Benjamin Theodore Pearson was born on Aug. 15, 1990, in Mississauga, Ont., to Robin Pearson, a stay-at-home mother, and her husband, Stephen, a salesman. It was a quick birth that happened before their doctor at the Credit Valley Hospital made it into the room after being paged. Ben, the middle of three children, was eager to experience life, having arrived a few days early, and he began walking early, too. At nine months, he was already toddling around the family’s home carrying his brother Eric’s toy hockey stick. And at age five, the blond-haired boy with a near-constant smile began playing hockey in Cambridge, Ont. (where the family now lived)—a sport he loved like nothing else.
“No matter what kind of toy he played with, they were always playing hockey,” says Robin, who remembers watching Ben move his Spider-Man figurine around an imaginary rink. “Any stories he wrote for school, if it had to be about animals then the animals were playing a hockey game.”
As a student at Clemens Mill Public School, Ben took French immersion, and generally did the least needed to get by without having sports taken away from him. He was also headstrong: “In kindergarten, he decided he was going to teach his classmates how to tie their shoes for show and tell,” recalls Robin. “He didn’t know how but he sat on that couch for five hours until he learned.” Ben was just as tenacious about learning to ride a bike or water ski. After numerous attempts at standing on his skis (and despite his hands being blistered from rope burn), Ben put on gloves and kept going until he succeeded.
His larger build made him an excellent defencemen, but it was his big heart that made Ben a friend to many. On Mondays, he would invite close to 20 friends to play road hockey near the family home, where Robin baked them chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. “I used to hide vegetables like beets or sweet potato in them,” says Robin, adding that Ben loved meat of all kinds but wasn’t crazy about vegetables. “The food was always a big draw for them. We would have an open house every Christmas Eve, which Ben liked because as they got older his friends would come over. They’d eat perogies.”
It was during high school at St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School that Ben met his first love, Stephanie, the sister of a teammate. Because she went to another high school, they spent time together on evenings and weekends. Ben often saved his allowance and birthday money to buy her clothes and, eventually, a promise ring. “If he had more money, I’m sure he would have given her a whole lot more,” says Robin. But while it was obvious they still cared for each other, the couple broke up when Ben was 18, before he moved to play defence for the Junior A Kingston Frontenacs.
Robin says he never got over Stephanie, but with the possibility of playing for the NHL on the horizon, Ben trained hard. The 240-lb. athlete’s diet included protein shakes and a ritual pre-game bowl of pasta with meat. But Ben’s hockey career was cut short. During the second exhibition game he was slammed into the boards from behind and badly injured. “If he hadn’t brought up his arm in the last second, he would have broken his neck,” says Robin. “They had to surgically put his arm back together.”
Last May, Ben moved to Kitchener, Ont., where he took classes in the police foundations program at Conestoga College. When he wasn’t in class (or on the dance floor at a local country bar), he played defence for the Norwich Merchants, a Junior C team. “He came to us from a higher level and he was a little older. A lot of the kids looked up to him,” says head coach Chad Paton. “He was a big, gentle kid, but once you got to know him he loved to have fun. He’d do anything for his teammates.”
On Friday, Oct. 1, Ben’s team played a night game without him. Three days earlier, his father had taken him to hospital after Ben had been increasingly sick for days, and he’d been diagnosed with a rare disorder that resulted in his body being unable to remove the protein he ingested. As the ammonia levels in his liver rose, Ben took a turn for the worse; with three minutes left in the game that night, the coaches were told that Ben wasn’t likely to make it through the night. His team won 3-1 and cried together. The next day, after friends and family surrounded him in hospital, he was taken off life support. Ben was 20. His No. 7 jersey has since been retired.