CALGARY – It’s been about seven months since Patrick Eaves last experienced the kind of debilitating headaches that made him a prisoner in his own home for more than a year.
Despite the migraines, which were so bad at times that he couldn’t sleep, and often dealt with bouts of depression, he always remained positive and promised myself that he would return to the Red Wings’ lineup.
“I didn’t know how long it would take,” he said. “I just knew that I would be back at some point. I had a lot of rough days in there though.”
It was an arduous journey for the Wings’ forward who was forced to endure months of rehabilitation – making four trips a week to Ann Arbor sometimes – for post-concussion syndrome after he was struck in the head by a puck on Nov. 26, 2011.
After 419 days on the injured reserve, Eaves, who was cleared to play three months ago, was back in the Wings’ lineup for the second game of the season in Columbus. Since then, he’s played in 29 games as a fourth-line forward, collecting a goal and five assists.
On Thursday, the Detroit chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association announced that Eaves is their candidate for this season’s Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication. The winner is selected by the PHWA and will be announced at the NHL Award Show, which will likely take place in July.
The Masterton Trophy is often awarded to a player who has come back from career- or even life-threatening illness or injury. For the last two years, the award has gone to Philadelphia’s Ian Laperriere and Montreal’s Max Pacioretty. Both forwards had been diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome after suffering different kinds of hits to the head.
“Patty Eaves is one of these guys that when he’s scratched he leads the stretch, when he’s scratched he’s in the power play and penalty kill meetings, he dresses for warm-up, he does everything right,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “He is an example – I used him this year with my son – if you can be as mentally tough as Patty Eaves and you keep digging in then you will be fine in life. … He makes people around him better because of his commitment to the team and his mental toughness, and he doesn’t let you get in the way of him having a great day. I think he’s impressive.”
Still, for as upbeat as Eaves was during the entire recovery process the headaches, which lingered for hours on end, prevented him from living his life.
“I couldn’t be a parent, I couldn’t be a father. I couldn’t be a husband,” Eaves said. “I was in a dark room for a while.”
But with the strength of his wife, Katie, who is a nurse, and their two daughters – 2 ½-year-old Norah and one-year-old Della – Eaves has pulled through the most serious of hockey injuries. Post-concussion syndrome has been a recent hot button issue for the NHL, as well as the National Football League.
“My wife, she held the ship together and ran everything and took care of me,” Eaves said. “She was pregnant the whole time and then we had a one-year-old too, so she should be nominated for this. I just got hit in the head with a puck. She deserves all of the credit.”
Eaves, who will turn 29 on May 1, has a limited recollection of the November night in 2011 when he was strapped to a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance at Joe Louis Arena. He had attempted to block a shot by Nashville rookie defenseman Roman Josi late in the game. But as he dropped to a knee, the puck continued to rise. As he saw the puck coming, his first reaction was to turn his head to avoid a direct hit to the face. But just as he turned, the vulcanized rubber disk struck the side of his head.
As the stretcher carrying Eaves passed through the Zamboni gates in front of silenced crowd a single tear ran down his face. Once in the ambulance, he was joined by Russ Baumann, the team’s assistant athletic trainer, for the ride to the Detroit Medical Center.
Baumann called Katie Eaves, who was four-months pregnant at the time with Della, to tell her the severity of her husband’s injury, and where he was going.
“I couldn’t really talk, my jaw was kind of out of place and just kind of let her know” what happened, Eaves said. “She was really calm. She’s a nurse so she wanted to know facts.”
What Eaves remembers most is the ride to the hospital along Detroit’s potholed covered streets.
“I remember the guy in the back with me was getting my IV and everything,” he said. “I remember this to this day because I was like, ‘Don’t drop me.’ I just knew that I couldn’t get hit again. But he knew like every bump along the way to the hospital. So when he knew a bump was coming he would hold me and I remember that. I wish I knew who he was. But he was unbelievable. I knew every time he held me that something was coming and I would kind of brace myself. He did a wonderful job.”
Two days later, Eaves was in the operating room where doctors repaired his fractured jaw, which also was wired shut. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The jaw healed, but the headaches stuck around for months.
“Obviously the jaw hurt right away, but I couldn’t sleep,” Eaves said. “I think that was worst part of the whole thing, for about six to eight weeks my head hurt so bad that I couldn’t sleep. A bad nightmare, I guess, not sleeping.”
Eventually, through the help of Drs. Jeffrey Kutcher and Miles Colwell at the University of Michigan, Eaves was able to overcome the headaches and begin to skate again.
But just as he was preparing for training camp last September, Eaves had a setback. The migraines had returned with a vengeance.
“I got really dizzy and then the migraines came back there,” Eaves said. “That was frustrating because I thought that I was finally on my way.”
In hindsight, perhaps the NHL lockout was a blessing for Eaves, who had another four months to recuperate, thanks to the work stoppage.
“For him to still be playing, we’re very proud of him,” goalie Jimmy Howard said. “He could have easily said, ‘I’m done.’ But he stuck to it, listened to the doctors and we’re very thankful that he’s back in the lineup.”
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