Hell and Back
There’s one thing that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s not the head shot I took. I can barely remember that part. It’s not even the pain and anxiety that I went through after the hit.
The thing that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy is the moment when you know that it’s all over. Everything you’ve worked for since you were a kid … it’s really over, and you can’t fool yourself anymore.
For me, that moment came in Colorado on January 22, 2011.
I was coming down the wing at full speed. Matt Hunwick leaned in and hit me clean. Unfortunately, he caught me just right, and my head whiplashed off the glass. Back then, Colorado’s glass was seamless. It was notoriously unforgiving.
I immediately dropped to my knees. I had my eyes wide open, and I couldn’t see anything. Everything was black. I shut my eyes, and then opened them again. All black.
That’s when I started to panic. Because I knew it was over. I just knew. I remember hearing the voice of our trainer, Don DelNegro, asking me what I felt.
And I just kept saying, “Why me? I don’t understand, Donny. Why me?”
My teammates escorted me to the dressing room, and I had a tough couple of minutes in there. I was sobbing. I remember my coach, Claude Julien, coming in and trying to console me. But I couldn’t be consoled. I knew I had just played my last game in the NHL. I kept thinking: “I have kids. I have a family to worry about. I’m only 33. What am I going to do? I can’t go through this pain again. I can’t go through these dark days. Again.”
I knew the kind of hell I was in for, because I had experienced it all the year before.
March 7, 2010. We were in Pittsburgh. Playoffs about to start. Feeling good.
I wish I could give you my perspective on the hit that changed my life, but I don’t have a perspective. I have no memory of the actual event. Anything I tell you would just be me going off of the same YouTube clip that everybody else has seen. Even when I watch the video now, it’s like the hit is happening to a different person.
I was in the middle of the ice, taking a routine shot on net, and then Matt Cooke did what he did. I don’t think I have to say too much about it. Anybody can watch it and draw their own conclusions.
I was out cold for 29 seconds. Or at least that’s what my trainer told me when I came to and asked him what had happened. My head hurt, bad. My vision was cloudy.
The only only memory I have is of being taken off the ice on a stretcher, and then realizing that my kids were at home watching the game. So I put my hand up to let them know that dad was O.K.
I wasn’t O.K.
I had experienced three or four minor concussions before, but nothing like this.
That was the start of some really dark days. It’s a part of my life that I don’t really like revisiting too often, but I’m telling my story today for anyone who might be going through a similar kind of hell.
The trainers knew my injury was serious, so they kept me in Pittsburgh overnight for observation. Usually after games, your heart is racing for hours and you’re wired. But I was dead. Totally exhausted. Even the next day, when we got on the plane to Boston, I was still so drowsy.
You know that feeling of getting on a really early flight, when you’re so tired and irritable, and you just keep thinking, “Alright, at least once I get on this plane, I’ll pass out, and then I’ll wake up and be myself again.”
(Hockey players on long road trips definitely know the feeling.)
Well, imagine waking up and still feeling completely exhausted. Imagine that feeling lingering for almost two months. No matter how much you rest, you never feel like yourself. There’s no relief. You’re just exhausted and pissed off and confused.
For two months, I was a zombie.
I had these terrible headaches, and any loud noise or bright light was … I mean, it’s almost indescribable. If you’ve never had a concussion, I don’t know if words can do the feeling justice. Every little noise is like nails on a chalkboard, and you feel this dread so deep down inside your body.
So I pretty much lived a reverse lifestyle. I was in bed all day with the blinds closed, in total darkness, in total silence. Then I would get up at 11 p.m. and watch TV on mute, with the brightness turned way down. If somebody called to check on me, I didn’t want to talk. I can’t really explain it, but everything seemed so….
What’s the word?
I guess the word is daunting. Just the thought of talking to a friend on the phone seemed like a huge mental and almost physical effort. I was so irritable because of my symptoms that it was hard to be around people — even the people I loved. All I wanted to do was rest. And that’s when it becomes a vicious cycle. Because when you can’t get out of bed and do the stuff that makes you happy, you get depressed. And then it’s like you get depressed that you’re depressed. It’s a suffocating feeling.
I was obviously seeing neurological specialists, but just as important, I was also seeing a really good psychologist, Dr. Stephen Durant. I would recommend therapy to any player suffering from post concussion syndrome, because I really needed someone to talk to about how I was feeling. It got pretty bad.
I never actually had thoughts of taking my own life, but psychologists have a rating system that they use to track your mental state, and at one point, my symptoms were so serious that I was considered suicidal.
I don’t say that to be dramatic, or to make anyone feel sorry for me. It’s simply the truth. I was in a very dark place, and I think it’s a place that a lot of people struggling with postconcussion syndrome get to.
I know this has been said before, but it’s so, so true: Hockey players are creatures of habit. Since I was 15, I had been doing the same routine every single day. Now I was spending every day lying in the dark, asking myself the same questions over and over and over again:
Will I ever be strong enough to play hockey again? Will I ever feel normal again?
I must have asked myself those questions five million times. I’d obsess over them. I know some people will read this and think, “Man, you’ve got four kids and plenty of money in the bank. Why wouldn’t you just walk away?”
But you have to understand that for a lot of us guys — not just me — hockey is the only thing that we’ve ever known. I stopped going to school full-time at 15. I played almost 10 years in the NHL without even seeing the playoffs. I fought my whole career just to get on a team that was a Stanley Cup contender. Even at home, my kids knew their dad as a hockey player. They watched every game. It was my entire identity. Maybe it sounds crazy, but all I thought about, 24/7, was getting back on the ice.
When the playoffs rolled around in mid-April, I started to get excited. We had a good team, and I felt like I could see a light at the end of the tunnel …
And I paid the price for it.
When our first-round series against Buffalo started, I told my doctors and trainers that I was feeling better, and that I wanted to start skating on my own. Was I 100%? Certainly not. But I started skating, and I didn’t feel too bad. We followed all the protocols (I’m not bull*******g you, we really did), and all signs pointed to me being O.K. to go.
After missing the Buffalo series, I was cleared to play in round two against Philly.
The thing is, protocols rely on the player telling the truth about how they are feeling.
In my mind, I was telling myself I was all good.
Was I all good? No.
When I finally got onto the ice for Game 1 against Philly, I couldn’t really lie to myself. I felt pretty gassed. But the thing is, I had played hockey for so many years that my instincts were still there. The game went into overtime, and the building was going crazy, and I was back doing what I loved.
Midway through the OT, I found the puck at my feet. I fired a slapper toward the net, and the crowd went nuts before I even looked up. If you’ve seen how I celebrated, you can tell that it was about a lot more to me than just a goal. I was out of my mind. I don’t know what came over me, but I did the Mike Bossy “Running Man” celebration.
I was back. My God, what a feeling.
That buzz got me through two more games. Unfortunately, David Krejci got hurt in Game 3, so I had to up my minutes. When Game 4 went into overtime, the wheels came off. I had to play 24 minutes that night, and when I took my stuff off after the game, I hit a level of exhaustion that I’d never experienced before. I could barely get up out of my stall to walk to the bus.
Being a hockey player, I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it. In my mind, my team needed me. So I just played through it, but I had absolutely nothing in the tank.
Philly came back from being down 0—3 in the series and won four straight. We were shocked. Going into that summer, I was mentally and physically exhausted, and I really paid the price for it.
The entire off-season, I had headaches almost every day. The darkness was back. At that point, I was considering retirement. I skipped training camp that year to rest and reassess. The ironic thing was that the specialist I was seeing was located in Pittsburgh. So I had to keep going back to the scene of the crime every few weeks to get evaluated.
I missed the first 23 games of the season, but in December I was cleared to return to the ice. I think, in the back of my mind, I knew what was bound to happen. But what can I say? All I ever knew was hockey. So I gave it another go.
For 25 games, my kids got to see their dad play for the Bruins. I got to be Marc Savard, hockey player, again.
Then, one night in Colorado, Matt Hunwick’s check caught me at a bad angle, and my head whipped against the glass, and everything went black. I was done.
That’s a hell of a feeling, to know it deep down.
The cycle started all over again. I spent months and months seeing so many different doctors and seeking so many different opinions, but I always got the same answer: It’s over. You just have to rest and wait for things to get better.
Nobody wants to walk away, but the really tough thing was that my team was making a run to the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. I was so happy for the guys, but it was bittersweet to watch from afar.
I was able bring my boys to one Stanley Cup finals game in Boston, which was a great experience. But for Game 7, I couldn’t travel to Vancouver, so I was at home watching all my teammates lift the Stanley Cup above their heads.
Words can’t describe what I was feeling. I was still able to genuinely enjoy it, knowing that I was a part of a team that had gone through so much together over the years. We had worked for years to rebuild the team and become a contender, and now the boys were on my TV … hoisting the Cup.
The months after that were tough at times. Some days I felt at peace, and other days I felt pretty lost. More than anything, I was feeling a lot of anxiety. It felt like I had this weight on my chest. My mind would race and I would feel sick.
One night, it got really bad. I felt like I was having a heart attack. My wife ended up taking me to the E.R. They ran some tests and told me that everything was totally normal. But when I went home, I couldn’t get it out of my mind that something was seriously wrong. The next morning, I got up and was sick to my stomach. I went to see another doctor, and he told me what was actually going on.
My heart was fine, but I was experiencing panic attacks brought on by my anxiety. He put me on the right medication, and while I still deal with anxiety to this day, that was the start of me really getting better and being able to move on to a normal life.
And that’s really what I want people to understand about my story. To this day, everyone wants to talk about the Cooke hit. Any time I Google my name, there it is. Any time I do an interview, I get asked about it.
Yes, I am glad the hit I took led to some positive changes regarding player safety. Hopefully at some point those hits will be totally out of the game. But the mental aspect of what I went through after the hit was just as brutal as the hit itself.
The anguish of not knowing what was going to become of my life, and my identity, was worse than all the terrible headaches. The crushing anxiety that I experienced was worse than any broken bone.
I was lucky because I had an incredible support team — my wife, my kids, my mom, and many others. I always had people I could talk to about how bad I was feeling. Not everybody has that. Some guys just want to mask their pain and pretend that it’s not happening.
Are head shots a serious problem? Absolutely.
They can be life-changing, and they should be out of the game.
More important, all levels of hockey should have a system that prioritizes mental health resources for players who are suffering from postconcussion syndrome.
I went through some dark times, but I’ll never say anything bad about the game of hockey. It has given me the life I have today. It gave me a lot more good times than bad times.
My whole life, all I wanted to do was play in the NHL. When I got called up by the New York Rangers when I was 20, I was still so naive that I couldn’t even find Madison Square Garden. They didn’t have GPS in those days, so I bought a map at a gas station so I could figure out how to get from my apartment in Rye down to Manhattan.
I got so lost that I had to pull up next to a police car and ask for directions. The cop could tell I had no idea what I was doing, so he said, “You going to the Rangers game?”
I said, “No, sir, I play for them.”
“Play for who?”
After he stopped laughing, he took pity on me and let me follow him all the way to MSG.
I became an NHL player that night. It was an honor that I was lucky enough to hold on to for 14 years. Then one night, it was over. Maybe right now, a lot of people remember me for that night in Pittsburgh.
But you know what?
Every time someone looks at the Stanley Cup, for the rest of history, they will see a name engraved along with the rest of the 2010–11 Boston Bruins.