The cost of chasing the NHL dream
Striving to make the big leagues took heavy toll on former Blades
By Jason Warick, The StarPhoenix
April 7, 2012 9:48 AM
Former Blades hockey player Garrett Prosofsky is now attending SIAST.
Photograph by: Greg Pender, The StarPhoenix , The StarPhoenix
When Jared Dumba skated off the ice in Salt Lake City's Maverik Center, he was confident he'd soon be playing in the NHL.
The former Saskatoon Blade had been toiling for several years in minor hockey leagues across North America. He was now one of the top players at the training camp of the Utah Grizzlies, the development club for the NHL's Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars.
If Dumba could make the Grizzlies, he was sure he'd soon be picked up by one of the NHL teams.
Grizzlies coach Don Hay, a career coach in the junior and semi-professional ranks, called Dumba into his office. Dumba had impressed the coaches. The goalies said he was the toughest player to stop. Hay told Dumba they'd love to have him on the team. Dumba was elated.
Then came the but - and the crushing news: The Florida Panthers had just cut several young players and sent them down to the Grizzlies. Suddenly, there was no space on the team for Dumba.
"The NHL was always on my mind, but that's when I realized the business of it," Dumba said. "It pulled the rug out on me."
Dumba was raised on his family's mixed farm near the village of Cupar, 75 kilometres northeast of Regina. His father, Al, had played for the Regina Pats and various semi-professional teams. He enrolled his son in hockey at age three.
He excelled from the start, starring on local teams into his teenage years. At 16, Dumba moved to Regina to play for the Regina Pat Canadians, a top midget team. After one year, Saskatoon Blades officials said they wanted him on their team. He packed his bags on the spot.
But Dumba, a skilled goal scorer in the lower leagues, found himself sitting on the bench. The coach said Dumba would need to become an enforcer.
"He told me I should get in five or six fights in the last half of the year if I wanted any ice time. I was thinking, 'That's not why I play hockey. I want to score goals.' "
As it happened, injuries to several other players forced coaches to play Dumba regularly. Soon, he was among the top scorers, registering a point per game. Dumba felt he'd earned a prominent spot on the next year's team.
"But then I came back the next year and (the coach) tells me the same thing. He wants me to fight. It was confusing - he's still not giving me a chance. I just said 'forget it.' "
Dumba left the Blades, but clung to his pro hockey dreams. During the next decade, he would play in Notre Dame, Surrey, B.C., Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Okla., Indianapolis, Austin, Texas and Flint, Mich. That tryout with the Grizzlies would be the closest he'd ever come to the NHL.
There were perks to playing semi-professional hockey in small and mid-sized cities. Fans treated players like royalty: Free restaurant meals, oil changes and meat from the local butcher.
"Everything was taken care of. It was great. And I enjoyed just hanging out with the guys," Dumba said.
But there was a dark side. A few players would earn up to $1,000 per week, but others were paid just $350 per week with no job security or benefits. Some owners would make verbal promises of payment and then renege.
When Dumba received his first major injury in the U.S. leagues - a separated shoulder - the team doctor wrote him a prescription for a narcotic painkiller.
"Wow, I don't even have pain anymore?" thought Dumba at the time. "How does that work? That's amazing."
As the injuries piled up, Dumba began to down powerful opiates such as Vicodin and Lortab - before games, after games and at bedtime. Team doctors and trainers also doled out regular supplies of Ambien and other sleeping pills to many of Dumba's teammates "so they could be fresh for the next day."
The separated shoulder was soon eclipsed by other, more serious injuries. Bodychecks, high sticks, elbows and punches often left his brain swimming inside his skull. Dumba estimated he's had three major concussions.
"That's unless I'm forgetting one ... three where I had trouble sleeping and had real bad light sensitivity.
"One day I walk outside and I felt like hitting the ground. The sun was so bright. I couldn't see anything. Then the guys told me it was actually cloudy.
"I remember walking from the hotel to a restaurant and the guys had to hold my arms because I couldn't walk straight. We were all laughing."
The team's medical staff would let the players decide for themselves if they were healthy enough. But highly competitive hockey players are terrified about looking weak and losing their spot on the team. They would always give the same answer.
"The trainer told me I was concussed and asked me what I wanted to do," Dumba recalled.
"I said, 'I'm good to go. There's only eight minutes left to play.' and I went back in. It was stupid because it's your brain."
By the time Dumba arrived in Michigan to play on his final team, the Flint Generals, excruciating back pain prevented him from skating normally. He was moved to defence by coaches because skating backward was more tolerable. Dumba was sometimes forced to join a rush and skate forward. That would be enough to injure his back and pelvis.
His pelvis "would come four to six inches off-line. It would pop out. I'd have to go back to the (dressing) room and the trainer would have to do a few stretches and put my pelvis back in. We were doing this two, three, four times a game."
After more than a year of this routine, Dumba could no longer play.
"It started to slip out more and more. I was having a hard time getting out of bed and walking down the stairs to my car."
"I decided to shut it down and that was it. It wasn't a hard decision - my back couldn't take it. It was a relief, but it was nerve-racking knowing I had to do something else."
Dumba has been left with permanent damage to at least two points on his spine and he suspects the concussions are responsible for his short-term memory troubles.
"I leave myself a lot of notes. I've got to."
Dumba moved back to Regina and enrolled in finance and insurance courses. He now works for Investors Group in downtown Regina. He and the woman he married while playing in Oklahoma have since divorced, in part due to the strain that a hockey career and adjusting to the "real world" can put on relationships.
"You are on the road a lot. I had brought my wife at the time to Flint. She's in a dingy little apartment by herself while I'm on the road for days. That can get under the skin and affect things. It affects your overall routine of life."
Dumba said he's happy in Regina. He shares colour commentary duties at Regina Pats games with his dad.
"Regina is great and I know a lot of great people here, but who knows? I try not to think too far ahead."
Chasing an NHL or professional hockey dream isn't for everyone, but it can be a great way to learn leadership, teamwork and other life skills, he said. In spite of all the negatives, Dumba has fond memories of Oklahoma and other cities.
"I would recommend it, but you have to be strongminded and know what you want to do," Dumba said.
"I would do it all again."
Others from that Blades class of 1996-97 experienced similar detours on their road to the NHL and have been left with lifelong physical limitations.
Kyle Werner said he "was on skates before I walked."
The right-winger from Maidstone and his brother, Kevin, both made the Blades' 1996-97 team. Kevin was cut and then recalled by the Blades three times during the year, and lost a semester of schooling in the transition between Saskatoon and the family home.
Like Dumba, the Blades coaches asked Kyle Werner to fight.
"I stood my ground and told them, 'I'm not going to be that guy. I want to play,' " he said.
Werner was cut shortly after.
"Honestly, that ruined me. I didn't give a s---anymore. For a couple of years, I was a wreck. I was partying, stopped working out and gained weight. I lost all my confidence," Werner said.
"At that age, you needed someone to help you, not these yelling and screaming matches at practice. You're constantly wondering 'Are they happy with me?' "
Werner played for several other teams and then reunited with his brother at the University of New Brunswick. Werner was a key member of the university's top-ranked hockey squad.
Using the scholarship money the WHL gives its former players, Werner obtained a degree in forestry. Werner now works for the provincial government. He and his wife are expecting their second child.
Werner credits the WHL for giving him an education and said there were many other positives about his hockey career.
But, like Dumba, he can recite a long list of severe injuries. He tore the medial collateral ligament in his knee and dislocated both shoulders. Three herniated disks required a year of rehabilitation and visits to medical specialists. He proceeded to reinjure his back in another game.
"It was like someone was jabbing a knife in my back. In class, I had to stand at the back because I couldn't sit."
He sustained at least one severe concussion. He was knocked unconscious on the ice and suffered headaches, memory loss and light sensitivity for weeks.
After driving home from games, he'd often have to sit in his car for several minutes, too sore to get out.
"I thought I was bulletproof, but my body fell apart."
Werner's father, David, said he had mixed feelings after his 16-year-old sons made the Blades and decided to pursue a hockey career.
"When they were young, it was such a joy to watch," David Werner said.
"But when they're older and it's more serious, it's not much fun. It's scary to watch. The injuries piled up."
The Werner family was not wealthy and spent "every dime" on hockey.
"It was the boys' wish, so you don't want to tell them they can't. They grew up faster than they should have, but many alternatives are worse. It's a balance."
Lyle Steenbergen, a leftwinger from Sylvan Lake, Alta., was cut by the Blades four games into his second season. He thought his life had ended.
"I thought I was only going to play in the NHL. I wasn't thinking of my future at all," he said.
He, too, would play several years in the "gong show" of semi-professional hockey. Following a pair of knee surgeries and at least one severe concussion, he ended his career with the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs in 2005.
He saw many of his friends and teammates fall victim to alcoholism, painkiller addiction and depression.
However, toward the end of his playing days, a pair of teammates convinced Steenbergen to re-embrace his Christian faith. He stopped partying, counselled fellow players and decided to start preparing for life after hockey.
Steenbergen went to school. He earned his twoyear diploma to become an instrumentation technician. He now works in the Alberta oil industry. He and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child, daughter Natalia, last month.
Two of Steenbergen's cousins are 14 years old and have come to him for advice on the NHL.
"I try to educate them about it 100 per cent, but I'd say 100 per cent to go for it. Taking the hockey route is positive," he said.
Sixteen-year-old Blades phenomenon Garrett Prosofsky was from Saskatoon and many locals anointed him the next big NHL prospect. For several seasons, he scored at an impressive pace of a point for every game he played.
Prosofsky's 13-year journey through the leagues of North America and Europe included an invitation to Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals training camps, but he was not selected.
Prosofsky's sustained two major shoulder injuries and a pair of concussions, and considers himself more fortunate than most. He's grateful for the experiences hockey gave him, but he now feels he's a decade or more behind his friends.
"A lot of them got on with their lives, got an education and have careers," he said.
"When I was playing, I wasn't getting rich. You couldn't save for your future."
He and his wife have four children and he's planning to take a job at his brother's shop after obtaining a SIAST mechanical engineering diploma next month.
Like all of his teammates, Prosofsky said he'd recommend chasing the NHL dream to his kids.
"I'm glad I did it. I learned leadership, discipline. I got to see the world," Prosofsky said.
"I have no regrets."
Every year, thousands of Canadian boys follow a similar path. Players became the "property" of the Blades or other clubs as early as age 14. Of those who make the team, roughly half are traded to other cities or are cut and sent home. After the Blades were knocked out of the playoffs last week, the head coach said his players were unwilling to "pay the price." He vowed to trade many of his "assets" in the quest to build a winning team next year.
Some attributed the Blades' late-season losses to a rash of injuries. In the second half of the season alone, at least three sustained concussions, one broke his ankle and another suffered a pulled groin. One injury was listed as "upper body," a common euphemism used by teams to describe everything from dislocated shoulders to neck and head injuries.
As Dumba, Werner, Steenbergen, Prosofsky and countless others have discovered, only a tiny fraction of players will ever see action in an NHL game. Even fewer will become regulars. And, due to increasing competition from skilled American and European juniors, it's getting even harder.
Back in 1981, nine Blades went on to multi-year NHL careers, including Brian Skrudland, Roger Kortko and Trent Yawney.
From the 1996-97 team, only three made it to the NHL. Corey Sarich has enjoyed a long career with Buffalo, Tampa Bay and now the Calgary Flames. He'll reportedly earn $3.3 million this year. Martin Sonnenberg played half a season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ryan Bonni was cut after three games with the Vancouver Canucks.
The Blades class of 2006-7 has yet to produce a single regular NHL player.
Author Laura Robinson said she's been ostracized by many in the hockey establishment for asking tough questions.
"Taking on hockey means taking on the hockey establishment, the sports media, the beer companies."
Young players must be better educated about the physical risks of pursuing a hockey career.
"There's a whole generation of players starting to wonder 'What happened to my brain?' Our children must be protected," she said.
Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and one of the world's leading sports concussion experts, said more than 25 per cent of players on full bodycontact teams will sustain a serious concussion each season. That's an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 players in Canada.
"No one can hide. The teams, players, trainers, parents, NHL, the media all need to take responsibility," he said.
When Cusimano sees brain-injured young hockey players in his office, the parents often encourage the child to minimize the symptoms. Cusimano only gets the true story after he asks to speak to the child alone.
"I'm not there to let the parent live out their dreams," he said.
Even those who make the NHL can pay a high price.
Saskatoon native Derek Boogard, a 28-year-old NHL fighter who had battled drug addiction, was found dead in his New York apartment in May of 2011.
He had a mix of alcohol and painkillers in his system. Further analysis showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE produces symptoms similar to Alzheimer's disease and can be caused by repeated head trauma. Had Boogard not died, researchers said his condition likely would have worsened into "middle-aged dementia."
Of the four hockey players' brains donated so far to a program studying former athletes at Boston University, all four had evidence of CTE.
In August of 2011, another NHL fighter, former Regina Pats captain Rick Rypien, committed suicide. Later that same month, former Blade and NHL fighter Wade Belak was found dead in his Toronto apartment. Like Rypien, the 34-year-old father of two had been suffering from clinical depression and his cause of death was alternately described as accidental and suicide.
Kelly Hrudey, a former Medicine Hat Tigers goalie who starred for 15 years with the Los Angeles Kings and other NHL teams, said he has "good days and bad days," as the injuries continue to affect his life.
However, no one should feel sorry for him or other players. They chased their dream and knew it would not be easy.
Hrudey said he made a living playing the game he loved. In 1987, he was in net when his New York Islanders team defeated the Washington Capitals in the longest game in NHL playoff history.
In 1993, with Los Angeles Kings teammate Wayne Gretzky and coach Barry Melrose of Kelvington, Hrudey played in the Stanley Cup final.
He's now a prominent commentator on Hockey Night in Canada.
"I was very lucky," he said.
Both Hrudey and Robinson said young hockey players should try as many other sports as possible, focus on education and plan for all scenarios.
Hrudey said he played football, baseball, tennis and other sports as a youth, and was never good at hockey until his mid-teens.
"I wanted to be a forest ranger," Hrudey said.
"It's really narrow now. Follow your dreams, but you need some diversity in your life."
Robinson said hockey parents and officials must sit down with young players and explain the risks.
As for the game itself, most say the NHL needs to outlaw fighting and dramatically increase sanctions for blows to the head and other dangerous play.
Cusimano and others go even further. He noted that only 10 to 15 per cent of concussions occur in a fight. He said hockey can be just as exciting with limited or no body contact.
"I don't see any benefit to it," Cusimano said.
He admitted this will sound absurd to many hockey purists, but, eventually, the rapidly mounting medical evidence will be too strong to ignore.
"The more people we start to see with brain damage, the more it will damage the game itself. Then what parent is going to put their child in hockey?" he said.
"We need to push much, much further. It's only going to help the game."
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