Monday, March 31, 2014

Hockey and Life

Every now and then, events occur that remind us all that Hockey is, ultimately, just a game.  Recently, we have been deluged with such events.
First, there was the news of Calgary Flames centerman Matt Stajan and his wife losing their newborn son shortly after his birth.  Stajan had missed several games without explanation, and Sunday the world found out why.  No details were given out of respect for the Stajans’ privacy.  What is known is that Matt was placed on indefinite personal leave from the team until such time as he felt ready to return to hockey.  He has since returned to the lineup and scored a penalty-shot goal for his late son.  My thoughts and prayers are with them.
The next weekend, hockey’s social media lit up with messages about a missing player from the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit.  Terry Trafford had disappeared, apparently without a trace.  There were no clues given.  It seemed very odd.  With each passing day, the pleas for help in finding him grew more desperate.  Fears that he may have been the victim of foul play ran rampant, but there was something more to the story.  Yesterday, Michigan State Police received a report that a vehicle matching the description of Trafford’s was found in a parking lot, with a dead male body inside.  The ambiguity of the identity of the body was standard procedure for police, prior to notification of the next of kin.  But it left the door open to hope that Terry was still alive and missing, and that this body belonged to some other poor soul.  It sounds like a terrible thing, to hope that somebody else’s friend/relative is dead instead of yours, but it’s a natural impulse.  We so desperately want to cling to the hope that our loved one is still alive.  Unfortunately, everyone’s fears were confirmed and the body did belong to Terry.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t know Terry Trafford.  In fact, before this past weekend I’d never heard of him.  I and many others knew nothing about him, but over the last few days we’ve learned a few things.  First, he was obviously a well-liked and highly regarded young man.  Second, he had been suspended from the team for “violating team rules”.  I’ve read reports of the team rules he violated, but I don’t want to speculate on rumours and hearsay.  What is known is that he was suspended.  He disappeared last Monday without a word.  According to his girlfriend, he had dealt with depression in the past and talked of suicide after being suspended.  He said that, without hockey, his life was over and he saw no reason to go on.  I won’t point a finger of blame, but rather express the wish that he would have gotten help.  He had been dealing with his depression on his own, and apparently could no longer carry the burden.  I pray for him and his loved ones.
Finally, you probably saw the video of Rich Peverley collapsing behind the Dallas Stars’ bench during a game.  It was a very scary scene, to be sure…especially given Peverley’s medical history.  He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat before the season and underwent a surgical procedure to correct it back in September.  Since then he has had “episodes” but his condition has been manageable with constant monitoring.  His “episodes” have been minor bouts of shortness of breath and fatigue, and have occasionally caused him to miss games.  This is the first time he had what is being termed a “cardiac event” without any sign of trouble beforehand.  In any case, it’s very disconcerting to see a professional athlete (whom one would assume is in top physical condition) in such distress.  You can tell by the reaction of the play-by-play man and color commentator how urgent the situation was.  I’m happy to report that Peverley survived and underwent surgery to correct an ongoing heart condition.  He’s not out of the woods, by any means, but all appears to be going well.  I wish him the best of luck with his surgery and hope for a full and speedy recovery.
What I noticed immediately while watching this video was the quick response of the medical staff, starting with the Stars’ Athletic Trainers Dave Zeis and Craig Lowry.  You hear the broadcaster say “It’s panic and pandemonium down there”, but he’s referring to the scene in general, not the response of the Trainers.  They move into action immediately and move Peverley out of the bench area to a space where they have room to work (and room for the other responders to work).  You can see how quickly the Blue Jackets Trainers step in to help and how quickly the EMTs get on the scene.  All of these factors probably contributed to saving Peverley's life.  That is not an understatement.  Those people saved Peverley’s life.  And the margin was likely very slim.  One misstep, one hesitation, one delay…could have made the difference between a remarkable story and a horrible tragedy.  Rich Peverley is alive because all of those individuals knew what had to be done and they did it.
In my 20+ years of working in professional hockey, I’ve seen some scary things…some life-threatening things.  In each case, I’ve marveled at the response of the medical professionals who cover professional hockey games.  From the Trainers to the EMTs to the Team Doctors, these people know what they’re doing and they snap into action when the moment comes.  They are trained in dealing with traumatic situations, and because of that they spring into action when others stand in shock.  I’ve witnessed this on numerous occasions (more than I’d care to count).  One in particular stands out in my memory.
It was February of 2007.  I was working with the ECHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners, and we were in Anchorage for a game against the Alaska Aces.  There were a few minutes remaining in a 5-2 game for the Aces.  Roadrunners rookie defenseman Dave Pszenyczny was backpedaling into his defensive zone, forcing an Aces forward to the outside.  As the guy tried to go wide around him, Chezy closed the gap and took him into the boards.  They got tangled up and went to the ice.  The next thing I knew, Chezy was skating back towards our bench, doubled over and holding his arm/wrist to his abdomen.  My initial thought, based on the way he was holding his arm, was that he must have jammed his wrist when he fell to the ice.  Then I saw the front of his jersey turn red with blood.  I turned to yell for our Trainer, Brad Chavis, who was already on the ice making a beeline for Pszenyczny.  Chavy motioned for Chezy to turn and head for the corner and off the ice.  Chavy got to him and guided him off the ice and under the stands toward the locker rooms.  A hush fell over the crowd and most of us stood there transfixed.  The only ones moving around were medical personnel; Trainers, EMTs, and Team Doctors.  After what seemed like an eternity, much of which was spent watching rink workers scrape the blood off the ice, the officials called the teams to line back up and prepare for the faceoff.  I couldn’t tell you what happened in those remaining few minutes of game time.  It was inconsequential.  The only thing I remember about it is hearing the PA announcer call for medical personnel up to the stands.  We later found out that the scene had been so traumatic that a man in the stands had actually had a heart attack.  What we were able to piece together after the fact was that Chezzy had ended up on the ice with his arm outstretched and in trying to continue on towards the corner the Aces player had stepped on the inside of his lower arm (accidentally, of course).  In trying to push off to continue his stride, he had slashed his skate blade across Chezzy’s arm and sliced all the way through to the bones.  In the process, he severed all of Chezzy’s tendons (which control the movement of the wrist, hand, and fingers) and the artery that provides blood for the extremity.  This explains the massive loss of blood.
We finished the game and left the ice to head back to our dressing room.  After leaving the ice, we walked through the doors leading to the hallway underneath the stands and to our locker room.  Chezy was still there.  He was still being treated, but the initial urgency had given way to a more practiced level of activity.  In short, the situation was stable.  They loaded him up and took him to the hospital, but his ordeal was just beginning.  He would spend 5 hours in surgery just to repair the artery, then would have to endure further surgery to reattach the tendons and then close everything up.  After that, he had a long and arduous rehabilitation process to regain feeling and control in his wrist, hand, and fingers.  When I last spoke to him, he said he still doesn’t have full feeling in his little fingers.  But I’m happy to report that he returned to the Roadrunners before the end of that season and is still playing hockey today (currently in the CHL with the Missouri Mavericks).
I also had a very similar situation (eerily similar) occur last season with the Evansville Icemen in an ECHL game against the Everblades in Florida, with an equally adept response by Icemen Trainer Brian Patafie.  I’m happy to report that that player, Josh Beaulieu, returned to the Icemen this season and was named Captain.  Both he and Pszenyczny are tough individuals (and great guys, to boot).  They also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the quick response of their Trainers and the EMTs who were on the scene, medical professionals who know how to respond to a crisis.

A little post script to the Alaska story:

We played one more game in Alaska the next night.  I was still somewhat in shock as we prepared for the game.  I think we all just wanted to get the game over with and get home.  As I straightened up my end of the bench before the start of the game, I heard a tap on the glass.  You tend to ignore this when you're on the road because it's usually some drunk, loud-mouthed home fan who just wants to tell you that you suck.  But, for some reason, I looked up.  There was a little boy standing there, maybe 5 or 6 years old, proudly wearing his Aces jersey.  He had a very concerned look on his face and he held up a small sign that read, "I hope your teammate is O.K."  I nodded and thanked him.  Underneath everything, humanity remains.

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