Johan Franzen has my absolute respect.
He’s a 6-4, 230-pound Swedish mule who’s played 600 games for the Detroit Red Wings since coming to the NHL in 2005-06. From 2007-09, he was one of the most dominant playoff performers in recent memory: 59 points in 51 games, as Detroit won two conference titles and the Stanley Cup.
And, of course, he’s hilarious: Witness his recent trolling of Gustav Nyqvist with Mike Babcock bedsheets.
I've also respected his fortitude in battling back from multiple injuries, including concussions; but that respect can’t overcome the reasonable conclusion that Franzen’s latest brain injury should be the last one he suffers as a professional hockey player.
Franzen was injured on a blindside hit by Rob Klinkhammer on Jan. 6 against the Edmonton Oilers. That was his last game of the 2014-15 season. As he attempted to begin skating again, he told harrowing tales of his post-concussion symptoms, including the fact that he couldn’t play with his young sons for more than two minutes at a time.
He’s signed through 2020 - although his salary takes a dramatic dip after this season thanks to his cap circumventing contract - but Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press believes that a Chris Pronger-esque retirement might be the right course:
The plan for 2015-16 is that Franzen plays, but all the Wings really can do is wait and see what happens. For now they have to count Franzen against the roster, and against the salary cap. Maybe Franzen gets through training camp and exhibition season feeling great. Maybe he even plays when the season opens. But given his history, it's hard not to think that he is one hard hit away from another lengthy absence.
Should Franzen be sidelined again, the Wings can, of course, put him on long-term injured reserve, which includes salary-cap relief. Given recent stories about he possibility of devastating and long-lasting effects of head injuries, maybe Franzen would be best to call it a career, just as Chris Pronger did a few years back with Philadelphia. No game is worth risking long-term quality of life.
She’s right, obviously. It’s a risk he shouldn’t take. But the uncomfortable truth for any pro athlete is that it’s his risk to take, as it has been since the first time he strapped on skates. It’s an injurious game, and Franzen knows what he signed up for in playing it.
As he told MLive.com in April, hockey has helped him remain optimistic:
"It gets you thinking when you're in that position where you can't do that anymore, it's really heartbreaking," Franzen said. "So it makes you make every day count and play as much as you can with them."
Franzen, who's been skating lightly for weeks, said he feels a lot better but still has setbacks in the afternoon and at night. He's been dealing with headaches and nausea.
"I'm slowly getting better, so that puts my mind to rest," he said. "I was in a really dark place, maybe not the first month because you think it's going to get better, but then when it doesn't get better, you start wondering."
It’s an impossibly difficult call for Franzen. Hockey is his life. The idea that it's been taken away from him because of his health is devastating. But given his concussion history, it might be time to walk away from the game he loves for the sake of the family that loves him.
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