THUNDER BAY – SPORTS – I remember November 21st, 2005 very well.
The National Hockey League was roughly seven weeks into a new season after missing an entire year due to a lockout. I was happily taking in any game I could find on TV, regardless of who was playing.
That evening I happened to tune into a contest between the Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators, two teams I’ll admit I rarely watched, but that didn’t matter. A game was a game, and the year off left me starving for any form of hockey available.
And then it happened: a whistle. A common occurrence in the sport. But this one was different; I couldn’t quite figure out what happened. There didn’t appear to be a penalty on the play, and the puck definitely didn’t cross either team’s goal line.
Within a few seconds, the reason for the stoppage was evidently clear: there was a player down on the Red Wings bench. The rest would take a little longer to figure out.
Was he hit by an errant stick? A puck? Had he simply slipped and hurt himself? I couldn’t determine what occured in those seconds that caused the guy to fall into a heap. But it was a lot worse than we could have imagined.
The player was Detroit defenseman Jiri Fischer, and he had gone into cardiac arrest. The game would be postponed, and for the first time in NHL history injury prevented a contest from being played till the end.
The panic in the players eyes on the Wings bench was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. It was first time I really grasped the concept that hockey players were succeptable to injury or suffering outside of a play.
Up to that point, the human element of hockey was lost on me. My knowledge of tragedy in the sport was limited to the folklore that surrounded Bill Masterton’s death in 1968.
Since Fischer’s collapse, we’ve seen a great deal of loss in the hockey world. From the deaths of Alexei Cherepanov, Sergei Zholtok, Luc Bourdon, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, to the terrible events of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl tragedy. Terrible losses, no doubt, and ones we hope to never have to relive.
But death isn’t the only tragedy that can have prolonged effects on players. Injuries are a common part of the sport, one we’ve come to accept and expect.
As an avid Canadiens fan, I remember Zdeno Chara knocking Max Pacioretty into the stanchion and Erik Gryba sending Lars Eller face first into the ice. In both cases, my first thought was ‘I really hope they’re ok.’
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a ‘I hope they’re ok because they have a life to live after the game ends.’ It was a ‘I hope they’re ok because they’re a big part of this team.’
It’s a selfish mentality, but one that’s hard to shake. After all, we know these men as hockey players first, and not much at all as people.
Many players have wives and kids, all of them have parents and friends. While most of them prefer to keep that part of their life out of the public eye, and rightfully so, our lack of insight into that part of their existence makes it hard to give the site of a stretcher coming onto the ice an honest, unbiased reaction.
Quite frankly, I can’t think of anyone who wants to see a player get hurt, regardless of what team they play for or where your personal allegiance lies. But we tend to consider how an injury or tragedy may affect your team’s game or season more than how it could affect the player’s livelihood.
And that’s why, for me, the most damning moment of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl tragedy wasn’t the thought of never being able to see Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek, or Karel Rachunek play the game again. It wasn’t the idea of not seeing Devils prospect Alexander Vasyunov develop and progress as his career continued.
The most sobering moment of the event, and the one that has stuck with me the longest, was a photo of former NHLer Pavol Demitra holding his young daughter. The image of a man who existed in the public eye because of a game, but was so much more outside of it.
Most of the time, it’s hard to separate the player from the sport, even when events take place that could forever alter their life. Unfortunately, it takes incidents like Rich Peverley’s recent collapse or Kris Letang’s seizure to momentarily put things into perspect.
It’s a stark contrast to the way hockey fans think the majority of the time. At any game in any league, cries of ‘lay ’em out!’ or ‘block the shot!’ are commonplace. They’re shouted with little regard to athlete, with a hope that the potential pain they may suffer will somehow better your team’s chances at victory.
And then tragedy strikes. It takes the panic of a medical staff rushing a collapsed player off the ice or the sight of a teammate sobbing on the bench for us to realize these athletes are people, too.
It’s a mentality that has existed since the dawn of the sport, and one that won’t be changing anytime soon. We find ourselves in situations where we actually believe that, deep down, our favourite athletes will survive and pull through anything that happens, lace up the skates, and entertain us like they always have.
We’re satisfied when we watch our team’s stars retire due to age, declining skills, or because they’ve accomplished all they possibly could. We’re disappointed when we see athletes leave the sport before their prime due to injury.
Once they’re gone, however, we don’t give them the time of day.
Little has been made of how Jiri Fischer has been doing since his collapse forced him to retire, few bother to ask how Keith Primeau is fairing after multiple concusions ended his career. While the game thrusts players into the limelight, their fates are largely ignored or forgotten once their career ends.
Sure, there are the Wayne Gretzkys or Bobby Orrs, those who will always be quoted and associated with the sport, the superstars we undeniably care about beyond belief. But there are far too many Paul Kariyas, Chris Prongers, Bryan Berards, and Blake Geoffrions, the players who gave everything they had to the sport until there was nothing left.
Men we watch go down and out and then quickly and quietly forget about.
We’ll always remember Kariya getting knocked out by Scott Stevens only to come back and score a beautiful goal moments later. We’ll never, however, remember the man who had to retire due to struggles with post-concussion syndrome, largely because that side of Kariya has been ignored.
This mentality needs to change, especially in an era where we’re force-fed rhetoric on the need to eliminate injury and the prolonged effects they have on athletes after the last whistle blows and they hang up their skates.
Mike St. Jean