'Miracle' brings Pothier back to the ice
Brian Pothier is all smiles on this day. As he sits down for an interview with ESPN.com in a downtown Toronto hotel, he's oblivious to the ruckus around us in a busy lobby that's undergoing renovations.
He's eager to tell his story, one that deserves to be told.
It's one that details a courageous player who didn't give up despite being more than a year removed from the game he loves. It's also a story that reminds us about the complexities of concussion-related injuries.
And that's probably the best place to start. Pothier wants us all to know he wasn't suffering from a concussion the entire time he was on the shelf.
"Everyone thinks, 'My goodness, this guy suffered a concussion for 14 months.' But it was really just three months, and then I needed a pair of glasses," Pothier said.
It's a little more complicated than that, but it's a good way to put it. Let us explain.
Pothier was still feeling dizziness nearly a year after the bodycheck on Jan. 3, 2008, from Boston's Milan Lucic that injured him. Despite numerous visits to different doctors and specialists, he had no real answers as to why he was seemingly still feeling the effects of a concussion suffered such a long time ago.
"The typical concussion symptoms subsided after two or three months," said Pothier, a native of New Bedford, Mass. "But something was still off. My spatial awareness was off. It was almost like vertigo, like I was seasick all the time."
Enter Greg Smith, the Capitals' head athletic trainer. He got an idea.
"Matt Cullen was with me when I was with the Ducks," Smith said of the Carolina Hurricanes forward. "I remember reading about the same thing with him. I called him and I asked him, 'Did you have this, this and this?'"
The answer was yes, yes and yes.
"I was like, 'Wow,'" said Smith, recalling the excitement of a possible breakthrough. Cullen had been helped greatly by a vision therapy specialist in North Carolina, Dr. Susan Durham.
"I said to Brian, just for fun, let's go see what this woman says in Carolina," Smith said. "We spent the afternoon with her."
"I got in there and she said, 'You have the same exact symptoms. You've developed the same astigmatism that Matt had,"' Pothier recalled of the December visit with Durham. "I put on the glasses she gave me -- I was sitting in front of a computer screen -- and instantly all the pressure behind my eyes was gone. It was like a miracle. It was unbelievable."
After months and months of agonizing over how to figure out his concussion problems, it turns out he just needed a trip to the optometrist.
Pothier was right: His concussion symptoms had subsided after two or three months, but the concussion, and resulting trauma to the brain, caused an astigmatism in his eye. The astigmatism was causing the lingering symptoms.
I have a strong faith in God, and my faith has just increased tenfold. I couldn't begin to describe the changes in me, just as a dad and a husband and a player.” -- Brian Pothier on how his 14-month absence from the NHL has changed his life
"It's a neat story," said Caps GM George McPhee. "This whole eye thing was quite a revelation to all of us. It reinforces the point that when you have one of these injuries [concussion], you have to do whatever you can to try and find a solution. As hard as it is to keep going, to see different doctors and [have] the same discussions, somebody might be able to come up with a solution.
"This person did, and basically saved his career. Who knows if he would have ever played again if this person hadn't discovered it was an eye issue?"
Pothier, who turns 32 next month, later had several sessions with a vision therapy specialist just outside Baltimore, Dr. Paul Harris, who happens to be Durham's mentor in the field. Harris eventually weaned Pothier off the glasses.
"What Brian came in with was, his ears were telling him one thing about balance, his eyes were telling him something else," Harris said. "So, there was a mismatch between the two. It was causing him, every time he moved his head, to feel lost, like dizzy, nauseous, and he began to walk around for months like a china doll, afraid to move his head quickly from one side to another.
"He was afraid to rotate his head ... and obviously a china doll on skates is going to break the first time he gets hit," Harris added. "So, what I worked with was to eliminate the mismatch between what his eyes were telling him and what the balance system in the ears was telling him. He's recovered nicely and it's nice to see him out there playing again."
The bottom line is, Durham and Harris helped save Pothier's career by fixing his vision. But let's not forget what caused the vision problems in the first place: It was his fourth career concussion.
"And that's what that kind of trauma can do: It can make something else go off track," McPhee said.
Since he wasn't actually concussed for 14 entire months, Pothier doesn't see any reason to think he's crazy for playing again.
"Some people are misinformed. They think I've had this crippling concussion for a year and they wonder why I'd risk this again," Pothier said. "It was a typical concussion that lasted two or three months. Sure, definitely, every time I'm on the ice I'm at risk, because I've had a few. But you can talk to probably 300 of the 700 guys in this league that have the same story as that."
Having said that, there were more than a few people who were holding their breath when Pothier laced up for his first game earlier this month with the Hershey Bears, Washington's AHL affiliate.
"The biggest hurdle for me was that first game with Hershey," Pothier said. "To get into the actual flow of the game was the biggest obstacle for me. Once that first game passed, it really came back quick."
McPhee was certainly happy. After all, he had decided to forgo adding a defenseman at the March 4 NHL trade deadline and instead made Pothier his late-season addition on the blue line.
"We had that in our back pocket and it was sort of a roll of the dice because we didn't know whether he would go into Hershey and get hit the first game, whether he'd be done or survive it," McPhee said bluntly. "But based on what was available that day at the deadline, there just didn't seem to be a lot and we'd have to give up an asset to do it and maybe something out of our lineup to do it. We didn't want to do that. We thought the best thing to do, if Brian wanted, was to roll the dice and let him play. And so far, it's worked very well. He's played well."
After four AHL games, the Caps recalled Pothier. His first game back in the bigs was March 16 at Atlanta.
"I didn't feel too out of sorts in Atlanta, and I think with each passing game, I'm becoming more comfortable," said Pothier, who has averaged just over 17 minutes of ice time in his three games back.
When he turned his cell phone on that night after the game, he realized more than a few people were cognizant of his return to the NHL.
"I had 28 messages," said Pothier, his eyes glowing. "I've had just great support from everybody."
He's needed it. Because before the breakthrough in North Carolina in December, he admits he thought a few times that it might be over.
"Many times," Pothier said. "It was touch-and-go. It was definitely an emotional roller-coaster ride, for sure."
He's back just in time for the best part of the season: playoff hockey. And thanks to a rigorous three-month training period with the team before his comeback, he's physically ready for it.
"I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life," Pothier said.
Pothier doesn't want to simply take a roster spot. He wants to return to the kind of game that made him a valuable puck-moving defenseman on this team.
"I don't want to get on the ice and be terrible and people say, 'It's OK, he's been out for a long time,'" Pothier said. "I want to contribute and add something. I don't think it's fair to the team if I go out and suck."
"Brian makes our team better," McPhee said. "He brings mobility that we need on our blue line. And he can generate some offense."
The Caps have been erratic over the past few weeks, seemingly bored with the rest of the regular season and anxious to get the playoffs going. For Pothier, the few remaining regular-season games are like gold.
"I need every game," he said. "The conditioning is not an issue at all, but it's just the hockey sense. Right now, I feel like I see my options pretty good, which I'm happy about, but I'm waiting a split-second to make that play instead of confidently just getting it and moving it. Right now, I'm getting the puck and evaluating a little bit, and sometimes [the option] goes away because I'm not moving it quickly enough. That's what is going to come with time."
In the meantime, try as you might, you probably won't wipe the smile off Brian Pothier's face. He's survived the darkest moment of his career, and he's a better person for it.
"It's a pretty significant change. I'm not the same person, for sure," he said. "I have a strong faith in God, and my faith has just increased tenfold. I couldn't begin to describe the changes in me, just as a dad and a husband and a player
"You certainly won't hear me be as quick to complain about the food or the travel or whatever. You really understand how much of a privilege and honor it is to play in this league, and how every time you put on that Capitals jersey and play, it really is a treat. And we should treat it with that respect."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.