Why I'm Coming Back
When it comes to needles, fat is your friend. I still have a little flab on the belly, so that’s where I inject myself with blood-thinners. The needle is pretty small, but as I’ve gotten in better shape over the summer, my fat buffer is going away. So my abs have started to bruise a little bit from the shots. I was taking an injection a few weeks ago in the kitchen when my wife came in and shook her head.
“Oh génial, je suis mariée à un cheval de course!”
For the non-French speakers: “Oh great, I’m married to a race horse!”
It’s tough on her, I think. But she also knows how much hockey means to me. Last season, I knowingly played with a blood clot in my lung for five games. I don’t say that to sound like a tough guy. In fact, the reason why I hid it from my teammates and family was out of fear. I was scared that I would never play hockey again. From the very moment that I stopped lying to myself and slid into the tube for the CT scan, I have been focused on only one thing: How do I get healthy and back on the ice?
It turns out that blood is a tricky thing. When you have a knee injury, your rehab is basically all about your ability to handle physical pain. With a blood clot, the pain is mental. What’s tested is your patience. When the clot was found, I was immediately put on the blood-thinner Coumadin. The weird thing with the medicine is that Vitamin K reverses its effects. So basically everything that you’re told is good for you — such as kale, broccoli, spinach or really anything green — you can eat it, but you have to eat the exact same portion every time. So I’m literally going through the salad bag like, one leaf, two leaf, three leaf, four leaf.
This strict portion control does have one benefit. I meet with the doc and he’s going through my usual diet: “Okay, Duper. So, two pieces of toast in the morning with a fruit smoothie,” and all that stuff. Then he looks up from his sheet and raises an eyebrow.
“Do you drink?”
You know that feeling in the doctor’s office when you’re kind of caught off guard for a second and you feel like an eight-year-old in front of your parents? I’m thinking, Uh … Am I supposed to be truthful here? Is this a test?
So I’m honest and I stumble through it: “Uh, well, you know, I like a glass of wine or two at dinner.”
The doc’s just matter-of-fact: “Okay, either you drink no wine for six months or you drink a glass a night every single night. No nights off.”
So I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll take the glass-a-night prescription. Thanks.”
It sounds like a joke, but it’s actually very serious. Alcohol thins your blood while the vitamin K in green veggies reverses the medicine. So you just have to be very precise and consistent with what you’re putting in your body. Ironically, this really helped me stay in shape while I was completely sidelined for six months. A lot of guys would’ve had a few epic cheat meals. I was on the lean protein and veggies diet out of necessity.
The medical part was honestly pretty easy to deal with. The mental aspect of having to sit still was brutal. Anybody who knows me will tell you that I can’t just chill. Even though I was around the team during home games, I was stuck at home during long road trips. I just wanted to be out there with the guys so bad.
One of my favorite things when I was playing was having my son come down from his room in the morning and bust my balls about stuff. My kids can usually only watch the first period and then it’s time for bed, so they watch the highlights on their computer the next morning. My son will come down and start chirping me. “Hey Dad, Kunitz was wide open! How come you didn’t pass it to him? Come on!”
And I’d be thinking, I didn’t see him because there was a 230-pound defenseman trying to take my head off, you little rat. But instead I’d just smile and patiently explain to him that the passing lane was closed from my perspective so I had to chip the puck in deep to start the cycle — all while frying up some eggs and toasting his bread just the way he likes it. God love him. I swear, between him and Sid, it’s neverending. I’ll be sitting on the bench after a shift and Sid will turn to me and say, “Hey, remember what happened down in their zone last period when you did this, this and this?”
And I’ll be sitting there like, “Uh … no?”
My game will always be a simple one.
When my kids would come down for breakfast while I was dealing with the blood clots, I would get a little kick in the chest. It might sound silly, but it’s kind of this feeling, like, Do they know their dad’s still on the team?
I missed my son busting my balls. I missed being on the bench. Most of all — and this is going to sound insane, I know — I missed getting hit. In June, after the doctors ran me through a battery of final tests and cleared me to return to the ice to skate with other players, my first thought was: Man, I can’t wait to take a really good shot. A nice stick to the ribs. Maybe even a puck to the face. We’re not supposed to hit in the summer, but the first few times on the ice, I was going out of my way to get into scrums in the corners. The guys probably thought I was insane.
I wanted to bleed, because now I finally could.
For the six months I was on Coumadin, I was forced to skate alone before practice. They wouldn’t even let me receive passes. The docs were afraid a puck would flip up and cut me and the blood wouldn’t stop. I kind of thought this was ridiculous, but then one night I was cutting up some steaks for dinner and I cut myself. And the blood just didn’t stop. The thinners were certainly working. I ended up needing to get stitches. Luckily, my neighbor is a plastic surgeon. So I went next door and he stitched me up in his living room. You should have seen my face when he was stitching me up, shaking my head and thinking, He’s a hockey player — he went back out there and finished making dinner.
Now that my tests have come back all clear and I’ve switched from Coumadin to Lovenox injections, I can control my blood a lot better. When I’m away from the rink, I’ll still be on blood-thinners, but on game days, I’ll stop the injections. After the game, I’ll have to pound fluid and get back into a normal hydration mode, then I’ll take a blood-thinner injection that night.
It’s pretty simple. You just have to be organized and stay on top of it, but compared to the monstrous whiteboard that my wife uses to tracks our four kids’ schedules, I really can’t complain. In fact, that’s why I wanted to put my story out there. I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me or think that I’m playing with a handicap. When I’m out there on the ice, I’ll be 100 percent. I’ll be the same straight-line player. If you see me out there stick-handling and trying to be cute, there’s something a lot more wrong with me than my blood.
Still, I can understand why some people think I should walk away. When I got cleared for contact, I think it was a little bittersweet for my wife. She asked me, “If you feel another clot, what’s going to stop you from hiding it again?”
It’s tough for me to answer. But my family is the most important thing in the world to me. They’re the biggest reason that I’m coming back. My son was so young when we won the Stanley Cup in 2009 that he actually fit in the top of the cup. One daughter was just a year old. My youngest daughter wasn’t even born yet. To win another Cup, now that they can really appreciate the sacrifice and dedication that it takes … that would mean the world to me.
Of course, if I’m being completely honest, that’s not the only reason. People have told me I wasn’t good enough my entire life. Not good enough for Juniors. Not good enough for the NHL. Not good enough to play on Sidney Crosby’s wing. Even now, I’m sure there’s plenty of people who have left me for dead. They clearly do not know me. My goal is not to just come back and lace them up for one more season and be a good locker room guy. I want to be an impact player on the ice. I want to be counted on.
My ultimate goal has never changed. It’s the thing that I was thinking about when I went into the tube for the CT scan last year. The thing I was thinking about when I was counting out spinach leaves this spring. It was going through my mind as I pushed a 400-pound sled up and down the turf this summer. And it was the only thing that got me through the uncertainty and the injections and all of the medical jargon. That thing is the Stanley Cup. Not just lifting it, but the thought of bringing it home to my family and looking at my kids and my wife and saying, “See? We did it.”