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Companions in Courage

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Pat LaFontaine with Dr. Ernie Valutis, Chas Griffin, and Larry Weisman, Hatchette Book Group

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Companions in Courage: Triumphant Tales of Heroic Athletes
Companions in Courage: Triumphant Tales of Heroic Athletes

1: My Story

Injuries are part of a professional hockey player’s life. I’ve had several major injuries and many minor ones, but the one that changed my life happened in October 1996 when I was playing with the Buffalo Sabres. It was a major concussion that forced my family and me to put hockey, life, and what really matters into sharper focus.

The game against the Pittsburgh Penguins had barely begun. Skating across the middle of the ice, I was blindsided by a forearm to the head. This shot knocked me out immediately. I flew into the air, lost my helmet, and hit my forehead on the ice. The player who hit me was like a freight train — six foot six, 235 pounds. The only part of my body he hit was my head, but I suffered a second blow when I landed on it.

Here’s what my wife, Marybeth, remembers: “The kids and I stayed home that night to watch Pat play. Our six-year-old daughter, Sarah, yelled out, ‘Mom, come quick!’ I ran to the door of the family room and what I saw froze my heart with fear. Pat was lying facedown on the ice; his body was circling counterclockwise very slowly. I hurried to the phone to call the Marine Midland Arena to check on my husband and was told that he was okay. They said he had a concussion and would probably be back on the ice in two weeks. I had a premonition that the next few weeks, perhaps months, would not be that simple.”

I struggled daily against the impact this injury had on my life. An early-childhood memory of falling through the ice and almost drowning kept reoccurring. I grew frantic. I kept grabbing for a “strong piece of ice” and it kept breaking around me. I went under but the water’s buoyancy brought me back up. I thought I was going to die. I kept yelling and grabbing, and the ice kept breaking.

And that’s the way the next few months unfolded, a nightmare filled with demons and terror. My emotional and spiritual struggles challenged me more than any body-rattling check I had ever received, and our family faced its most severe test.

This concussion left me emotionally drained. My confidence, my courage, and my will to persevere diminished. At times I doubted that I would ever recover. Marybeth had never seen me so depressed, and, on some days, so listless. I could see the fear in her eyes as she watched me flailing, trying to find my balance. The image of me circling, facedown on the ice, haunted her.

The last thing I remember about that injury was waking up. I had been conscious for a good half hour but nothing registered. My conversations with the trainer and my teammates did not stay in my memory. I was in a strange world within myself. I wasn’t making sense, and I couldn’t make sense out of what had happened to me. I was in our locker room in the lounge area, watching the TV, with my equipment on, disoriented and wondering how I got there. I was wondering why I was in the lounge while a game was going on. Our trainer, Rip Simonick, came into the room because he heard someone talking, but I was the only one in there. He told me that I wasn’t making sense.

At that point our team doctor began asking me questions. I started coming to some awareness of what had happened, realizing the medical team would not let me go back on the ice. As I look back today, I have a much greater understanding of the devastating effects of a grade-three concussion.

I saw the neurologist the next day and went through an MRI. The tests were negative, and the docs cleared me to go back and skate just four days after the concussion. Still feeling somewhat groggy and less than 100 percent, I worked hard to convince myself that this concussion wasn’t as bad as my previous ones.

Just a week later, I played against Montreal. I remember skating during the warm up and seeing stars and beams of little light particles and feeling tentative. I wasn’t myself. I felt very strange and scared and wondered out loud to myself what I was doing out there.

The doctors said I was fine and that I should be able to play. I had been taught that to be a successful hockey player I had to overcome, move forward, and push through the pain. My body was obviously giving me small hints that something wasn’t right; however, I was determined to make it right. I was going to push through it and eventually everything would be okay. That’s the way it always was for me.

But not this time. Something was wrong, seriously wrong. People were coming up to me and saying, “You know, you look really pale. Is everything okay?” According to my family, I was acting very differently. I still had a constant headache. I continued to be in serious denial, telling myself that I was fine and I would feel better soon if I just pushed through these headaches. I even went so far as to tell myself that this was nothing but a fear of getting hit again.

My frustration heightened when I couldn’t sleep at night. I was trying to hide my struggle from my family and the team but I couldn’t even get the rest I needed. And I couldn’t sleep in the afternoon. I would lie there questioning what was wrong with me. My thoughts were all over the place, so I tried to stop thinking. But I couldn’t. During the late nights, my golden retriever, Fred, was my only companion. He had an amazing sense of things not being right. He would follow me everywhere, always by my side, as if he were looking out for me.

I’ll never forget what happened after a game in Philadelphia. I tried to hold things together, but my personal struggles, the responsibility of being team captain, and the doctor telling me that I was okay all weighed upon me. I had lost weight and looked pale. During the game, things got really bad. I don’t remember a lot, but I felt like I was playing in slow motion. I had trouble taking passes and I felt lightheaded during face-offs. I knew in my heart that I shouldn’t be out there. I had no drive or enthusiasm.

We lost the game against the Flyers, and that night I stood in front of my teammates and confessed that I didn’t know what was wrong. I told them what they already knew — that I wasn’t playing well. The emotions boiled within me as I confessed how bad I felt. I acknowledged that I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain and it was my responsibility as captain to play better and help the team. I felt very strange. Ironically, the first person I saw after leaving the locker room that evening was my close friend and agent, Don Meehan, who immediately saw the distress on my face and, likewise, I saw the concern on his. He could tell I was in trouble.

The above is excerpted from COMPANIONS IN COURAGE by Pat LaFontaine with Dr. Ernie Valutis, Chas Griffin, and Larry Weisman. Copyright © 2001 by Pat LaFontaine. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved. www.hatchettebookgroup.com. For more information about the Companions in Courage Foundation, go to www.cic16.org.

Comments [1]

The interaction with the neurologist was so typical of what I've sean and heard about, personally and from others. There are certainly good neurologists related to TBI, but the "diagnose & adios" mentality is still strong. TBI information, including that concerning concussions or mTBIs is finally hitting the press, but the concept of repetitive TBI and it's special risks is still not widely known by medical professionals. I'm concerned that the "cleared to return to sport rules" are still looking at that single event, or others in that season and not looking at previous year's history, if previous concussions were ever even documented in patient's problem lists. We are still a long way from exposing the "Silent Epidemic" that is TBI.

Sep 2nd, 2011 7:31pm

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