I sat up in the exam room at the hospital and stretched my arms, trying to get my brain to relax. It was only chest pains. Our team trainer had told me the night before that they were probably being caused by dehydration or a pulled muscle, and I told myself over and over again that he was probably right.
I was fine … right?
I mean, I played in the NHL. I was a New York Ranger. Injuries are part of the game. No matter how I was feeling inside, I was going to be cool. The nurses ran their tests, and I was sure that soon they’d be back to tell me that everything was going to be fine.
Except I couldn’t stop thinking about the blood.
The day before, I had woken up from a long nap and started coughing up blood in the sink.
So I did what everybody does when they’re scared. I called my mom.
“Jed,” she said. “Call your trainer right now.”
“I really don’t think it’s that big of a deal. It’s past midnight.”
“I don’t care what time it is. Call your trainer. Right now.”
That’s just something that any mom would say, though. It didn’t matter that she was a cardiac nurse. That’s just Mom being Mom. I was alright.
But then I woke up the next morning, I could barely breathe. So I called our trainer, who then called our team doctor, who told me to come to the hospital right away.
So I was sitting there on the exam room table, waiting for the results of the tests to come back, thinking about the blood in the sink. After a while, one of the nurses came in. She didn’t say anything, but she gave me a hug.
Nothing too alarming there. I had become friendly with the hospital staff over the years from having gone through a hockey player’s share of injuries. Then a different nurse came in a minute later and she hugged me, too.
I noticed when she pulled away that she had tears in her eyes.
“What’s going on?” I asked. I was starting to freak out.
“The doctor will be in to see you shortly,” she said.
Wow, I thought. Now I knew there was something wrong, but she wasn’t a doctor, and wasn’t allowed to tell me what they had found.
Then the doctor came in and I could feel the life being sucked out of the room when he closed the door. I had held out hope until that last moment, but then I knew it was going to be something serious.
“You have a pulmonary embolism,” he said. “Blood clots in both of your lungs.”
He went on to explain that the blood tests they had taken revealed a rare disorder. I had a mutation in my genes that causes my blood to be thicker than the average person’s, which can lead to the formation of clots. I was prescribed a strict regimen of blood thinners and daily exercises, and on top of that I was told that any injury that caused bleeding could result in a catastrophic, life-threatening situation.
Of course, the entire time he was speaking it all just sounded like garbled nonsense to me. When you find out that you have something as serious as having blood clots in your lungs, all the unimportant parts of your life get filtered out, and you only think about the thing that matters most in the world.
“When can I play hockey again?” I asked.
“You just pulled two clots through your heart. I really have no idea how you’re even alive.”
“O.K. … but if I were to keep playing—”
“Your career is over, Jed. Unless you want to die on the ice.”
He may have said something else after that, but I don’t remember.
I nodded and pretended to be sobered by what he had said, but inside all I was thinking about was getting back on the ice at Madison Square Garden.
You gotta die somewhere, right?
If you follow sports, you’ve heard a lot about blood clots recently. Hockey’s had its fair share of cases, with guys like Steven Stamkos and Pascal Dupuis suffering from them, but it’s not just an NHL issue. Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat has been going through it as well. Stamkos missed significant time last season, Dupuis was forced to retire, and Bosh has been trying to make a comeback despite warnings from doctors. Whenever athletes express a desire to play through potentially life-threatening situations, fans tend to scratch their heads and ask why anyone would do that.
I can’t speak to the severity of those guys’ situations or how they feel, but I can tell you what was going through my head.
Since I was three years old, I only had one dream: to play in the NHL. I made all of the sacrifices hockey players have to make. I woke up every day before the sun was up. I joined the only hockey league in the state of Nebraska. I used every holiday, birthday and general gift-getting opportunity to ask for stupid hockey gear instead of any real toys or good video games. I sold every inch of ad space on my hockey sweater to local businesses in Omaha until it was nearly impossible to tell what its original color was underneath. (Seriously, if you think the Finnish Elite League jerseys have a ton of sponsors, you should’ve seen my travel-team jerseys.)
And I practiced. In all my free time, I practiced as much as humanly possible so that one day, just maybe, I’d be able to play in the NHL.
So when I actually made it to the NHL after four years at Michigan — when I actually made it to the New York Rangers of all teams — the doctors were going to have to take that sweater from my cold, dead hands.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but let me paint the picture for you. When I walked into the Rangers’ locker room for training camp in 2003, these were the guys who were sitting there, getting dressed right next to me: Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Alexei Kovalev, and Petr Nedved. And then later that season, we traded for Jaromir Jagr.
My first conversation with Jagr happened after everybody had left the ice and I was fulfilling my rookie duties of picking up all the practice pucks.
He skates over and says, “Jed, right?”
I’m like, Whoa he knows my name.
He says, “Can I shoot with you?”
In my head I’m like, Uh, can I shoot with you?
But I just say, “Yeah, sure.”
So we’re shooting pucks and he goes, “Where you from?”
“They play hockey there?”
“Haha. We try.”
Jagr pauses for a second like he’s thinking about something, and then his eyes light up and he goes:
“Cornhuskers. Good football team.”
Then he just kept firing pucks. That’s the out-of-body moment when I realized, I’m a New York f****** Ranger. I’m looking at Jaromir Jagr. Me and Jagr are talking about the Cornhuskers right now.
There’s more to this picture, though.
I had spent the first few weeks of that season in the minors before getting called up in November at the start of a four-game road trip. It wasn’t until my fifth game that I experienced playing real hockey in Madison Square Garden alongside all these legends.
And it was heaven. Plain and simple.
With a few minutes left in the third period, the ref put his arm up. Oh shit. Another penalty. We were on the short end of a five-on-three penalty kill.
Our coach, Glen Sather, called my name, and without thinking, I jumped out there.
During games, you can’t really process anything except for what you’re supposed to be doing on the ice. There’s no time to react to what building you’re in or the 20,000 screaming people that surround you. You’re just trying to play hockey and not screw up.
So I went out there and did my job. I blocked a shot, then another, then a third. Finally, I cleared the puck down the ice and finished my shift. When I got back to the bench, the whole team was standing up, high-fiving me and patting me on the shoulder while I caught my breath. The crowd was going crazy. It was a moment I’ll never forget, these Hall-of-Famers giving me “the nod.”
But that’s not what you die for.
We won the game, and everybody was buzzing afterward in the locker room. After the coaches left the room, Messier took me aside.
“Hey, I liked what you did out there tonight,” he said. “From now on, consider yourself an honorary Western Canadian Grinder. You heard it from me, kid. You’re official.”
Mark Messier said that to me. The Captain. The Moose! He and I were on a team together, battling every night to try and win the Stanley Cup, and he was excited to see me succeeding.
What, in any life, could ever be better than that?
That’s the feeling I’d die for.
So it was really only a few hours after I left the hospital that I came to a decision: I was going to find a way to keep playing.
I was diagnosed with the clots and blood disorder at the end of August 2006, and I spent the next four months working with team doctors and trainers to figure out a way to be able to be on the ice in a way that would … well … hopefully not result in me suddenly dying during practice or in the middle of a game.
For months on end I had to practice by myself. Any contact could cause major problems — if I got cut by a puck or a stick I could bleed out because of the blood thinners I was on. So I would have to skate alone with just the assistant coaches before or after practice.
I made my return to the Rangers in January 2007. Before I came back, I had to sign a waiver saying I was the only one liable in the event that something happened to me. I couldn’t have signed my name any quicker.
The blood thinners I was taking were 12-hour doses. I had to bring a needle to the rink and take a shot immediately after every game (unless I had a major contusion), since there had to be enough time for the medicine to get out of my system before practice the next day. On off days, I’d have to take two shots, since my body was even more likely to form blood clots if I wasn’t constantly moving.
It was more of a logistical pain in the ass than anything else. I always had to know the travel and practice schedules to the precise hour. But none of that mattered to me at all. I was back where I belonged, and I was able to play 41 games in the second half of that season. I just loved being on the ice. We ended up making the second round of the playoffs that year. To be completely honest, I felt like I was invincible at that point. In my mind, if I could pull two clots through my heart and survive, then nothing could stop me.
So, of course, just when I thought I was invincible, I had another setback. The next season, after I signed with Nashville, I tore my ACL for a third time. After the surgery on my ACL, another clot formed. This time, I had to get a filter implanted in my chest so that any future clots couldn’t reach my major organs. The doctors told me I would never play again, this time for certain. But after rehabbing my knee for an entire year, I was able to convince the Predators that I could still play.
Technically I was still under contract that season so they had to pay me either way and by signing the waiver that washed Nashville’s hands of the liabilities. I played well enough to prove I was still valuable to the Sharks the next season because I was cheap with experience for a team against the cap.
I was cheap, and I was a vet.
I signed another waiver, no problem.
For the next few years, I bounced up and down from the NHL to the AHL and back. I went from Nashville to Milwaukee.
Back to Nashville.
Then to San Jose. San Antonio. Houston. Minnesota. Back to Houston.
Back to Minnesota. And finally … back to San Antonio.
For almost 10 years after I had first learned about my blood clots, I stayed on the ice, even though every year it seemed like a new injury or a complication — or a rumor that I was damaged goods — threatened to bring the ride to an end. People close to me wanted me to stop. People came close to begging me to stop.
Why? Why keep going?
Look, hockey was all I had known since I was three years old. Life seemed meaningless without it. It wasn’t until someone else entered my life that I finally woke up.
“Sit down,” my wife, Maggie, said before we left our apartment. “I have a surprise for you.”
We were in San Antonio and had maybe five minutes before we had to go to the airport. There were only two months left in the season, and my wife was flying back home to Nebraska.
But I did what she said, despite being in a hurry to get on the road. I sat down.
“Close your eyes.”
I closed my eyes.
“Hold out your hand.”
I held out my hand and felt a plastic thing.
“Open your eyes.”
I saw a positive pregnancy test in my hand. We had only been trying for a short time. I felt like I was going to fall out of my chair.
That moment really did change everything.
Because we had only five minutes to get to the airport I didn’t have time to comprehend the severity of what this all meant and even what to say until after she was gone and I had some time to think. I realized that this was probably going to be my last two months of my hockey career.
The rush of emotions left me speechless. In the apartment, in the car and even at the airport. It wasn’t until after my wife and I had said our goodbyes and I realized what this meant for my hockey career.
And it hit me so hard that I had to actually pull my car off the road and just sit in silence and think for a few minutes about my future.
I realized that, for the sake of my family, I was going to have to walk away from the game.
You only get a tiny window of time to play professional sports. Every athlete knows that going in. You get fewer years out of it than you put into it. And it’s easy for me to say that I walked away from hockey with no regrets, but I know that’s only because I was able to walk away. Things could have ended up drastically different.
It’s just that, for a very large portion of my life, hockey was my entire life. It was the only thing I loved, and the only thing I knew how to do well. My fear wasn’t that I might die if I kept playing, it was that if I quit playing I knew at least a part of me would definitely be dead.
I know there are people who will say they can never understand why I did what I did, why I was willing to block shots and play such a violent sport for 10 seasons despite knowing that the wrong move could end not only my career, but also possibly my life. I know people will call me naive, or reckless, or flat out stupid because of the risks I took with my body. And those people are certainly not wrong.
I’m just trying to be honest about why guys act so recklessly — whether they’re playing with blood clots, or broken bones, or concussions, or even substance-abuse issues. It’s all the same problem at the core. It’s the fear of the ultimate question: Without this game, who am I?
When I finally stepped away from the game, I did so with both eyes wide open. I knew that it would be a struggle to adjust, but fortunately I ended up finding a new purpose pretty quickly. I kept hearing the same story from guys who had retired. They wanted to start a new life, but they were kind of lost. So my wife and I started a company that not only helps athletes transition into new careers, but which also educates businesses on all the life skills and other attributes that athletes have, and that can translate to the corporate world.
Our goal is to help athletes fully let go and go all-in on a new career with the same crazy passion they brought to their sport.
No matter what sport we are talking about, the underlying problem is always the same: If you have the insane dedication, work ethic and pride that it takes to make it to the big leagues, then your jersey is going to have to be taken out of your cold, dead hands.
It wasn’t until I pictured my daughter growing up without her father that I realized it was time to walk away. She’s two years old now, and our second child is due this month.
Their dad is just some regular old dude now. But when they ask me who I used to be, at least I can tell them that back in the day, I was an Honorary Western Canadian Grinder.
Jed Ortmeyer lives in Omaha, Neb., where he and his wife run Sportified Recruit, a company that places former professional athletes in Corporate America after their sports career comes to a close.