Concussion fight not just a physical one
As Marc Savard takes a shot from just inside the blue line at Mellon Arena, the puck sailing wide to Marc-Andre Fleury's left, Matt Cooke catches Savard flush on the right side of the head, spinning him around so the Bruins forward ends up flat on his back. Savard's legs move as if in slow motion; his arm splays across his face.
Trainers rush to him, and teammates gather around as a stretcher appears.
Savard pauses in recounting the twists and turns his life has taken since that night.
So much has changed since that moment of uncertainty. It has been a hard road, to be sure, a road no one, least of all Savard, could have imagined. There have been physical challenges, but there also have been issues Savard never had to face before in his life.
He looks out the window of an Atlanta restaurant and wonders aloud whether somehow, some way, something good will come out of his journey back from the third documented concussion of his NHL career.
Something more than just being a better player. He'll be a better teammate, a better father, a better ex-husband, a better person.
"Maybe this is a blessing in disguise," Savard says.
After the first two concussions of his career, Savard said, he missed a week and a couple of days, respectively.
"I never really thought about it," he said. "When I got this one [after the Cooke hit], it was life-changing, obviously."
On the surface, it looked like Savard's return from the March 7 concussion was going to have a storybook finish. After missing the final month of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, Savard returned for the second round and scored the game-winner in overtime against Philadelphia in Game 1. It would be Savard's only goal of the series as Boston built a 3-0 series lead before losing four straight games.
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"I was really fatigued all playoffs, no energy," Savard said. "I kept waiting for something to kick in, but there was nothing."
He took time off during the summer but never got his energy back. Then things got ugly.
An avid and talented golfer, Savard first noticed he was seeing spots while bending over to pick up his ball. As time went on, the dots would remain for an extended period of time and his zest for the game had evaporated. Normally, he would play four or five days a week in the offseason and love it. This past summer, it was all he could do to drag himself out to the course a couple of times a week.
And this scenario didn't apply just to golf. Outside of watching his children (ages 10, 9 and 7) in their summer activities such as lacrosse and dancing, Savard found little reason to leave his house.
"That was one of the only things that cheered me up. That was the only thing I enjoyed doing," he said. "It just kept going and going. I just laid around. I was really not enjoying myself. I didn't really enjoy being out there."
In the weeks after the Cooke hit, Savard remained in the dark as much as possible. He didn't want to talk to anyone. Phone calls were brief, if he answered the phone at all. He couldn't watch television; the flickering images were a nuisance. He would ask questions over and over, unable to process the information he had been given.
"I was very irritable. I didn't really want to be around people. It was pretty dark days," he said.
What happened during the summer -- when people assumed Savard was on the road to recovery after seeing him return to the ice in the playoffs -- was worse because it simply didn't get better.
At one point, he wondered whether he would ever feel like playing hockey again.
"Obviously that's where I was kind of headed," he said. "In my mind, I kind of lost the love for what I enjoyed. I was asking myself, 'Do I want to put myself through this again?'"
Gerry Barker recalled the day over the summer that he played golf with Savard and noticed a distinct change in his friend's personality.
Barker, a former police officer who works with longtime agent Larry Kelly as a scout, has known Savard since the latter was a 15-year-old whiz kid playing Junior B hockey in the Ottawa area.
"It just wasn't the same Savvy chirping away, having fun," he said. "Then he started opening up in relation to the dizzy spells."
By the end of the day, Savard had confessed to his lethargy and feelings of depression. It was a conversation that might have saved Savard's career.
"It was kind of a relief," Savard said. "I wasn't sure what to do."
About 10 days after that first discussion, Savard returned to Ottawa to stay with Barker for some golf events, and they continued their frank discussion and started to make a plan for getting help.
"We knew it was more than just the concussion, but until he opened up, we didn't know what treatment to get him," Barker said. "Thank goodness he was really open to it. That wouldn't have happened five years ago. Five years ago, he wouldn't have opened up about that."
Kelly contacted the NHL Players' Association and union doctors were informed of Savard's issues, which resulted in a visit to his summer home in the Peterborough, Ontario, area. Boston GM Peter Chiarelli also was informed, and the Bruins began working with the NHLPA and Savard's agents to come up with a plan.
Initially, Savard balked at going to Boston.
"I couldn't get him down to talk to me," Chiarelli said. "[When Savard finally did make the visit], I was like, oh boy. You could tell he was different. It was a slow process. It was a painful process. Painful because you never knew when he was going to bounce back."
There were consultations, sports psychologists, medication and physical therapists. "I needed to talk to somebody," Savard said.
Like many who suffer from any kind of mental health challenge, Savard felt isolated.
"I was thinking, 'Am I the only person?'" he admitted.
When Savard mentioned publicly that he'd suffered post-concussion depression, Chiarelli was immediately contacted by a number of NHL GMs who said they had players who suffered from similar post-concussion symptoms.
"They were calling about what we did and how we handled it," Chiarelli said. "It was a collaborative effort."
Athletes sometimes forget the influence they can have on a community, forget the signals they can send to large groups of people simply by what they say or how they act. Savard was reminded of this in the days following his mention of his battle with depression. He received hundreds of cards and letters. Many were simply messages of good wishes. Some related stories of similar battles. Others included messages of gratitude for Savard's candidness in discussing his struggles.
He recalled one note from a teacher who was also a hockey coach. He had suffered a concussion when he was struck by a player's stick during a game. The teacher, like Savard, suffered from post-concussion syndrome, including depression, and had to stop teaching. He told Savard that some people didn't believe he was actually sick.
In my mind, I kind of lost the love for what I enjoyed. I was asking myself, 'Do I want to put myself through this again?'” -- Marc Savard
It reminded Savard of his own experiences going to the rink and looking OK among athletes whose bodies and health are a direct conduit to their livelihood.
"They don't really know on the inside what I'm going through," Savard said.
But the message from the hockey coach and dozens of others was simple: There is no shame in feeling this way.
"Basically he said it was OK to talk about it," Savard said.
The support helped Savard, and Chiarelli believes the player's acknowledgment of exactly what he had been dealing with was both brave and cathartic.
"It was a huge step for him to come out and talk about it," Chiarelli said. "There's obviously a stigma attached to it, especially in the world of professional sports."
And beyond the points and goals and wins Savard represents to the Bruins, there is something rewarding about the journey they have all traveled.
"It's gratifying to see him back," Chiarelli said. "This is one of the feel-good parts of the job."
There sometimes have been questions asked about Savard's priorities. Did he put himself above his team? Was it sometimes more about what was good for Marc Savard than about what was good for others around him?
As Savard has slowly pieced together his hockey career, he has taken stock of his life away from the rink. He also continues to take medication and make routine doctors visits for the depression and physical elements of the concussion.
"I'm getting a second chance. I'm trying to change things that maybe I didn't do so well before. Little things," he said. "I don't think I was a bad person, but I want to be a better person."
He makes sure that if there are autograph seekers, he signs for everyone. He takes time to talk to people in his building. He is striving to improve his relationship with his ex-wife. "I'm just more understanding of some situations," he said.
He hopes he is a better father. "My patience is better," he said with a wry grin. "Obviously I have a different viewpoint in my life."
Barker has seen a change.
"I think it's helped to give him strength as a dad, as well," Barker said. "He's a better person. He's a better dad for all of this."
Since his return to Boston, Savard said, he has taken a more active interest in his teammates, offering support to them as they have supported him.
"Right now, he's asking a lot more about how everyone else is doing," Bruins teammate Marco Sturm said.
Sturm, who was injured in Savard's first game back in the playoffs and hasn't played since, spent many hours rehabbing with Savard. As soon as Savard got clearance to join the Bruins for practice, he bought Sturm a small gift as a token of his appreciation for his company during their long rehab stint.
"I think he appreciates a lot more of the little things," Sturm said.
A few days before he returned to NHL action on Dec. 2, his first action since May, Savard is on the ice at Philips Arena with assistant coach Doug Jarvis, defenseman Adam McQuaid and netminder Tim Thomas. Jarvis has the two skaters doing one-on-one battles, trying to take the puck to the net. There are similar drills in the corner. Then there are skating drills from blue line to blue line and from the center line to the blue line. Back and forth, back and forth.
The stands are empty as Savard is the last skater to leave the ice.
"First star again," he quips. "I'm the only one left."
The sweat is streaming off his face, but he is smiling.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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