Nathan Horton of the Columbus Blue Jackets faces an enormous decision that will affect his hockey career and his life going forward. If he gets the surgery he so desperately needs, he won’t play in the NHL again. If not, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever get better and he’ll live in constant pain.
If it turns out that this is the last that we’ve seen of Nathan Horton as an NHL player, there will likely be a segment of the population that figures Horton has had it pretty lucky. After all, he played the game he loved at the highest level and has made $38 million doing it, with another $32.1 million coming to him in retirement.
What’s a little back pain when that’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Well, the money is nice, but it won’t replace the void that is created by being robbed of the opportunity to do something you’ve done since you were a child. And nobody knows that better than Horton’s former teammate Marc Savard, whose career was suddenly ended 25 games into the 2010-11 season, largely because of a concussion he sustained on a hit from Matt Cooke the season before.
By the time Savard’s contract with the Boston Bruins expires in 2016-17, Savard will have been paid more than $14 million to not play hockey. And that’s a great chunk of money to be sure, but getting hurt also robbed Savard of the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup with his teammates and has taken his career from him. The same thing happened to Rick DiPietro, who will earn $24 million, but will never play again. Chris Pronger will make more than $19 million to not play for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Savard will get his money. The Bruins have him on the long-term injury reserve list and can replace his cap hit, and are likely having a good portion of the salary paid by insurance. So financially, nobody is suffering here. But that’s not the point.
“Money isn’t everything when it comes to happiness,” said the 37-year-old Savard, who lives in his hometown of Peterborough, Ont., these days. “You want to play for as long as you can. Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m not playing hockey anymore. I thought I would be playing until I was at least 40. It takes a long time to get over, and I’m still not really over it. I miss the game, but I’m a little more at peace.”
Peace is something Horton is seeking these days as well. In a remarkably frank interview with Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch, Horton said he lives in constant pain and now faces the prospect of either undergoing spinal fusion surgery that would end his career or living through excruciating pain in the hopes that somehow a miracle happens and he recovers.
“I don’t want to have surgery, because of what that means,” Horton told the Dispatch. “I don’t want to live with this pain, but I don’t want to make that decision. It’s hard for me to say that, at 29 years old, I’m done. I mean, really? Done at 29?”
Is it better to be done at 29, though, than feel as though you’re 75 the way Horton does? Horton acknowledged that he can’t even stand straight like a regular person or bend over to tie his shoes. “I can’t run. I can’t play with my kids,” he said. “To get in and out of the car, I’m like a 75-year-old man…so slow and stiff. I can’t sleep at night. I try to lie down and my back seizes up and I can’t move, so sleeping is out. I’m like a zombie in the daytime.”
Savard can relate to Horton’s dilemma. He, too, tried to come back after the Cooke hit and though he had some triumphs, wasn’t able to play at the same level and was shut down in February, 2011 after suffering another concussion on a hit by Matt Hunwick.
“It’s shock to the system,” Savard said. “You’re so used to doing one thing your whole life and it’s all you really know and you’re not prepared for anything else, then all of a sudden for no apparent reason, it’s over.”
Savard has filled the void with family, including coaching his own kids’ teams and doing some scouting for the Ottawa 67’s. And while that doesn’t replace the feeling he gets from playing in the best league in the world, it does count for something, Savard said.
“I read the article about him and I know he has some tough questions to ask himself,” Savard said. “But at the end of the day, he’s going to want to be able to play with his kids and just do the things a dad does. That would be the most important thing I’d tell him if I talked to him.”