Pat Peake remembers April 26, 1996, like it just happened. It’s impossible for him to forget it.
The Washington Capitals center was 22 years old when he was trying to negate an icing play against J.J. Daigneault of the Pittsburgh Penguins. All of a sudden, Peake said, he was “water skiing.” His right heel bone broke in 14 places and twisted.
“I remember looking down and I can remember [referee] Kerry Fraser being the first guy over,” Peake recalled. “My right foot was out while both my knees were facing up. I said I think I’m going to be sick. I remember Kerry Fraser there, he was just fantastic. He said: ‘Turn this way if you’re going to be sick, ESPN camera’s right there. What can I do? Take your time.’ ”
Peake touched the puck first. That was little consolation.
“At the end of the day my particular play was my fault. J.J. Daigneault, he had a step on me, there’s no question about it,” he said. “You get a little brainwashed, you do whatever it takes. Yes I won the race. I also lost my career.”
Surgery didn’t go well. A broken calcaneus bone is common only to construction workers who fall from two or three stories and people in car accidents who slam on the brakes.
“I think once you get cut you’re kind of never the same,” Peake said. “Once they get in there and start hacking around and stuff like that.”
He tried to come back. The 14th overall overall pick by the Caps in the 1991 draft showed such promise early in his career, scoring 29 points as a rookie and then 36 before the broken heel bone in 1995-96.
After the injury he skated with strength coach Frank Costello. Something always went wrong.
“I’d skate a couple days, skate a couple days and then I’d have to go get cleared to play, I’d go do an MRI and they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re scheduled for surgery tomorrow. You have a torn peroneal tendon, you have a torn this, you have a torn that,’ ” Peake said. “Finally after 12 of them, it’s like, ‘OK, you good at anything else, kid?’ At that point I’m 23 years old. That’s 23. and that was it, lights out.”
Retired for good from playing in the NHL at 24, Peake is now a coach of the Honeybaked bantam 1998 team based outside of Detroit. He has had 19 different surgeries on his right heel “and they want to do more.”
“They want to do an ankle replacement because the heel joint, which is called your subtalar joint, they fused that about four years ago with my hip,” Peake said. “So basically now my left to right motion is just gone; there’s basically none. My Achillies is three times the size of the other one. And everything’s so scarred down. Now my ankle joint basically works as two.”
When Joni Pitkanen suffered the same injury last week on an icing touch-up against Washington, the Carolina Hurricanes called Peake to get his thoughts and advice.
“They said, ‘How much pain are you in on a daily basis?’ And I said, ‘Well, to be honest, I don’t really want him to hear this. I hurt every single day,’ ” Peake said.
Some of the pain is physical, some emotional. In July 1996, Peake married his wife, Carrie, on crutches. He had to walk down the aisle leaning on her and a cane.
“I have two daughters, 8 and 12 now,” he said. “Unfortunately there are days where, they’re both big-time soccer players, just love the game. And they say, ‘Dad, let’s go in the backyard and play soccer.’ Some days I can’t do it, simple as that. ‘I can go stand there, you’ve got to kick it to me up here and I’ll roll it back to you.’ Going to the mall, taking your kids to Disney and you say, ‘OK, you guys go and I’ll meet you back here.’ That kind of stuff.”
Peake cannot walk on sand or a hill.
“Going up a ramp? impossible, I’ve got to find the stairs,” he said. “The stairs are a little bit more doable because your foot is flat. But any uneven surface, I can’t do it. It’s not that it hurts, it’s not that I don’t want to do it, I just can’t.”
Peake will turn 40 in May, and while what he called a “meaningless play” robbed him of what could have been a long NHL career, he’s not bitter. Far from it.
“I don’t blame anyone. I’m a very blessed person with my wife and my girls,” Peake said. “It could’ve been a lot worse. You know what I always say when people ask about it, they say, ‘You’ve got to be so mad, you could’ve done this.’ I say, ‘You know what? It could’ve been my head and I wouldn’t even know my kids’ names.’ ”
Peake might not be able to walk around the mall for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time with 12-year-old Kaylie and 8-year-old Erica, but he can still have some semblance of a normal life.
That normal life includes coaching hockey, but he couldn’t watch what happened to Pitkanen. His wife and daughters texted to let him know Don Cherry showed it on “Hockey Night in Canada,” but even 17 years after his play it won’t do any good seeing Pitkanen’s injury.
Peake understands players needing to risk injury to make a play. But he hopes his story serves as a cautionary tale
“For the guys that say, you know what, he’s a sissy, come look at my ankle,” he said. “Come walk around the mall. For that 21-, 22-year-old tough guy. I don’t meant that in a disrespectful way. But they don’t understand that they are going to have a family, they are going to have children, they are going to have a wife. It might start in two years, three years, five years. We hope it goes 15 to 18, they play till they’re 38, 39. That would be wonderful.
“But they are going to have that life after hockey, and right now they have no idea about it. But you want to be able to run around the park with your children and go to the beach.”
Peake doesn’t have that chance.