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Laperriere knows he has a lot to be thankful for

Friday, 04.22.2011 / 2:22 PM / News
By Adam Kimelman  - NHL.com
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Laperriere knows he has a lot to be thankful for
On the anniversary of the blocked shot that led to a brain contusion and, ultimately, the likely end to his career, Flyers forward Ian Laperriere has no regrets -- including pushing himself to get back on the ice only a month after the injury.
There's a bit of irony in that the one-year anniversary of the worst day of Ian Laperriere's professional life falls on Good Friday.

One year ago today, Laperriere was doing the normal dirty work he excelled at during 17 NHL seasons when something horrifically abnormal happened. He dived to block a shot and the puck caught him in the face, causing a brain contusion, among other injuries, and speeding up the end of his hockey career.

A year after the gruesome injury, Laperriere doesn't display an ounce of bitterness over what happened.

"I don't want to go down that route to be negative," he told NHL.com a few days before the anniversary. "I'm more the kind of guy that's going to look at the positive. … I have a lot to be thankful for."

Laperriere played 17 seasons, starting in 1993-94 with the St. Louis Blues, the team that drafted him in the seventh round of the 1992 Entry Draft. He also played with the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche before arriving in Philadelphia in the summer of 2009.

In 1,083 games, Laperriere had 121 goals -- 21 of which came in one season, with the Avs in 2005-06 -- 215 assists and 1,956 penalty minutes. Laperriere reached double-figures in goals only three times, but had 12 seasons with at least 100 penalty minutes. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Laperriere never would be considered an "enforcer," but he was more than willing to do whatever was necessary to defend a teammate or help the team. Part of that was a willingness to throw his body in front of pucks, and the Flyers took advantage of that by using him along with Blair Betts as their top penalty-killing forward combination. Laperriere led all Flyers forwards last season, and was sixth among all forwards, with 74 blocked shots.
"He's an ultimate warrior. Guys love him. He's a great guy. … People look up to him. He's working hard and he's always worked hard. He comes in every day and wants to get back. He eats, sleeps and breathes hockey. He's a motivator to every one of us." - Ville Leino on Laperriere

It was a combination of loyalty, courage and the willingness to do this thankless job that led to the worst injury of his career.

The Flyers were up 3-0 in Game 5 of their first-round series against the New Jersey Devils, with a chance to eliminate their Atlantic Division rival. But with the Devils on a power play and lots of time left, the Flyers knew they couldn't let up for a second. So when New Jersey's Paul Martin got into shooting position at the point, Laperriere was going to do whatever it took to get in front of that shot.

He laid out a few feet in front of Martin, purposely climbing into harm's way, but his angle was off just enough that instead of blocking the puck with his shin pads -- ideal -- or upper body -- not as ideal, but still acceptable -- the puck slammed into the right side of Laperriere's face, just above his eye.

The lasting memory is Laperriere jumping right back to his feet with a spray of blood trailing him as he tried to get off the ice. 

"I didn't get knocked out, and I do remember everything," Laperriere said. "I remember a big sting on my face and the fear of losing my eye. That was the first thing that came to my head. I couldn't see anything out of my right eye. I didn't panic, but I was close to it. Jimmy (McCrossin, trainer) came on the ice and that was the first question I asked him, is my eyeball still there. I don't care if I lose my sight but at least I'll have an eyeball in there. I know it sounds gross, but that's what I felt."

In the next moment, though, Laperriere displayed the sense of humor that has made him so universally liked and respected by his peers. 

"It was the second time I got hit in the face, and my second thought was, are you kidding me? Twice? It took me 16 years before I got one in the face, and in one year twice in the face. By a move I've been doing my whole career, blocking shots like that."
VIDEO: History Will Be Made: Laperriere

Laperriere was referring to a game against Buffalo on Nov. 27, 2009, when he caught a Jason Pominville shot in the mouth, opening a gash that required about 100 stitches to close and costing him seven teeth -- but not only did he not miss any time, he returned to play that game.

"It's one of the most courageous things I've ever seen in my life -- hockey or anything -- because he's cut up, he's hurting, and he comes back with his lip hanging over his toes," James van Riemsdyk told the Philadelphia Inquirer days later. "I saw him go into corners and finishing checks right after he takes one."

While Laperriere was able to laugh off the incident against the Sabres, the blow he suffered against New Jersey was not as funny.

Laperriere's eyeball was intact, but he needed 70 stitches to close a gash on his face. He also suffered a non-displaced orbital bone fracture and -- most seriously -- a brain contusion. It was assumed that Laperriere's season -- and possibly his career -- would be over.

Instead, one month to the day later, he was in the lineup for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens.

"It was one of the most inspirational things I've seen in all my years in the game," Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said of Laperriere's playoff return. "It's right up there, if not at the top of the list."

But Laperriere's problems weren’t over.

"We beat Boston, we go to Montreal, I'm starting to feel better," Laperriere said. "The first two weeks I had positional vertigo, and that's the scariest thing I've had in my life. I really felt like I was going to be like that for the rest of my life, until the doctors figured out what it was.

"In the beginning we thought it was coming from my head, which it is, but it's behind my ears. It took two weeks before the doctors figured that out. And when they fixed me, after that I felt 200 times better. I didn't have the dizziness, I didn't have that vertigo feeling, which is the worst feeling in the world. All of a sudden you're feeling better. I still had headaches, but if you play in the NHL you play through headaches. I know concussions are a big thing right now, but headaches are part of it. I've played with headaches before.

"I said 'I can do that, I feel pretty good.' Start skating by myself, no dizziness, not too bad headaches, and all of a sudden you're talking to yourself and the little person on your shoulder is convincing the big person that you're OK. I won't play 20 minutes, but I might hit seven minutes; I know I can help, I want to be part of it.

"The truth is, you get down that road and that's what I did."

When asked if he was honest with the doctors that cleared him, Laperriere admits, "No way."
"Did I lie? Yes," he continued. "I lied to myself first of all. I convinced myself first I was OK. I passed all the tests, every test they had me pass, I passed them. … Yes, I did lie to them. I'm sorry if they take it personal, but I don't regret it."

The only thing missing from Laperriere's career resume was any kind of long trip in the postseason. Prior to the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Laperriere had only been to the postseason seven times, for a total of 54 games. With more days behind him than ahead of him, Laperriere was able to justify throwing caution to the wind for one shot at Stanley Cup glory.

"I played in this League for a long time, never been close to anything like the Cup or semifinals or anything like that," he said. "Do I regret it? Not a chance. I don't regret anything. When I'm 60 years old, am I going to suffer the consequences? Who knows? Same with the guy who took drugs when they were younger -- is he going to suffer when he's 60? He doesn't know, either. For me, it was my rush, my dream. I didn't want to miss the chance to be part of something special."

Laperriere played Games 4 and 5 against Montreal and all six games in the Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, averaging about 7 1/2 minutes per game. He had 13 hits and five blocked shots.

He went into the summer expecting to return to full health to start the 2010-11 season, but instead he kept finding excuses as to why he didn't feel normal during his workouts.

"I trained all summer and I didn't get any headaches, but I was still in denial," he said. "I'm dehydrated today, I did too much today, I'm 37 and I pushed myself too hard today, all those things. You convince yourself."

The morning of a preseason game in Minnesota, however, Laperriere finally reached his breaking point.

"I played one preseason game and I felt like things were going 100 miles an hour next to me," Laperriere said. "After that New Jersey game, we flew to Toronto, I didn't play that night, and the next morning we flew to Minnesota and that's when I couldn't bear the headaches any more. I called Jimmy, said I want to meet you at the rink. (Team president) Peter Luukko was there, (GM) Paul Holmgren was on the road. I was nervous, because I lied to them all along, and I was nervous for their reaction."

His concerns were put to rest immediately, as the only thing he heard was get rest and get better, that his health was first and foremost.

"Lappy had laid a lot on the line for the organization," Holmgren said. "The way he came back in the playoffs … we felt that if he was still suffering issues, let's get this fixed."

Laperriere has used his down time as a season of exploration, getting a jump start on his post-playing career by working in a number of areas for the club, including television, community relations, scouting and player development.

"I have so much free time that I've tried everything," he said. "I'm exploring everything. I'm lucky because I have a team that's helping me in that regard. They know what kind of person I am, it's hard for me to stay away from the rink, it's hard for me to stay home and watch the ceiling all day. They give me all the tools."

He's also been a constant figure around the Flyers' practice facility, where he continues to work out like he's about to jump back into the lineup. In fact, for most of the season his teammates honored him by demanding his nameplate and dressing stall stay in place.

"That they left me there as long as they did, it's awesome, makes me feel special, makes me feel appreciated by my teammates," he said. "That's the ultimate compliment to me. I took pride my whole career for playing for the guy next to me and I played it that way to the end. For those guys to appreciate me enough to keep my equipment around that long, it makes me feel very special and I appreciate that big time."

"He was a big part of our team last year for sure, a heart-and-soul guy, and we miss him," goalie Brian Boucher told NHL.com. "To have him around, just being around the guys, joking with the guys, it's good to see. Good for our team, good for him -- it's a win-win."

"He's an example for everybody," forward Ville Leino said. "He's an ultimate warrior. Guys love him. He's a great guy. … People look up to him. He's working hard and he's always worked hard. He comes in every day and wants to get back. He eats, sleeps and breathes hockey. He's a motivator to every one of us."

Laperriere doesn't think about things like that; he just does them because it's all he knows.
"I do it because that's the way I do things," he said. "I know, too, the young guys are looking up. That's why the brought me here last year. When I took that puck in the face in November and I came back in the third (period), the doctors thought I was crazy, but I wasn't doing it for me, I was doing it for the young guys around me. If you're OK to play, you should play. That's why they brought me in.

"If they can say look at me as an example today, that's the ultimate compliment."
Teammates aren't the only ones who appreciate Laperriere. He's become one of the most popular players in recent memory, receiving tremendous ovations anytime he's shown on the video scoreboard.

"I don't score goals or do fancy stuff, I do the dirty work," he said. "Philly fans, Flyers fans, are great hockey fans. They know what it takes to block a shot. People here are blue-collar people who work hard for what they have and they appreciate guys who work hard on the ice."

Today that work is limited to running drills for injured and extra players. He has nerve damage in his right eye and has to wear a tinted visor when he skates because indoor lighting exacerbates his symptoms.

"I feel fine skating around with two or three guys out there -- I don't have any problems," he said. "I've done two charity games for friends, and when there's a lot of people around, people on the ice and off the ice, with the lights, I have that feeling again of not being as sharp as I could. That's my biggest issue.

"I've had eye doctors tell me my eyes don't work together anymore because since I took that puck to the eye it damaged a nerve in my right eye. For regular-day stuff I'm fine. When I get movement around me and lights, that's what throws me off. When I say throw me off, the best way I can explain it is you're a little bit behind. You're there but you're a little behind. And in today's game, you can't be behind."
 
Technically Laperriere is on the Flyers' long-term injured reserve list. While he says he's comfortable in knowing his playing career most likely is over, Laperriere finds no need to make any formal announcement because if he does get healthy, there's nothing preventing him from playing again.

"Right now people are like, 'Why don't you announce it,'" he said. "Why now? It won't change anything for anybody. For me, I don't need to rush anything. I've got time, and I'm using my time to stay in shape, trying to think about hockey but in a different way, and looking at it in a different way.

Not having to focus on that grind all year, maybe it's going to help my eye here or my head here."

At some point, though, he will have to decide something. Laperriere plans on staying in southern New Jersey -- he and his wife are building a home near the Flyers' practice site -- and Holmgren said sometime after the season he'll sit with Laperriere and discuss his future with the organization.

Whatever the decision Laperriere ultimately makes, he'll approach it with the same positive attitude he's approached everything else.

"I played a long time and have a great family, two great kids, a great wife," Laperriere said. "I just can't be bitter about my place … there are some with much less to be thankful for than I am."

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