'Til It's Gone

The slap shot hit me in the face with 53 seconds left in the game. I could actually feel the force of the puck go all the way through my head and then out my right ear. My teammates on the New Jersey Devils immediately rushed over to where I was slumped on the ice. I looked up, bleeding badly from my face, and saw all these blurry red jerseys standing over me. Their mouths were moving, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. All I heard was a high-pitched ringing.

When I got home that night to my wife and kids, my ears were still ringing. I could barely hear what my wife was saying. Two days later, we played the Rangers. I played 20 minutes and had an assist, but I could hardly hear the crowd. My ears didn’t stop ringing for months, but I finished the rest of the 2009-2010 season. Call it dumb hockey player pride or whatever you want, but the fact of the matter is that we play through pain, even broken bones. My teammates have done it. I’ve done it. In my mind I was hurt, not injured. So I adapted and gritted my way through it.

All spring, my wife and kids had to shout at me like I was a 90-year-old grandpa, but the crazy thing is I finished the season playing well. I had to take five injections directly into my eardrum for the ringing to finally go away, but on the spectrum of all my hockey injuries I thought this was nothing. A bunch of stitches and ringing in my head? I’ve had worse.

That summer, I was doing some routine one-legged exercises when I noticed something was off. I was practically falling over. When both feet were on the ground, my balance was fine. Great, even. But when I lifted one leg, I was a mess. In my head, I’m thinking, Maybe I’m just getting old? So I went nuts, and doubled down on my training. I didn’t know it at the time, but my body was essentially “faking it.” I was running on fumes, smoke and mirrors. There was much more going on under the surface.

The following preseason, everything changed. I got into a little scrap, and my opponent punched my helmet with a pretty weak shot. It sent me to my knees. I’m thinking, Okay, that’s weird.

After that, every time the puck would get rimmed around the boards or I’d try to receive a pass during practice, my stick would completely miss the puck. I mean, I couldn’t chalk this up to a few bad workouts. I’d go to make a pass and the puck wouldn’t even be on my stick. This was serious. My depth perception was totally off. It was an embarrassing blow to my confidence. I worried that I was letting my teammates down. Now the fear was starting to creep in. Maybe I lost more than just a step…

Then it got worse. I’d get checked — not a big shot, just normal stuff like getting rubbed out along the boards — and the next two seconds would be a blur. It felt like my system was taking time to reboot after each hit. If I had to skate circles and spin around, I would get so nauseous that I’d almost be sick. My first thought was that I had the flu or something.

Later in the preseason, I took a shoulder to the chin. It wasn’t anything spectacular, just another routine hit like thousands of others before. But I was just… out. I didn’t know where I was. The ringing returned. I was taken to the hospital, and when the doctors told me what happened, I was almost relieved. “Okay, I’ve got a concussion. At least I know what’s wrong.”

Then things got really weird.

I traveled everywhere and saw all the right doctors. I followed all the right protocols. I took all the tests. After a few weeks of rest, I did feel better, but also strangely off. Cognitively, I was fine. My memory was good. I didn’t have headaches. I passed my tests. But when I tried to step onto the ice, I had no concept of where I was in relation to anything else. Everything was white. The ice was white. The boards were white. All the visual signposts were gone. I’ve skated on the same ice hundreds of times, but now all of a sudden I felt lost. When I tried to drive at night, it felt like I was floating through space.

And yet nobody could seem to tell me what was wrong. I spent an entire month at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey running through a battery of tests, and all my progress seemed to plateau at a certain point. Whenever I had to exert myself, I’d feel a wave of nausea and dizziness, like I was seasick. One day, out of frustration, I just quit going. Not that they hadn’t helped me; actually it was quite to the contrary. I was learning to sense instinctively what my body was telling me.

I did not like what it was saying.

I told the specialists, “This isn’t working, anymore. I don’t know how I know, but I just know.” The sad and scary thing was that while I knew it was no longer helping, I also understood that I had no idea where to turn to next.

At home with my family, I was becoming someone they didn’t know. My boys were four- and one-years-old. Any little thing they did, I would lose my temper. Noise bothered me. Light bothered me. I couldn’t go out to dinner. I couldn’t do anything social. I couldn’t train. I couldn’t even drive with my wife and kids to a movie at night without getting sick.

The uncertainty was turning me into a monster. Then I had one of the scariest thoughts I’ve ever experienced: Am I going to feel like this for the rest of my life?

One morning, I woke up and my wife turned to me and said, “You need to figure this out. You can’t just give up. You need to get better for us.”

I went and sat down with Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello and I admitted to him that I was not getting better. That was a tough moment. Here I am making good money, and I’m telling my GM that the doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with me. But Lou was phenomenal about it. He said, “Bryce, just keep seeing specialists. Wherever you want to go, whatever you want to do, take as much time as you need.”

Lou, thank you.

A few weeks later, the NHLPA’s Dr. John Rizos was able to get me an appointment with Dr. James Kelly, a military doctor who only sees civilian patients one day a month. After a battery of tests, Dr. Kelly explained that it wasn’t just my head that was the problem, it was my eyes and ears, too. My vestibular system was broken. Basically, the computer chip controlling my spatial awareness, vision, and balance was damaged.

The vestibular system runs on three tools: Your feet, eyes and inner-ear. If you lose one of those tools, your body can still function. Lose two and you’re done playing professional sports. Period. When I was hit in the face with that slap shot the force caused an inner-ear concussion, so my feet and eyes took over and I was able to fake it. But somewhere along the way a different hit caused damage to my right eye. Now my two eyes were not communicating with one another and as a result my system short circuited.

I was skeptical, but Dr. Kelly looked at me and said, “Look, I’ve seen soldiers come in here after IED explosions in a lot worse shape than you. You are going to get better.”

That’s the moment I stopped feeling frustrated and sorry for myself. At the very least, I finally had an answer. So how do you rebuild a broken vestibular system? Well, that’s a funny story …

I was sent to a vestibular rehab center in Denver, where I was essentially taught in the art of child’s play. It turns out that the vestibular system is like a muscle. Kids exercise this muscle all the time by jumping around, doing tumbles, spinning, and just generally being kids. So in order to re-calibrate my system and build up my muscle, I had to embrace my inner child.

Every single day, for hours on end, this was my rehab routine: I would walk, jog and run with my eyes closed. I would jump on a trampoline and call out the names of shapes and colors until my brain was in a fog. I would sit in an office chair and spin until I was so dizzy that I was on the verge of puking. They told me it should take a normal person 10 seconds after spinning in a chair for the dizziness to go away. That was my target. When I first started, it took me more than a minute to re-calibrate.

In addition to all that, I was doing intensive vision therapy in hopes to “reconnect” my eyes back to each other, and then back to my circuit board. This went on for seven months.

When I would go to the rink, teammates would ask me, “What’s wrong? You seem to look just fine.” They didn’t mean anything by it, but what was I supposed to say? Was I supposed to tell them I was jumping on a trampoline and spinning in chairs for hours a day while they are gutting out the NHL season? They didn’t want to hear that. It was one of those injuries where coming back to play was based on “How do you feel?” It made me crazy to think that maybe — just maybe — people were thinking, “Is he really even injured?”

But what fueled me even more was the thought that my kids didn’t really understand what Daddy did for a living. They were just starting to understand hockey when I got hurt. Now I was just this grumpy guy they were stuck with all day. They had to see me back out on the ice in a Devils jersey, even if I had to go through hell to get there.

Slowly but surely, the rehab worked. I would stand up from the office chair and be dizzy for 45 seconds. Then 30 seconds. Then 15. There’s a cliche that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. When my dizziness went down to the standard 10 seconds, I thought I was going to start crying.

That summer, I spoke to Lou Lamoriello over the phone. I told him, “I’m going to play. I’ll be ready come training camp. You have my word.”

Look, I was 35 and had just spent an entire NHL season in the wilderness. The trend of the NHL getting a lot younger and faster wasn’t exactly working in my favor. Contract aside, a lot of GMs would’ve found a nice and professional way to politely move on without me. But Lou gave me a real chance.

I just had one request: No special treatment. No kid gloves, and definitely no sympathy. Treat me like a everyone else on this team. That season, I played all 82 games and helped the Devils reach the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals. It was by far the most rewarding season of hockey in my life. Not because I had personal success or even because I overcame my injury, but because the team came together and sacrificed everything to get to the Finals. You can’t believe how good it feels.

I have a photo in my house of my two children banging on the glass while watching me take warmups before Game 1. They’re wearing No. 24 Salvador jerseys.

That’s their Daddy. That’s what he does.

Today, I am retiring from the National Hockey League. I achieved my goal of coming back so that my boys would be able to remember me as an NHL player, and now I am content to step away on my own terms. But I am not leaving hockey, and I am not leaving New Jersey or the Devils. This organization never stopped believing in me, even when I was spinning around in office chairs.

This place made me.  

Now, by working with the Devils and local New Jersey hockey organizations, I hope to be an example for young players and spread access to the game for everyone. I want to pass on the lessons of perseverance, sacrifice, and determination that I was fortunate enough to have learned while playing hockey. If I believe in one thing in life, it’s that hockey is a force for good. It can change kids’ lives and give them an outlet so that no matter what’s going on with them personally, they can get on the ice for a few hours and forget about everything but that little black piece of rubber.

I’m ready for my next shift, one that includes spending time with my wife and boys. Thank you to everyone who made this journey possible. It wasn’t easy. After I was drafted, an NHL scout told me, “Salvador, you’re never going to make it. Too slow, too soft. You’ll never play a game in the NHL.”

Here I am, 786 regular season and 74 playoff games later, retiring as a captain. No matter what anybody says, they can’t take this away from me:

I played in the freaking NHL.

It’s enough to make you dizzy.