Friday, January 06, 2012

A time when hockey was the ultimate healer

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Every once in a while I'll get a sharp pain near my temples that has nothing to do with sinus or migraine headaches. It usually happens this time of year, a product of one too many Saturday nights spent staring for a full shift at a computer screen and 13" TV at work. It's then that I instinctively run my hands through my hair and then stop when I get to the back of my part.

It's still there, more like a speed bump now than the valley it once was, and positioned slightly to the side and to the rear of the left side of my head. A constant reminder.

Had it not been for a razor thin margin of error, a piece of broken bone dangling above the gray matter, I wouldn't be here today.

Depressed skull fractures are not exactly on the game plan for every human being, but I'm one of the unfortunates to have it happen and yet fortunate that I emerged largely unscathed. It's easy to put into words 25 years after the fact. I am lucky and happy to be alive and fully functional.

Though it didn't happen in the heat of competition -- not even in the sport I cherish -- I still primarily chalk it up to the hazards of playing sports. And a serious lack of foresight.

Whoever decided it was a good idea to have 100 rambunctious 2nd and 3rd graders running in formation prior to basketball scrimmages in what amounted to a glorified basement room about the size of three regulation classrooms might have done thing differently given enough time to think.

But on January 6, 1987, it apparently wasn't a luxury.

I'll spare you all the gory details, but the incident happened when a group of kids in front of me jammed up, roughly 5 deep, and caused me to step onto the heel of one directly in front. That made me fall backwards and to the right side of the room, near the wall, near the wooden cubbies with sharp protruding edges.

So, when flesh and bone meet solid matter at a well-defined point with all the speed and momentum of gravity, you get the unspeakable. All it took was two fingers up to the first knuckle covered in purplish blood to start the rush for life. A Stroehmann's bag full of ice couldn't really stanch the flow -- as anyone who has ever had a cut above your neck knows, the head tends to bleed profusely when opened.

I remember the needle piercing the scalp, held by my father in his doctor guise, amidst my own piercing screams of pain. The long trip to Childrens' Hospital. The coldness, whiteness of the X-ray and CT scan rooms and a half dozen others I was shuttled in and out of. The waiting, endless waiting, and the back room conversations between my parents and doctors where they decided what to do in hushed tones.

I don't know who to thank, but I was spared. Given the choice between immediate surgery and a 24-hour wait-and-see period, the latter was chosen. My blood still runs cold at the description of the procedure, where the skull is actually lifted up by centimeters to offset the original trauma.

But hockey was still intertwined within this dire mess. A light inside a pitch-dark tunnel. That night, I missed my first Flyers game of the year. It happened to be a 4-0 win over the Devils where Ron Hextall recorded his first career shutout. In typical sheltered 9-year-old fashion, I was more pissed about that than any talk of permanent damage.

One night later, I was wrapped in a warm cotton "turban" to protect my head from any slight bump, laying in my bunk bed, happily unaware of the still-present danger while sipping on orange juice and watching my new TV as the Flyers took on the Rangers in New York.

I remember being irritated at both my parents coming into my room every other hour throughout the night to ask me a series of simple questions. Only recently did that become apparent -- if I gave anything less than the right answers in the right amount of time, I'd have been on a gurney into an operating room within the hour.

So the Flyers won that game too, and I survived another day. They won another game, in Boston. Then tied Washington at home, then won two more against Montreal and New York before losing to the Islanders at home. That game was my first taste of freedom and though they lost, 3-1, I saw the final "bench-clearing brawl" in club history. It was more like a square dance than an old-fashioned Bullies brouhaha.

So while I spent a ton of hours sequestered in my room, one floor above where I live now and where I'm writing this, the Flyers were there the whole time, and they were winners despite slowly crumbling due to a rash of long-term injuries. Channel 57 and the tiny radio next to the bed were my connections to a life of action -- one I couldn't live for obvious reasons.

The Sixers and Temple played in season, but hockey was my lifeline.

Time and inactivity were the things that healed the wound. I wasn't able to go outside and play at recess or in the schoolyard for roughly three months, around the time of the Phillies' Opening Day and the start of the NHL playoffs. It formed a nice little groove that felt more like a dent than anything else.

Time and activity since then has done little to drain away any of the emotion or the actual, physical memory of that day. What I remember, is still vivid. What I don't, has either been kept from me or has been intentionally blocked out.

I've clung to the 1986-87 team because they provided me with hours of entertainment when I was largely unable to work up much of my own. They were also survivors.

Despite a rash of critical injuries, Mike Keenan's kids won the Patrick Division and posted the second-best record in the NHL. Down for the count so many times in their 53-day, 26-game playoff journey, they came back every time except for one. They lost, but so what? The mantle of noble loser at times is just as good as the crown of a champion.

Sure, I nearly met with an unpleasant fate, but my reward was to be alive. That just begs reflection. And thanks.

So I'll run my fingers along that ridge when I get that pain again, after staring at this screen for the last hour. And I'll do it again at some point tonight, in the stands at Citizens Bank Park, when the lights get too bright for my eyes. Things will look a lot clearer, then maybe will get less clear, but then once the wind does its trick they'll be in sharper focus.

Today, I take nothing for granted and cling to memories as if there's a threat that I may never be able to remember. That's what drives my descent into hockey history as I get older, and why I want to keep the flame burning. That's why I put so much of it on Twitter. It's a placeholder for me, and a way to share what I lived with those who should know.

Though I may have turned 34, and this business makes my soul feel a decade older, my heart and my head don't feel a day over 25.

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