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The long road back
He just wants to be a normal dad again.
That's the toughest thing Brian Pothier has had to deal with since suffering a career-threatening concussion 11 months ago.
The effects of the fourth documented concussion in his professional hockey career - and second in less than 12 months - have proved debilitating. Eleven months removed from the injury, the Washington Capitals defenseman still can't play catch with his 5-year-old son Jake or get on the swing set with his 3-year-old son Luke.
"You've got your 3-year-old son coming up to you saying, 'Daddy, is the boo-boo on your head gone yet?'" Pothier said. "Every day he says that to me for like three months straight, and I've got to say, 'No, buddy, not yet.' It is kind of a smack in the face of reality."
Pothier's life changed course in an instant. It was a relatively routine play that can happen several times in any hockey game. He chased after a puck as it wrapped around the boards and into the corner of his team's end against the Boston Bruins on Jan. 3.
Pothier sensed an oncoming forechecker, so he had a decision to make - expose his body by trying to reach out with his stick to chip the puck toward center ice or avoid the check and risk losing the battle. There isn't much time to think in that situation, so it is often a move made out of instinct. Maybe another player would have recoiled and tried to regroup, but Pothier lunged for the puck.
It was a sacrifice that may end up costing him his career.
The opposing player was Milan Lucic - a 6-foot-4, 220-pound freight train on skates who has garnered a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the sport. Lucic caught Pothier's cheek with his shoulder, spinning him around. Pothier's face hit the glass as his body contorted from the blow.
That was 11 months ago. While Pothier is working toward a return to the game he loves, it is far from his thoughts. He is still searching for a way back to his normal life.
"It is a long process that has gone through lots of twists and turns," Pothier said. "It is kind of like we address one issue and try to fix it and deal with it - and then something else will pop up."
For the first few months after the hit, the recovery process never began. Days turned into weeks and Pothier was confined to his couch, unable to handle changes in light, sound and movement.
Each time he progressed, a setback seemed imminent.
"I just couldn't function," said Pothier, who also suffered concussions in 2002, 2004 and 2007. "Then it progressed to where I could walk around and do stuff, but if I did something like run up the stairs or just quickly moved, the jarring would just be, 'Boom!' and the symptoms would fire right up again. I would be back trying to take a nap and make the symptoms settle down."
Pothier sought help, first from the team neurologist and then a neurologist in Colorado, Dr. James Kelly. He spent time working with a vestibular system specialist focusing on inner-ear issues.
Eventually, Pothier started to progress and, by the end of the offseason, he was working out again; he even got back on his skates. He spent five minutes on the ice before "blowing up." The ice surface wreaked havoc on his equilibrium, and he spent eight days trapped in his apartment - just like the time right after suffering the concussion.
"It was great that we were making progress," Pothier said. "But we hadn't found the solution yet."
That is where Dr. Susan Durham and Dr. Paul Harris come in.
Pothier returned to Kelly in Colorado. He diagnosed a problem with Pothier's fourth cranial nerve, which connects to the superior oblique muscle of the eye - the muscle that controls the eye's movement.
Lucic's hit on Pothier damaged the nerve, which is at the base of the brain. When the nerve - essentially a path of communication - didn't work, Pothier's brain had to reroute the information to his eye. It got there but slower than it needed to, which caused blurry vision and trailing.
Eventually, Pothier found out that Durham, who is based in Cary, N.C., had treated Matt Cullen of the Carolina Hurricanes, who dealt with some of the same post-concussion issues. Pothier paid her a visit, and she started him on something called vision therapy.
"We are revamping or improving the message that the brain is sending to the eyes. We are basically rebuilding brains," Durham said. "A lot of people think, if something happens to the brain, it is, 'Oh, too bad - you're done.' But there has been a significant amount of new studies about the neuroplasticity of the brain, which is basically rebuilding brains. It is creating new pathways."
Pothier only saw Durham once but Harris, who mentored her on the process, practices in Cockeysville, Md., so he has continued the rehabilitation there. Some of the exercises are done with things like a swinging ball. Others are on a computer or involve special glasses which show if Pothier is using both eyes the same way.
It is essentially a process for Pothier to relearn how to see. At one point, he was told his vision was working at the level of an 8-year-old.
"We are not born with vision, and I'm not talking about eyesight," Durham said. "Eyesight is the ability to see 20/20 or 20/30 - visual acuity. Both Brian and Matt had excellent visual acuity, but it was their vision process that was messed up."
One of the resulting issues from the nerve damage is Pothier developed an astigmatism on his right eye. Until recently, he had trouble with feeling nauseous and cold sweats.
"It was like being seasick," he said.
The solution was a pair of glasses, which helped Pothier tremendously. He's in his second week of working out again, with plans to ramp it up should he make it through this week with no setbacks.
He was even back on the ice shooting pucks Tuesday, even if it was just in tennis shoes. Pothier said Harris is confident his visual process will return to the level it was before the concussion and he will be able to ditch the glasses.
If all continues to go well, he will try to go on the ice with skates on again. If that goes well, he'll be able to incorporate skating into his rehabilitation program.
"Now I am at that point again with the eye therapy instead of the vestibular stuff," Pothier said. "I am kind of waiting to see if there is going to be another explosion or if this going to be the saving grace."
What lies ahead
There is no shortage of success stories in the NHL when it comes to returning from career-threatening concussions. Cullen is back with the Hurricanes after missing the end of last season. So are Philadelphia's Simon Gagne and Boston's Patrice Bergeron; both missed most of last year.
But there are also tales of horror. Guys who came back to a game they felt they needed, leading to another concussion that brought devastating consequences.
"With this type of injury, there are a lot of mysteries involved," Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "You just have to do what is in the best interest of the player and let him make his own decisions. If he wants to play and the doctors think it is OK, you let him play. If he doesn't want to play, then don't force it."
Pothier is not practicing or playing with his teammates, but he has tried to stay involved. He hangs out with guys at the practice rink and attends every home game.
Karl Alzner praised Pothier for being a mentor to the 20-year-old top prospect. Pothier said he is more than willing to offer advice, but he also tries not to push it.
"It is hard, because you can be around the guys, but you're not around the guys and hockey," said Caps captain Chris Clark, who missed a large chunk of last season with a groin injury. "You don't feel like you're part of the same club sometimes. You're in, but you're not."
Even as Pothier, 31, nears the one-year anniversary of his injury, the "To play or not to play" debate isn't a priority. While fans, teammates or the media might speculate or want to know if he is coming back, Pothier, who's in the third year of a four-year, $10 million contract, just isn't worried about that right now.
The plan he and his wife, Gwen, have devised about his playing future is simple: When the time comes to make that decision, they will sit down and figure it out. For now, Pothier just wants to be able keep up with Jake and Luke without worrying about the repercussions.
"When I'm better - when I've skated with the team and I am back to 100 percent and I'm flying around - then, at that moment, I can sit back and say, 'OK, now I am ready. Is it worth it?,'" Pothier said. "That's the moment that I hope I can get to. I hope I get to that position and have the opportunity to make that decision.
"My goal right now is to be able to function like a normal person. I want to be able to go to the park and play tag football with my kids, and be able to run and chase them as fast and as hard as I want to and not feel like I am going to explode. That's obviously the most important thing. And then if we can get me healthy enough to have a decision about hockey to make, then that would be great. ... I am putting off that decision as long as I can. I don't know if that is irresponsible or really smart. I haven't figured it out."
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