one of the increasingly few “Golden Misfits” remaining on the roster from the team’s memorable first-year run to the Stanley Cup Final, and when all is said and done, he’s a solid bet to be the last one standing.

Always seen as an important structural piece of the Golden Knights’ future, the 24-year-old Theodore transcended to something else entirely in 2019-2020. During a regular season that saw Max Pacioretty rack up 66 points in 71 games while earning an All-Star berth and Mark Stone continue to display his unique set of two-way skills, a strong argument could be made that Theodore was the Golden Knights’ single most valuable player.

Continued success for Theodore—who spent 158 more minutes on the ice than any of his teammates this season—will be essential for the Knights if they hope to advance deep into the NHL’s 2020 postseason.

Before his second season in Las Vegas, Theodore signed a seven-year, $36.4 million contract extension with the Golden Knights. It remains a cherished moment for the British Columbia native. “Signing that long-term extension, that’s all I ever wanted,” Theodore says. “I wanted to be here. I wanted to be that guy for this organization.”

The svelte, 6-foot-1, 183-pound Theodore has always been easygoing and soft-spoken, a walking contradiction to the burly-defenseman, hockey-jock stereotype. Replace the trademark gap in his mouth where his far-right incisor used to hang, and few might even suspect he’s a hockey player. But, he says, his harrowing health scare has led him to become more reflective in the months since.

In May 2019, at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship in Slovakia, Theodore failed a performance-enhancing drug test. It turned out to be a lucky break. He hadn’t taken illicit substances; unbeknownst to him, he had testicular cancer, and his elevated hormone hCG levels had triggered the test result.

Caught early, the lump was removed through a quick procedure, leaving Theodore cancer-free and with enough time to recover for the following season. Still, it was a traumatic experience, Theodore says, one that changed his perspective. “It gave me a different outlook for sure.”

Theodore resolved not to let any opportunity pass him by on the ice, and in that objective he has succeeded wildly. Despite a regular season shortened by 11 games, Theodore set career highs in goals (13), assists (33) and points (46). Perhaps the greatest testament to his game is the way he has elevated the play of those around him. Efficiency metrics rise for all of Theodore’s teammates when they share ice time with him, especially his defensive-pairing partner.

Most frequently this season, that was Nick Holden, who went from a healthy scratch in the final six games of 2018-2019 to a key contributor this year. He and Theodore were a bright spot in what had largely been a trying first two months this season, a span that ultimately resulted in the ouster of the franchise’s first coach, Gerard Gallant.

Perhaps more than any Golden Knight, Theodore benefitted from the arrival of replacement Peter DeBoer, known for building his attack around offensive defenseman Brent Burns in San Jose. But DeBoer says he had no master plan to make Theodore a focal point when he took the job. Rather, the young defenseman’s ability dictated it.

“[At] both ends, he’s better than advertised, better than I probably gave him credit for standing on an opposing bench,” DeBoer says. “Offensively, I thought he really took off prior to the pause and was a constant threat when he was on the ice. And defensively, he’s way better than people give him credit for.

“[Plus], he’s still a young player, so he’s obviously adding layers to his game every year.”

DeBoer has turned Theodore into the Golden Knights’ workhorse, often sending him to the ice on every other shift, while increasing his average ice time by 1:30 per game. And Theodore has looked quite capable of keeping up with that increased responsibility. He says fatigue hasn’t been a problem … at least not during games.

“It wouldn’t hit me until an hour or two after the game,” Theodore says, “I’m lying in bed, and I’m like, ‘Holy smokes, my legs are just roasted.’”

DeBoer wasn’t the only Vegas newcomer who had a dramatic effect on Theodore, he says. Alec Martinez’s arrival at the trade deadline, derided by many given the veteran’s declining stats for Los Angeles, provided Theodore with a new blue line partner. Martinez immediately began producing at a higher clip, and “Marty” also quickly became one of Theodore’s closest friends on the team.

The two FaceTimed almost daily throughout quarantine after Martinez headed back to his home in LA, and now, the two are so tight, their teammates jokingly refer to them in group texts as “Brad and Chad,” a nod to an old meme poking fun at two fraternity brothers.

“Just two meatheads hanging out, that’s kind of our thing,” Theodore laughs. “We’ve just been rolling with it.”

Part of the punch line, of course, stems from how far removed Theodore is from a meathead. He didn’t occupy his lockdown time itching to get back to the nightclub scene or installing kegs of beer at his house.

Mostly, Theodore spent the past several months quietly, with his girlfriend and Brucey, a golden retriever the couple added to their family just before season began. Theodore says he’d always wanted a dog growing up, but it was impractical for his family to care for one while constantly traveling to junior hockey events.

After settling down and finding a home, Theodore longed for a pet—not only for himself, but so his girlfriend could have a companion while he was on the road.

Theodore says he looked at 2020’s unforeseen hockey break as a way to bond with Brucey. On many nights, he’d take his pet on long walks and reflect on his experiences with the Golden Knights—and what might still be ahead with them.

“There were definitely a lot of times I would just look back,” Theodore says. “At this point, I just think you can’t take anything for granted. Just appreciate every day that you’ve got.”

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