Editor’s note: Police reversed their conclusion as to who was responsible for the accident that killed Gus and Casey Cloutier after this story was published.

Gus and Casey Cloutier almost always could be found sharing the same space, and that space was often inside a central Maine hockey arena. Gus, the dad, and Casey, the son, both had a passion for the sport that helped strengthen a bond they began to forge the day Casey was born.

“Casey was born on his dad’s birthday,” said Casey’s aunt, Tammy Pierce. “They had a unique bond of being on the same day.”

Gus, 49, and Casey, 14, were together again Tuesday morning, heading to another hockey tournament, when the car they were in slammed head-on into a sport utility vehicle on U.S. Route 202 in Leeds. The Cloutiers died at the scene, together.

They leave behind their wife and mother, Susan Cloutier, and their son and brother, 12-year-old Chase.

“They were the most wonderful father and son that anyone could ever imagine,” said Pierce, who is Susan Cloutier’s sister-in-law. “Gus was extremely devoted and spent hours on the ice with Casey. Casey was an exceptional young man with the kindest heart of any young man I’ve ever known in my life.”

Ralph D. Ryder, 59, of Livermore Falls, who was driving the SUV, was taken by ambulance to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, where he continued to recover Wednesday. A hospital spokeswoman said his condition had been upgraded to good.

Androscoggin County sheriff’s deputies continue to try and piece together the facts of the crash, which occurred around 8:15 a.m., as Cloutier, whose given name is Ghislain, drove east in his 2007 Honda Accord. The car veered into the westbound lane near the Leeds Junction Road intersection and slammed into Ryder’s 2003 Ford Explorer.

The Cloutiers, of East Winthrop, were on their way to St. Dominic Academy in Auburn, where Casey was a freshman, for a junior varsity hockey tournament; but the car was headed east, not west toward Auburn, at the time of the crash.

Lt. Glenn Holt, of the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office, said investigators have not determined yet why the Cloutiers turned around.

“We’re surmising they probably forgot something that they needed and turned around to go back home and get it,” Holt said. “We don’t know why. We’re certainly going to try to answer that.”

Holt said there was no indication that speed was a factor in the crash. The speed limit on that stretch of road is 50 mph. A witness said there was nothing remarkable about the car’s operation before the crash.

“Nothing stood out to her that the vehicle was going excessively fast or erratic,” Holt said. “It came into the lane at a 45-degree angle. It was a fairly quick movement. It wasn’t like someone falling asleep and drifting into the other lane.”

Holt said deputies will wait until next week to speak to the family. It could be some time before the investigation provides any answers.

“We’re probably at least a couple of weeks away, if we ever know why,” he said.

SHOCKING LOSS

Family and friends on Wednesday were trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the loss.

“In the blink of an eye, a split second, a father and son are gone,” said Norm Lauzier, who worked with Cloutier at the NewPage Paper Mill in Rumford.

The Cloutiers’ close friends Michael and Lisa Johnson said the strength of character that define Gus and Susan were being passed along to their children. Gus burned up most of his vacation time to make sure he could attend his son’s hockey tournaments, but he never forgot that he was a father raising young men. The relationship was on full display last summer when the Johnsons and the Cloutiers climbed Mount Katahdin.

“They loved each other, but Gus was a dad, too,” Michael Johnson said. “If his son got out of line, he got him back in line. It was a classic father-son relationship; full of love and joy, but he gave correction, too, just like all dads have to.”

But Cloutier’s loyalty extended beyond his children to friends and family and, especially, to Susan.

“I saw in Gus a loyalty to his wife,” Lisa Johnson said. “He was very supportive of her dreams. That same quick-to-help-others character was definitely first in his family.”

The traits took root in Casey. He earned a reputation as a loyal friend and teammate who was patient, kind and compassionate.

“A lot of kids gravitated to him,” Lisa Johnson said. “He brought you in and you became a family. They just shared their lives so openly with others around them. They were just great men of character.”

HOCKEY DREAMS

In some ways, Casey and Chase had a relationship like any other brothers. They were no strangers to pushing and shoving and disputes.

But, like his father, the loyalty Casey felt for friends and teammates was first extended to Chase.

“He was quick to include his brother, even with the other teenagers,” Lisa Johnson said. “He made sure he wasn’t left out. He really saw the value of that.”

Casey had a dream of playing hockey at a high level and he was willing to work hard to earn it, said Ben Gray, his coach this year with Maine Moose Hockey. Casey was known to call or text Gray frequently between practices for tips on how to improve as a player.

“He knew what he wanted. He was very driven,” Gray said. “Every time, he wanted more and more and more. He always wanted to know what he could do to continue to improve his game.”

Casey worked almost as hard on skills that would make him a great leader.

“He knew how to make light of a situation and how to push the kids to make them better, but at the same time to make them laugh when he needed to,” Gray said. “He was friends with everyone. He was always there for every single one of his teammates. He never let anyone down.”

Bruce Dostie, who coached Casey with the Moose last year, recalled the game when Dostie’s brother, Todd Dostie, forgot gloves. Casey told Todd Dostie that he would find him gloves, but his brother managed to scare up some of his own first.

“The next day Casey showed up and gave him gloves so his hands wouldn’t get cold,” Bruce Dostie said. “He was just a caring kid that wanted to take care of everyone else around him. He was just a good boy.”

That caring, too, came from Gus, said Johnson, the family friend who played in the same men’s hockey league. Gus, like his son, was known for his patience and constant smile.

“He would sacrifice to make others happy,” Johnson said. “He was always caring for people around him.”

Johnson said Gus was quick to help out if Johnson was working on a project around the house. Casey took after his father that way.

Tim LeSiege, secretary of United Volunteers of Maine, got to know Casey over the past couple of years as he helped build and staff the organization’s haunted house twice a year.

“Casey was always willing to lend a hand in whatever aspect you needed help,” LeSiege said. “You didn’t have to ask him twice. He was up for anything.”

Casey was always upbeat, bubbly even, and respectful, LeSiege said.

“We’ve had hundreds of people help us,” he said. “He’s one of the kids that would stand out.”

GOOD FAMILY

Gus was born in a small town in Quebec, but he spent most of his growing-up years with his two brothers in Jackman. Their father died when they were all relatively young, said Ray Levesque, who at one time employed all three boys at Bishop’s Store. His description of a young Gus Cloutier closely mirrors descriptions of a young Casey.

“They were hardworking,” Levesque recalled. “They were all good kids and well-liked in the community.”

Gus graduated from Forest Hills High School in Jackman around 1983, said friend Jaime Shelley.

“You’ll probably never find a nicer person in the world,” Shelley said. “He and his brothers are a real good family.”

Shelley said he and Gus drifted apart because of time and distance, but he and Gus still would talk when Gus went to visit his mother, who still lives in the house in which the boys grew up.

“You couldn’t get anybody to pay more attention to their family than Gus,” Shelley said. “You’ll never meet a nicer, more wholesome person. Honest to God, I can’t think of one bad thing to say about him.”

Lauzier, Gus’s co-worker at NewPage, said he and Gus used to kid around and give each other a hard time about hockey.

“He was a Canadiens fan and I was a Bruins fan, but I still like him,” Lauzier said. Gus still carried a hint of a Canadian accent after all these years.

“He was a very nice guy.”

When Gus wasn’t talking about hockey, he quite often was talking about his family, particularly his sons, Lauzier said. Gus had a routine of scooping up the sports pages at work to check out how St. Dominic sports teams had fared. It was a habit he had picked up in August, when Casey started attending the private Catholic school.

“He was really proud that his boy was going to be playing hockey for St. Dom’s,” Lauzier said. “He was a great family man.”

The communities touched by the Cloutier family spent Wednesday trying to process what happened and figure out how to move on. Even Jackman, which hasn’t been home to Gus for more than 20 years, was shaken, Levesque said.

“There have been a lot of tears (Wednesday) morning,” he said. “It’s a big loss even for this area. A lot of people knew them.”

Levesque hopes to honor the Cloutiers by rebuilding Jackman’s only ice skating rink, which a storm destroyed a couple of years ago. He is working with the town to put together a benefit supper but has not worked out the details.

“It’s been on the back burner, but I thought it was a good time to do it in his memory,” Levesque said.

Shelley said Jackman is the type of small town where everyone knows everyone’s first name. Gus’ name, Shelley said, was attached to enough good memories that the impact of his loss is deep even after a 20-year absence.

“How can it not impact a small community?” Shelley said. “He’s one of those people you meet in a lifetime you don’t have anything bad to say about.”

If adults have a hard time coping with the loss of Gus and Casey, Gray wonders how his 13- and 14-year-old players will handle it.

“We have someone coming in to talk to the team,” Gray said. “We’ll get together and talk about how to move forward and how to remember Casey. This is going to be very tough.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

ccrosby@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4