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Canucks' Andrew Alberts hoping for 'one day without headaches'
VANCOUVER - On the last day of the Vancouver Canucks’ season, which was 3½ months after Andrew Alberts’ final game, the defenceman begged his way onto the ice at Rogers Arena and for 20 glorious minutes was a National Hockey League player once more.
Accompanied only by assistant strength coach Eric Renaghan, and watched by nobody on the morning before the Canucks’ April 13 game against the Calgary Flames, Alberts skated and passed and shot the puck in full gear and felt like a kid back on the frozen pond where he had learned to play hockey all those years ago in Minnesota.
“It was more like a couple of buddies just passing the puck around,” Renaghan remembers. “But he got to dress in gear and we went out there, and it was cool. He was stress-free at that point. We weren’t doing specific drills or monitoring his fitness. We were just out there passing the puck around and doing stuff that was fun. I knew it meant a lot to him, and it felt good for me to be able to do that with him.”
Alberts pleaded for the ice time because he knew it was not only the last day of the Canucks’ season, but possibly last time he would ever cinch his skates, dress in equipment, pull on a jersey — even a practice one — with an NHL crest, and work as an NHL player.
“I just wanted to go out there and twirl around because it could be my last time on an NHL sheet,” Alberts says. “I had to beg Burnie (medical trainer Mike Burnstein) to let me out there. I said: ‘Just give me 20 minutes.’ I went out there with Eric. Just us and a few pucks on the ice. I knew it might be my last time.”
Five months since he was knocked out in Calgary, concussed by an unprovoked forearm to the head from Brian McGrattan, Alberts continues to suffer headaches daily and knows that his nine-year NHL career may be over.
He turns 33 on June 30, the day his contract expires.
Even if Alberts were healthy, teams would not be lining up to sign the six-foot-five defenceman who has had to battle and claw to stay in the league as a depth player, insurance against someone else’s injury. Alberts did this last season by accepting a pay cut of more than 50 per cent, working every day to stay fit and positive, then playing his butt off on the rare occasions he was in the lineup.
Then 51 seconds into a game on Dec. 29, Alberts chipped the puck along he boards in the defensive zone and was steamrolled by McGrattan, who brought his hands up into the Canuck’s face and hit him with enough force that Alberts was unconscious before he collapsed face-first to the ice.
McGrattan, 32, who made his way into the NHL by amassing 551 penalty minutes during his final season in the minors, was assessed a major penalty and a game misconduct. But he was not suspended and was available to start again for Calgary coach Bob Hartley, who perhaps was hoping for more of a good thing, when the Flames visited Vancouver three weeks later.
That game became infamous for the line brawl off the opening faceoff and former Canucks coach John Tortorella’s attempted attack on Hartley during the first intermission. Unlike McGrattan, Tortorella was suspended.
This is the NHL’s shame: for all its talk about eliminating blows to the head, all the outrage and rancour every time a star player is injured on a questionable hit, the league watched a career enforcer take a run at Alberts at the start of a game and knock him out with a head shot, and did nothing.
And now Alberts’s career may be over.
“I don’t think it’s so much that his career may be over; I think it’s the way it ended,” Alberts’ wife, Kelly, says from their home in Excelsior, Minn., just west of Minneapolis. “Every player wants to go out on their own terms, and you especially don’t want to go out in a situation … in what was so clearly an inappropriate play. It goes without saying it’s hard to see someone you love in pain. But on another level, it’s also really hard to see someone you love not be able to do what they love. Andrew has loved hockey for so long, it’s a way of life. It’s hard to see him not be able to enjoy that on a daily basis.”
Former Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said shortly after the incident the league claimed to be unsure of the precise point of contact on the hit, although replays seem clear enough. The NHL does not comment on incidents that do not involve supplemental discipline.
McGrattan did not respond to The Vancouver Sun’s request, made through the Flames’ media relations department, to speak to him about the hit and its consequences.
Andrew Alberts never heard from McGrattan, either.
“I don’t think that’s in his nature,” he says. “I think there should have been some supplemental discipline. If I’m Sidney Crosby, it’s probably a 15-game suspension. The frustrating part is I’m working my ass off trying to be on the team and get in the lineup, something like that happens and the guy gets off free and now here I am just hoping I can have one day without headaches.
“I’ve kind of just let it go because there’s no point in dwelling on what happened. I just want to get healthy again to the point where I’m not having issues and can just have a normal day around the house. That’s where my focus is right now.”
Alberts, who suffered a serious concussion with the Boston Bruins in 2007, was off skates for 2½ months after the McGrattan hit. He started skating in mid-March, but a comeback was aborted less than two weeks later when Alberts’ condition badly deteriorated. He says now he pushed too hard in his desire to at least practice with teammates before the end of the season.
He has had conflicting recommendations from three different neurologists, but has settled into a pattern of light daily workouts in the morning, consisting typically of about 15 minutes of cardio and some light lifting.
“Basically, the approach is try to stay active instead of sitting around doing nothing,” Alberts says. “I’ve talked to three different neurologists and all three had a different opinion. I’ve challenged my body a little bit because you get sick of just sitting around doing nothing. I did nothing for the first 1½ months and almost started to feel worse.
“I usually get through a 35- or 40-minute workout without a headache, but the headaches come a couple of hours later. Headaches can last an hour … or the rest of the day. You never know. It’s random. You start to get used to having them, I hate to say. It’s part of your day, always there: ‘OK, this is the way it is.’ And you just get through the day.”
The only “silver lining,” Kelly says, is that Andrew has had time at home to devote himself to their family, which includes nine-month-old baby Jackson. Kelly, who met Andrew while studying law in Boston, has put her legal career on hold.
“It hasn’t been easy on family life because you can’t really be yourself,” Alberts says. “It’s almost like there’s a cloud over your head. You want to be happy and just want to have a normal day. (But) in the back of your mind, you wonder: Am I ever going to have a day when I don’t have to worry about headaches?
“If I can’t play hockey again, I can’t play hockey again. But I’d rather have my health and be able to be with my family and feel like myself. I tend to think about hockey quite a bit because you worry about what you’ll do afterwards. But getting healthy is the No. 1
thing for me. Hockey is just one chapter in your life. It has given me a lot of things, but it’s not the be-all, end-all for me.”
A sixth-round draft pick out of Boston University, Alberts has played only 14 games in the minors in his career. He has logged 459 NHL games for the Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and Canucks. His four-plus seasons in Vancouver represent Alberts’ longest tenure with one team.
He remembers Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa standing over him as he lay on the ice in Calgary, encouraging him and telling him: ‘Hang in there buddy, Burnie’s coming.’
Kelly Alberts was watching the game on TV, but had left the room before Andrew was hurt. She received a text from Ryan Kesler’s wife, Andrea, saying ‘I’m so glad he got up.’ Kelly knew instantly that Andrew had been hurt.
“No one ever gets over being afraid that something will happen to your husband,” she says.
“But you just learn to deal with it. You hope for the best when you watch the game, then try to support them if anything happens.”
Benning: (re-Kesler) "I touched base with the agent, and with Ryan yesterday. We're still going back and forth on that. We're going to listen to Ryan. We're going to have a good, open, honest communication. Where it leads to, at this point, I don't know, but we've had open communication with him and his agent."
Rogers today announced the four big voices who will guide hockey fans through all of the upcoming memorable on-ice moments, beginning with the 2014/15 NHL season.
Jim Hughson, Dave Randorf, Paul Romanuk and Bob Cole will call play-by-play for NHL national games across all Rogers properties, as well as Hockey Night in Canada, this coming fall. The announcement was made today as part of the 2014 Rogers Upfront.
“All four of these announcers have the remarkable ability to bring the game to life, capture the ebbs, flows and emotions of the game, and elevate the viewing experience in a significant way,” said Gord Cutler, Senior Vice President of NHL Production, Rogers. “Jim Hughson is one of the top voices in the business today, and Dave Randorf and Paul Romanuk also bring an incredible amount of experience and expertise from the broadcast booth. With the legendary Bob Cole rounding out the team, we are thrilled to have talent of this caliber calling the games for Canadians next season.”
Jim Hughson, Lead Play-by-Play Announcer
• The Gemini Award-winner will be the lead play-by-play commentator for Rogers’s upcoming NHL coverage from the first puck drop on October 8 through the regular season to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Stanley Cup Final
• Hughson is one of hockey’s most notable broadcast voices, with an illustrious career spanning more than three decades. He has called countless NHL, OHL, and CHL games, as well as numerous big events including the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Final, NHL Winter Classic, NHL All-Star Game and the men’s hockey tournament at the 2006 and 2014 Olympic Winter Games. This year marks Hughson’s sixth Stanley Cup Final
• Hughson on his new role: “I’m pleased to be joining the Rogers hockey crew, and what we will endeavor to build into one of the best teams in hockey broadcasting. It’s going to be a great ride.”
• Randorf brings close to 25 years of experience to his new role with Rogers. The Gemini Award nominee has covered countless sporting events throughout his career, and has served as a play-by-play commentator for the IIHF World Championships, the World Junior Hockey Championships, as well as numerous NHL and other international hockey events. He was the full-time regional voice of the Montreal Canadiens for the last four seasons
• Randorf on his new role: “Like most Canadians, I am passionate about our game of hockey. To have this opportunity is an honour and I am very excited about the next phase of my career. I have been extremely fortunate the last 17 years of my career. Great memories and great people. Now I am looking forward to my next chapter and helping bring the passion and excitement of the NHL to Rogers.”
• Romanuk has more than 25 years of sports broadcasting experience, and has provided play-by-play commentary for numerous NHL games, including serving as the voice of the Montreal Canadiens regional broadcasts from 1998 to 2001. He has also called several World Junior Hockey Championships and World Hockey Championships
• Romanuk on his new role: “I can’t say enough how thrilled I am to be coming back to Canada to call play-by-play for the greatest hockey league in the world, and to be part of Rogers’s exciting new venture as national rights holders, bringing so many games to hockey fans across the country. Rogers is building a great team, and I’m honoured to be a part of it.”
• Cole, a Hockey Hall of Famer and Canadian icon, has been captivating hockey audiences with his electrifying voice for more than five decades. Cole will continue to call games on Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada, as well as during the Stanley Cup Playoffs
• Cole on returning to the broadcast booth in September: “I’m coming off one of the most exciting playoff experiences, and I’ve barely had a chance to unwind yet! It’s a delight to join the Rogers team, and I am pleased they are continuing to honour the Hockey Night in Canada tradition. I’m flattered to be included – and rest assured, I’ll do everything I can to give it my best shot.”
Rogers Communications, the parent company of News1130, secured a 12-year deal with the NHL in November 2013 for exclusive national broadcast and multimedia rights in Canada, beginning with the 2014-15 season.
Just the recent game he made two mistakes in 5 minutes. Kept mistaking Shaw with Saad and vice versa.
I suppose it doesn't count as a mistake when he calls everyone by the position they play, or the team they play for. When he does attempt names, he gets them mixed up. I still remember how he used to always call the Sedins "The Sundins".