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.
Here I was, playing a game I loved, and yet I felt trapped, troubled, and confused. The next day I went to practice and sat down with my coach, Ted Nolan. I looked at him for a long time, trying to compose myself, then I told him something was wrong and that I didn’t have the enthusiasm and drive of a professional athlete and a captain. When I admitted how scared I felt, I broke down emotionally. I totally lost it. All the heartache of my struggle came pouring out. “Something’s wrong with me,” I said. He looked at me and told me that I needed help. What a sense of relief that simple observation gave me.
Teddy told me that I was either burned out or in need of some other type of treatment. Then he went to bat for me, telling everybody that I needed to take time off. I was fortunate to have Teddy Nolan for a coach. He cared about me as a player but also as a person. I’ll never forget how he supported me.
I’d love to tell you that everything improved after that meeting, but instead it got a little more confusing. I went to see a neurologist and I remember telling him I was very emotional and depressed, totally exhausted and wiped out. I told him that my head was always pounding, that I felt like I was in slow motion and I was scared. That I was not myself.
I’ll never forget the doctor looking at me and saying, “Well, listen, you’re captain of the team, you’re a father of three, and you’ve just come off a World Cup championship. It’s an emotional letdown and a change. Your team isn’t doing well and you haven’t played as well as you’d like. I’m sure if you throw all of what you are experiencing in a soup bowl, mix it and stir it up, it’s no wonder you feel the way you do.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Then he told me, “You know, I’m sure if you go out and score a couple goals you’ll feel better and everything will be fine.”
I remember looking at him and, very emotionally, saying, “Doc, I don’t care about scoring goals. I don’t care anymore. I’m scared. Something’s not right.” He responded by saying, “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine. Maybe you just need a few days to get some rest.”
He didn’t understand. For me to say I wasn’t interested or concerned about scoring goals or contributing to helping the team win should have been a red flag. At that point, whatever enthusiasm and drive I had left was ripped right out of me. I remember walking around for a while and then going home and telling Marybeth of my concerns as the threads of my life kept pulling loose, unraveling.
I remember trying to read a story to my two daughters. We were sitting in bed and I was trying to keep my focus and concentration on reading that story. I started to skip words. I went back and tried to say the words again. I was ahead of myself and didn’t comprehend the story. I was focusing on just trying to read the words right and getting very concerned when I couldn’t. Finally I put the book down and told the girls I was sorry but I didn’t feel like reading.
It became difficult for me to leave the house or even go from room to room. I felt inwardly terrified. I couldn’t watch hockey. I would just glimpse the score. Two or three weeks after my concussion, I watched my first hockey game and couldn’t keep up with the play. I sat there wondering how those guys could play. Everything seemed to be happening so fast around me while I was in a punch-drunk state.
Finally, at the Mayo Clinic, two doctors — Dr. Petersen and Dr. Malec — were able to give me the help I needed. They told me that my symptoms were very common in anyone who has had head injuries, vascular damage, or multiple concussions. I remember one of them saying it was as if someone had ripped all your enthusiasm and zest out of you. The tears in my eyes at that moment came from the joy of knowing that someone finally, really, truly understood. The response of the medical personnel in Buffalo to my concussion showed an alarming ignorance of the consequences of multiple head injuries. The following year the club did institute a baseline testing program for every member of the team.
Hopefully my experience has raised the consciousness of the medical profession and professional sports personnel to the seriousness of head injuries.
After my visit to the Mayo Clinic, I found out that what I am describing was all pretty normal for somebody who goes through a head injury. The doctors there told me that the frontal lobe of the brain, where I hit my head on the ice with no helmet, is responsible for one’s personality and moods. I had hit the ice without anything breaking my fall. When the medical team at Mayo reviewed the medical history of my head injuries, they pointed out that I was feeling the cumulative effects of my fifth and sixth concussions. Because I had suffered three of them within a year or two, my reserve was so low that I wasn’t able to bounce back quickly. They explained that, in my circumstance, it takes much longer to recover because of post-concussion syndrome. For a good five months I battled emotional and depressive issues associated with post-concussion syndrome. It was during this time that I hooked up with Dr. Ernie Valutis, a psychologist, who helped me get through my dark days.
Through my conversations with Dr. Valutis I was able to revisit a number of psychological issues — not just the immediate physical concerns with my concussions, but to work through a number of emotional concerns that were awakened by these injuries. It took a tremendous amount of physical and emotional strength to confront these issues. But I had no choice. I had to deal with them if I was going to get better.
Looking back, I not only had to suffer and work through the physical part of my recovery, but I was surprised at just how much effort I had to put in to work through the emotional hurdles of the post-concussion syndrome. Healing eventually came. I had neither lost my mind nor my will to compete. I had an injury — an injury as real as a broken arm or a torn-up knee — but an injury no one could see or lay their hands on.
I had to understand how hurt I was before I could ever get better.
But my journey was not ending. It was just beginning.
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.