Jiri Fischer reached out to Jim Nill on Tuesday morning. He knows the Dallas Stars’ general manager well. He used to play for the Detroit Red Wings and now works in their front office, and Nill used to be their assistant GM. He wanted advice. Should he call Rich Peverley? What would be appropriate?
Peverley suffered a cardiac event and collapsed on the Stars’ bench Monday night. He had to be resuscitated. Fischer suffered a cardiac event and collapsed on the Wings’ bench Nov. 21, 2005. He had to be resuscitated, too.
Fischer – who had a preexisting heart condition, like Peverley did – tried to return to the NHL but never played again.
“It’s certainly life-changing,” Fischer said. “It’s career-changing. It’s relationship-changing. Now the dominoes of the changes are going to start to happen. It’s scary. It’s not fun. The cardiac arrest itself in the whole scheme – not to downplay it – is only the start of the whole change process from an athlete to ‘now what?’, from feeling invincible to not.
“Everybody that cares worries. Everybody that cares wants to help. There is no quick fix. There is a long recovery process – a long recovery physically, a long recovery emotionally. Everyone in Rich’s life who cares will be affected one way or another. That’s the sad thing about it. That’s the reality.
“Things are never the same again. Things are different. Things are not worse. Things are not better. Things are different. They’re just not the same anymore after a cardiac arrest. Now it’s just a matter of, hopefully Rich is going to be OK. Hopefully he’s going to be able to resume life with no medical consequences. It’s certainly not easy.”
Fischer does not want this story to be about him, and he does not know the specifics of Peverley’s case or the prognosis. But if anyone can relate to Peverley, if anyone can lend perspective, it’s Fischer.
Peverley, a 31-year-old winger from Kingston, Ontario, underwent surgery for an irregular heartbeat in September. He missed training camp, the preseason and the first game of the regular season. He missed another game March 4. He had just finished a shift in the first period with the Stars trailing the Columbus Blue Jackets, 1-0, when he collapsed Monday night. Team doctors quickly carried him from the bench to the hallway, where they did chest compressions and defibrillated him.
Fischer, then a 25-year-old defenseman from the Czech Republic, had a heart abnormality, but doctors weren’t sure exactly what it was. He had just finished a shift in the first period with the Wings trailing the Nashville Predators, 1-0, when he collapsed 8 ½ years ago. Team doctors didn’t carry Fischer from the bench to the hallway; team physician Tony Colucci did chest compressions and defibrillated him right then and there. Fischer had suffered ventricular fibrillation, his heart beating rapidly and failing to pump blood through the body.
“It was eerie how similar they were,” said NHL executive Brendan Shanahan, who played with the Wings in 2005-06 and was on the bench when Fischer collapsed. “To see how quickly those doctors acted on his behalf, it reminded me of Tony Colucci in Detroit. Before I even knew which one of my teammates was down on the bench, Tony was already on top of him giving chest compressions, and he saved Jiri Fischer’s life. … There was a lot of yelling and screaming, and the one guy that wasn’t confused was our team doctor.”
“He is a big man, and he collapsed right on me,” said NHL Players’ Association executive Mathieu Schneider, who played with the Wings in 2005-06. “That was one of the scariest moments of my career. Thank goodness Tony Colucci was right there at the time. It was shocking, particularly because Fisch was just an incredible athlete in amazing shape. … At first, you had no idea what was happening, but then he started convulsing. It was real scary.”
The NHL strengthened its emergency medical standards after the Fischer incident. At least two team physicians must attend each game, and at least one must have recent emergency training. The physicians must be seated within 50 feet of the benches and have immediate access to the benches and the ice surface. An automatic external defibrillator must be on the home team’s bench.
“I think you’re always evolving, and I think we do a much better job at being prepared and identifying risks,” said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. “The league makes sure that we’ve got the best procedures in place. Jiri Fischer’s life was saved, and Peverley’s life obviously was saved.”
Fischer was in his home office in suburban Detroit on Monday night, checking scores on his computer, keeping up with the playoff race, when the news broke about Peverley. He watched the replays of Peverley collapsing. He saw the pained faces of the players and heard the awful silence of the announcers. He felt relief when he heard Peverley had been resuscitated, and he stayed glued to the press conferences afterward.
“It was tough,” Fischer said. “I didn’t know what to think. At first, it was like, ‘Is this really happening? What’s really happening?’ As replays and more news came out, I kind of selfishly looked at it like, ‘Is this what people thought when I was going through cardiac arrest?’ I was unconscious when I went through it 8 ½ years ago, so this was being a bystander at a kind of carbon-copy situation: first period, halfway through, coming back to the bench, going down.”
Fischer had another episode a week after his first. He had another a week after his second. In about two weeks, he was hospitalized three times.
“The first one seemed like a fluke,” Fischer said. “The second one was just kind of odd. And the third one, I was in a complete panic 24 hours a day just worried about dying.”
Fischer still wanted to keep playing, and he did not want a pacemaker or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. For a year and a half, he rehabbed and researched. He visited doctors and medical conferences. Eventually, he had to give up on hockey and move on.
“I was really searching for a doctor who could kind of guide me through the process of the rehab to fix the heart,” Fischer said. “I think it’s every survivor’s choice. I don’t take medication. I don’t have a pacemaker. I don’t have an ICD. That was what I chose to do. That’s certainly not recommended. That’s just what I chose to do. …
“Right or wrong, I’ve never played hockey since at the NHL level, but I feel really good for what I do now, being a dad and going to work.”
Fischer is 33. He has two sons: 12-year-old Braidan and 7-year-old Lukas. He says the first was born 3 ½ years before the incident, the second 10 months after the incident – “you do the math.” The incident is his reference point.
He enjoys his job as the Wings’ director of player development, and he hasn’t had a cardiac event since 2005. Life is good. Yet life is not what it was or could have been – for Fischer and those who love him.
“When more news came in, I was just really thankful Rich was OK,” Fischer said. “I know what it’s like to go through something like that as a survivor. What his family and everybody who cares about him, what they have to go through, I can’t imagine. I just know my parents, they don’t look at me the same way. They still live in Czech Republic. Every time I see them, they just treat every moment like it’s the last.”
What will it be like for Peverley?
“Nobody knows,” Fischer said. “How can we? But the one thing is, everything gets [tied back to what happened]. It’s about him getting healthy to whatever extent it may be and moving on.”