PHILADELPHIA – Ian Laperriere was dazed, his blood squirting all over the ice.
On all fours, a towel pressed to his face, Laperriere begged the Philadelphia Flyers trainer for some good news.
“Is my eyeball still there, Jimmy? Do I still have my eye?” he asked trainer Jim McCrossin.
Yes, the right eye was in place, even though he’d need about 70 stitches to patch up his face.
Laperriere had his eye and his eyesight—but he lost his career.
Laperriere, a gutty forward who built a 15-year career as a pesky agitator, has not played since the 2010 playoffs. He missed all of this season because of the lingering effects of the concussion he suffered from the vicious shot to the face when he tried to block the puck in a playoff game against New Jersey.
In Philadelphia, he’s become a bit of a folk hero.
In the NHL, he hasn’t been forgotten.
Laperriere is one of three nominees for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Goalie Ray Emery of the Anaheim Ducks and forward Daymond Langkow of the Calgary Flames also were nominated, which will be presented Wednesday at the NHL awards in Las Vegas.
Emery and Langkow both returned from injuries to play this season. Laperriere wasn’t so lucky. He hasn’t retired yet (“there’s a chance because I’m breathing”) but doctors have told him to quit and he’s all but played his last game.
He should have been wearing that No. 14 sweater and helping the Flyers in their playoff push had he simply worn a visor. By his own admission, Laperriere was too macho to wear the protective shield because of his reputation as the type of player who absorbed any kind of hit, or dished them out, if it would help his team win.
He was never much of a scorer—121 goals, 336 points in 1,083 career games—and knew if he wanted to stick around the NHL, he’d have to perform the dirty work the other player battling for his spot might not want.
So he took off his shield and started fighting.
Laperriere played for three teams in 1995-96, but that final stop in Los Angeles was a fortuitous one. Kings assistant coach Dave Tippett told Laperriere he needed to suck up injuries and stay in the lineup for 75-80 games, not 60.
“I was happy he told me that,” Laperriere said. “It made me play through a lot.”
Maybe too much.
He lasted eight years with the Kings and four with Colorado before signing with the Flyers in 2009. He surely would have made Tippett proud, playing in all 82 games and setting the example for a still-blossoming nucleus about playing with pain. Laperriere was blasted in the mouth by a puck against Buffalo, needed 100 stitches and lost seven teeth.
He returned to play later in the game.
“They brought me here to show the young guys what it is to be a pro,” he said. “James van Riemsdyk was next to me in the locker-room and I was thinking, I’ve got to go back and show them that if you’re OK, you’ve got to play.
“Stitch me up, come on boys. I’ve got to go back.”
He didn’t miss a game—and refused to add a shield.
“I don’t regret it. It made me the player I was,” he said. “I know it’s tough for people to understand.”
Laperriere paid the ultimate price for his decision last April.
His face took the brunt of New Jersey Paul Martin’s slapper and the gruesome injury had lasting effects. He suffered a brain contusion and mild concussion. Worse, he could have been blinded.
He returned to play later in the post-season as the Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.
“I have to play,” he said. “It’s easy for Sidney Crosby to take three years off. Ian Laperriere can’t take any time off.”
He did have time off during the summer, and he couldn’t shake the headaches and the uneasy feeling that he wasn’t right. Laperriere reported for training camp, even his passed his baseline test, but he could not play.
Laperriere had no solid answer when the Flyers asked what he wanted to do next. All he knew was that he wanted to remain connected with hockey.
So he kept busy, serving as a team ambassador of sorts. He did promotional work, was a post-season TV analyst, rang the opening bell on Wall Street, and skated with Chris Pronger when the injured defenceman tried to return from injury.
He tried to stay out of the way of his teammates who were always prepping for the next game without him.
“It’s tough to be around the guys when you can’t go,” Flyers forward Danny Briere said. “But he’s always a part of this team, even if he can’t be out there. Look at what he gave up for us.”
Sticking around the game helped ease the tough times. The easygoing and popular Flyer said he never felt depressed, even when doctors and second opinions told him his career was over.
“I won’t eat my emotion, I won’t drink my emotion,” he said. “I’ll keep myself fit to help my head heal. I don’t know how I would have taken it if the team pushed me aside. It would have been a lot harder this year.”
Laperriere could lace the skates and hit the ice for some light workouts without any setbacks. But when he pushed himself—and what athlete doesn’t?—he hit the wall. He played in two charity games and the lights and the crowds and the movement just threw him off. He blames nerve damage in his right eye more than the concussions for his condition.
The 37-year-old from Montreal suffers from some blurred vision, but chuckles, “I don’t care because I won’t get hit by a 230-pound, 6-4 guy.”
He’s devastated he can’t play.
Just not bitter.
Because of hockey he met his wife. Because of hockey he’s adored by fans in each of his NHL homes.
“I’ve got everything because of the game,” he said. “Why me? I’m not like that.”