Bench Strength

Being a goalie, I take a long time to get dressed for games. I’m usually at the rink at least an hour before game time, but I’m not the first in the room. Keith Morrison is.

Morrison is the organizer of our oldtimers hockey team, the Vancouver Flames (just so there are no misunderstandings, our Flames were Flames before there were Calgary Flames). Back when I joined them, 15 years ago, I’d sworn I’d never play with a choose-up-sides club again. But this group was different. They already had a quarter-century of hockey culture, endless stories, and a genuine regard for each other that has almost never degenerated to the glove-dropping stage. And they had Morrison, a retired engineer and banker, a prototypical big right winger, a master of the give-and-go. Morrison does everything short of dry cleaning our jerseys to make our hockey experience complete. He even built overhead shelves in a dressing room owned by UBC.

Morrison likes watching whoever’s on the rink before we are, enjoys greeting the guys as they arrive, gets some weird kick out of whistling “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” in July. We tried to find a nickname for him-he was Boat for a while-but the one that stuck is The Owner. That sums up his contribution. His parlour in Point Grey is a shrine to a half-century of playing Canada’s national game. The Hall of Flame at his place is stocked with tournament trophies, Ken Danby prints, and commemorative silverware. Morrison is himself enshrined in the Canadian Adult and Recreational Hockey Hall of Fame as an organizer.

First in, last out. The Owner and I were the only ones left in the room at the Britannia Community Centre after our game on the night of Monday, August 18, 2003. He was already dressed and, being the soul of consideration, he waited for me, sitting opposite the goaltender’s bench while I towelled off. Once I was decent, I crossed the room, sat down beside him, took a deep breath, and said, “Keith, I’ve got Parkinson’s.”

I was too absorbed in wondering whether I’d disclosed my news in an appropriately offhand way to recall his exact response. He murmured something empathetic and supportive. Of course, I said, I’d have to quit the Flames. He thought about that for, oh, maybe five seconds. “Not necessarily,” he said. “Leave it with me.”

Strange, telling people who mean a lot to you that you have a neurodegenerative condition. If you do it right, it involves communicating a great deal of detailed information. So you resort to metaphors to condense the essentials, saying that you’re heading down a highway that will become a rocky road and then a footpath that peters off into the chaos of unpredictable movement, possibly a complete lack of nervous control.

At the time, the only symptom I had was in my right leg. The joints would go rigid at exactly the same corner every day on my jog through Lower Shaughnessy. My play in the net had declined, too, although there are better-qualified observers who say it was always pretty bad. And I was, of course, like everybody, getting older. Loss of memory is a symptom of Parkinson’s, but my memory has always been bad enough to make the distinction between forgetfulness due to age and due to brain damage beside the point. Fifty-seven is the classic age to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and it’s an age at which you wonder whether every mental and physical slip-up is actually a symptom.

There are worse places than Vancouver to have Parkinson’s. The Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre at UBC has highly qualified nurse-advisors who answer their cellphones on Sunday afternoons. Susan Calne, my advisor through the first tough days, suggested I inform any group in which I take a physically active role that I had the disease. It made sense: the Flames are a hockey team, and I was having trouble skating. “If you don’t tell them,” she pointed out, “they’ll diagnose you themselves.”

Of course. Had they known all along? How could they not have, watching me get lost in my big jersey after spending an hour getting into my skates and pads? Mike Harling, a former bookstore owner who also has Parkinson’s, thinks it was the time it took him to dress, more than declining skills, that ended his hockey career.

Parkinson’s follows a different road in every case; it is impossible to predict how my symptoms will compare to those of, say, Michael J. Fox, or Muhammad Ali, or Ozzy Osbourne. They say about Parkinson’s that you don’t die of the disease, you die with it. Great, eh? What is predictable is that the condition will attack one side first. So far my case includes a pronounced tremor in my right arm and a tendency to trip over my right foot. I thought I was lucky: I write left-handed. But I play hockey right-handed, and I lost the ability to keep my goalie stick flat on the ice. Indeed, my right-side tremor became severe enough that my neurologist, Dr. Martin McKeown of the PPRC at UBC, considers my arm-shaking an exotic, highly charged variation.

Here’s how far along the rocky road I’ve travelled-or, as the Parkinson Society of B.C. would say, how far I’ve progressed on my personal journey. No neurologist has needed more than five minutes to confirm my diagnosis. You lose 75 percent of your brain’s dopamine production for symptoms to appear, and once those symptoms have led you to the neurologist’s door, there’s no chance of compensating for the loss of that much of the body’s nervous system regulator. It’s a tribute to the brain’s ingenuity that it seeks new routes for the dopamine it still does manufacture. There is a loss of cognition and particularly, in my case, as it turns out, a loss of short-term memory-which is maybe not such a bad thing if you’re a goalie who finds himself getting scored upon more often than you used to.

Each game night, the Flames split up into two teams, which makes sense when you consider that we have atomic physicists from UBC’s TRIUMF particle accelerator, who split atoms for a living, doing the choosing. We get consistently good-calibre hockey that way, and when we hunger for higher stakes we play two or three oldtimer tournaments a year.

Now, I should point out that the Vancouver Flames are a pretty good team-some of us played at UBC for Father David Bauer, who went on to found Canada’s National Team. Next time you see Fred Cadham, ask him what he learned about hockey from Terry Harper. At the summer Santa Rosa tournament in California, at which you can see ex-pros like Red Berenson and Harper in action, Cadham had the puck when he was assaulted by Harper, like Berenson a former Montreal Canadien. Harper slashed Cadham’s stick, rapped him on the back of his legs, rode him into the boards, and elbowed him high. As Cadham was contemplating what form of excruciating pain his revenge might take, Harper looked back and yelled, “Isn’t this fun?”

Saying how good the team is is most unFlame-like. I tell you about these guys to make a point: how much they gave up by continuing to play in front of me. The group includes American college scholarship players, a winger from Bobby Clarke’s line with the Flin Flon Bombers way back when. We have a former western Canadian college scoring champion who became CEO of Finning, a dentist named Hacker, a lawyer known as Boomer, four guys named Anderson, and Mick Donnelly, an iron worker who played with the Pembroke Lumber Kings and helped build the container cranes on Burrard Inlet. And we have players like Mike Whelan, guys who’ve become good hockey players by learning from the more talented ones. In the room, Whelan is the deadliest Flame of all, master of the ribald retort, our boss of badinage. He built himself a persona for defending himself from speeding charges so successfully that he had the lawyers on the team shaking their heads.

“You mean you can get my wife an acquittal?” asked one of the legal corps, as if addressing the jury in an ineptly prosecuted case. “Are you guaranteeing that?”

“I never said I could get her an acquittal,” Whelan said, pulling his skate laces tight. “I said I can get her off.”

The ribbing never ends, the stories accumulate. Dave Inglis, also a goalie, recently lost for the first time to his 16-year-old son, yet another goalie, who was substituting for one of the regulars. That left Inglis a first-time loser in what he calls a never-ending battle of the father, the son, and the goalie host. Inglis took the ribbing with aplomb, even when Boomer’s voice momentarily rode above the general din.

“I don’t even consider goalies to be human,” Boomer rasped. Inglis was unbuckling the straps of his goal pads. “For me, they don’t count. What are they? Where do they come from? Do you know, Sean?”

There’s nothing like a steadily worsening condition-along with its dark handmaiden, clinical depression-to make you live in the moment. And nobody in hockey lives in the moment quite like a goalie. The Owner knew all this, and his wordless gestures, aimed at improving my moments, will remain with me as long as I live. One day while I was on the ice he arranged a huge goalie equipment bag on the dressing-room floor, a bag so large that it swallowed my old bag and its contents whole. The new bag is on wheels. I can’t tell you how much easier and more pleasant it has made the process of getting out of the room after a game.

I’ve always made my living as a writer-of magazine articles, of books about hockey, about airplanes, about politics-and The Owner arrived at my door one morning with a gift. How did he know that my right-side tremor was making me take several stabs at every letter east of “T” on the keyboard? He didn’t say anything, just handed me a brand new big-letter keyboard and waved goodbye. And he and the Flames began making annual thousand-dollar contributions to the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre (as I learned from the PPRC, of course, not from them).

Eager to repay my teammates’ kindnesses with stellar goaltending, I made a multitude of small adjustments. I tried taking little pitter-patter steps sideways to avoid tripping over my right foot. I found myself playing the way I did as a teenager: in a standup style, post-to-post, on my feet as much as possible, with the occasional butterfly when a shooter 20 feet out had either side to unload into.

I found myself playing behind what I thought was the superior team almost all the time. If I was right about that, I did not feel patronized. I was getting help that I needed. My teammates would squeeze their sticks as bad goals-against followed good ones; they’d hammer the boards behind my net in frustration as I fished the puck out of the net. Guys would take the rap for some invented mistake, like missing a check, and apologize to me. But I knew when I’d seen the shot all the way and should have had it. I knew I’d begun hugging the post too tightly, a habit of goalies who’ve lost their confidence. The shooter scores into the long side, and your bench has the air sucked out of them. I got raves for routine saves. It became an ongoing joke for the rest of the team to congratulate me and then say to someone who’d scored a hat trick, “Oh, yeah. You were okay, too, Jack.”

At some point, I realized, the team in front of me had accepted the handicap of shaky netminding-literally-and begun to prevail nevertheless. I don’t really know how it happened, or whether anything was ever said, but my team started spending most of the game in the other team’s end. They would wear down the opposition. The other goalie would be bombarded until a tap-in goal, a goal in any league, got slipped in behind him. I’d watch much of the game from a distance of 180 feet. I’d enjoy long stretches of Drydenesque, chin-on-stick respite. Occasionally I’d even get to be a winner-not often, and I was certainly never what you’d call the winning goalie. Instead, I was sometimes the goalie who happened to play behind the winning team.

I set myself the modest task of making enough saves, among the relatively few shots that came my way, to keep my team in the game. Sometimes I succeeded. When I didn’t, and apologized for giving up a soft goal, Morrison gently admonished me, invoking one of the venerable sporting clichés: “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.'”

For the first 18 months after my diagnosis, I’d remained unmedicated. I felt proud of myself. I thought that turning down Levadopa, the gold standard of Parkinson’s treatments, would buy me time when I needed it in the future. I fell flat on my face tripping over curbs. I knocked over my water glass at dinner, dumped platefuls of lasagna on my lap. I let in soft goals. The Flames were obtrusively helpful, carrying on as if every goaltender in every oldtimers league spends 10 minutes sorting out a single buckle or trying to find the left sleeve of his jersey. More than that, they are enormously sensitive to whether I actually want help.

Eventually, though, I was begging for medication. I decided to accept the usual penalty-drowsiness-in return for some small mitigation of my tremor, and of my darkening mood. I started with an anti-depressant, Effexor. Parkinson’s patients suffer depression at a much greater rate than people with other chronic diseases-not just because they have a chronic condition, but because chemical changes associated with the loss of dopamine trigger depression.

About six months ago, Dr. McKeown gave me a prescription for a drug my wife and I had been hearing about at Parkinson’s lectures, the only treatment taken just once a day. It had been effective over a 10-year period in Europe-an Israeli product, just recently approved in North America. McKeown’s rationale for making it available to me was that my right-side tremors were resistant to everything we’d tried.

No medicine has done for me what Azilect is doing. It’s the only treatment that has noticeably slowed the progression of my condition. It’s made me more confident in goal. I can’t believe how steady, how sure, I feel again while skating. I’ve regained my ability to direct rebounds into the corner.

One night, over a postgame beer, Whelan asked me how long it had been since my diagnosis. He found it hard to believe it had been four years; the slowed rate of my decline made him think it was more recent. I thanked him for the compliment. Time is all we have, “quality time,” as the ads say-60 minutes to a game, an uncertain number to a lifetime-and Azilect is buying me more of it.

One evening recently, after a game, The Owner asked if I’d play at the Arbutus Club with an even older bunch of oldtimers than the Flames. I told him I couldn’t-I had a regular Thursday night beer-up with, as I carelessly put it, “some of my friends.”    

“We’re your friends,” The Owner said.

Don’t I know it.