J.P. Parise has died at age 73 from lung cancer. A few months ago, knowing his diagnosis was terminal, he spoke at length with THN about his life.
Editor’s note: Jean-Paul ‘J.P.’ Parise, retired NHLer and father of Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, passed away Wednesday at age 73 after a battle with lung cancer. A few months ago, after J.P. learned his diagnosis was terminal, he gave a heartfelt interview to THN senior writer Ken Campbell. It appears below. We send our deepest condolences to the Parise family.
The voice at the other end of the line that’s usually so robust and enthusiastic is, on this day, weak and raspy. The person behind it is, at times, a little incoherent. But it’s the voice of a fighter. Anyone who has cancer will tell you there are good days and there are bad days. As far as days go, this one could be better. A lot better.
Jean-Paul Parise just arrived home from the hospital. Chemotherapy ravaged his immune system, and he developed a rectal abscess that had to be surgically removed after he contracted C-difficile, which he got the first time he was in the hospital from all the antibiotics. During his surgery, he contracted it again.
“I’m sitting here feeling like s—,” Jean-Paul said. “My Lord Jesus, I have never, ever suffered so much in my life. In my life. This friggin’ chemo. You ask how it is? Well, on a scale of one to 10, it’s 12-and-a-half.”
Under normal circumstances, cancer might not stand a chance with someone as competitive and uncompromising as J-P Parise, a product of the 1967 NHL expansion and the father of one of hockey’s brightest stars. That is, of course, Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild. J-P is also the head of the hockey program at Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school in Faribault, Minn. Almost two decades ago, Parise took over a foundering program at the small school and transformed it into a national powerhouse and NHL factory. How does cancer stand a chance against the guy who almost took referee Josef Kompalla’s head off in the final game of the 1972 Summit Series? How could it overcome a man who went nose-to-nose with Bert Olmstead, a notorious badass who coached the Oakland Seals and to whom Parise stood up when Parise made a mistake one game and Olmstead charged into the dressing room and called him a “little f—ing frog”?
It seems impossible that J-P, even at 72, won’t prevail. After all, he beat prostate cancer 15 years ago. But when that cancer is now in your lungs and it isn’t discovered until it’s at Stage 4, well, that’s like being down three goals late in the third period with the clock ticking. Doctors originally gave J-P two years. He told them he wants to watch his son play in the 2018 Olympics. On this day, he’s talking about months, not years.
As J-P stares down his mortality, all he feels is pain. Pain can be managed much of the time. Sometimes, it goes away. One thing J-P doesn’t feel is fear. The way he figures, he has packed an enormous amount of living into his almost 73 years and there is little sense in spending what time he has left worrying about what lies ahead.
“I’m not dying tomorrow,” he said. “If I’ve got another nine months, it’s not a death sentence for tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed life. I’ve had a great life. I have a great family. and I’ve had a great career. So there’s no sense getting excited about anything.”
On the other side of town, Zach is contemplating the circle of life. Nine-month-old Jaxson is cooing as his father feeds him, while twin sister Emelia is going down for a nap. Two summers ago, Zach signed a 13-year, $98-million deal with the Wild. It was one he could have received anywhere else. But the deciding factor was he could be close to his parents. It’s a decision he thanks himself for making every day now.
“I can’t imagine being away in another city with him going through this,” Zach said, “and my mom going through this, too. That would have been terrible.”
Zach fears for what his father is facing, but J-P put things at ease. His spirits are still good, Zach marvels at how little his father complains, and J-P’s courage has been inspiring. For J-P, part of dealing with all of this is managing the fears and emotions of the people around him. The way he sees it, it doesn’t help his battle with this disease to see everyone around him acting morose.
Ryan Suter, Zach’s teammate and close friend, has been with Zach since he found out about his father’s diagnosis in February. Suter, whose father, Bob, died of a heart attack this past summer, said J-P has opened his eyes about how others should deal with this situation.
“He said, ‘I told Zach that I’m not going to sit around for however long I have left and every time I come around you it’s sad and you cry,’ ” Suter said. “He doesn’t have long to live, but when we’re around him, we have to be positive. He doesn’t want to be around a bunch of crybabies.”
When J-P played, his emotions often got the better of him. His confrontation with Olmstead resulted in him being released the next day and began a circuitous path that led him to put down roots in Minnesota. After raising his stick over his head on Kompalla, he thought better of it, but the damage had already been done and he was kicked out of the most pivotal game of his life. But that passion also served him well and kept him in the game. J-P was one of those players who was good but not quite good enough for a six-team NHL, so he received a new lease on hockey life when the league expanded to 12 teams and 100 more jobs opened up. He proved he could play in the NHL once he got there, but it was only with determination and desire that he managed to get that chance.
He parallels his struggles to establish himself in the NHL with his current situation. Sometimes, he would be assigned the duty of checking Gordie Howe, who had three inches and 20 pounds on him. Howe also had a nasty disposition to go with his all-world skills. It should have been a mismatch of biblical proportions, but it wasn’t because J-P wouldn’t allow it to be.
Parise figured if he couldn’t check Howe and other great players, he wouldn’t play. And if he didn’t play, his career was over and he’d be back in his hometown of Smooth Rock Falls, Ont., working at the paper mill. So he made up his mind that nobody would be able to dispatch him anywhere for a lack of effort.
“If I had 100 percent to give, that’s what I gave,” J-P said. “I was smart enough to realize that’s what I have, so I’ve got to give it. Some people chose not to do that and, well, they didn’t last very long.”
He also survived in the NHL by knowing where to pick his battles. J-P said one of his best friends on the North Stars was Bill Goldsworthy, who died of complications from AIDS in 1996. The two were kindred spirits when they played, young guys trying to find their way in the best league in the world. He and Goldsworthy often confided in one another and leaned on the other when times were challenging. As fiery a player as J-P was, he knew enough not to pick battles he couldn’t win. He and Goldsworthy had a secret list of players in the league from whom to steer clear. They would talk from time to time, and they would add names to the list.
“We’d be talking about a guy and one of us would say, ‘Well, we have to put him on the list of guys you don’t f— around with,” Parise said.
There’s a good chance Stage 4 lung cancer was on that list when it came to J-P’s personal life. Despite quitting smoking more than 40 years ago, J-P found out during a routine check-up that there was a black spot on his lung. His twin grandchildren had just been born and his son was away in Russia playing for the U.S. Olympic team. After dispensing with his carefree ways, J-P was careful to steer clear of this opponent. He didn’t ask for this fight. It was foisted upon him, and nobody was as surprised as he or his family.
Since then, J-P hasn’t had time for fear. He’s still fighting, gathering as much information as he can and not spending time wondering why this has happened to him.
“If it’s not going to work out, that’s fine,” he said. “No problem. This is going to be, I don’t know, six months, nine months, 12 months, until it happens. But 18 months is better than six months. So that’s my story.”
This feature appeared in the Nov. 3 Issue of The Hockey News magazine.