“Without this game, who am I?”

In a fascinating post on the Players’ Tribune web site, ex-NHLer Jed Ortmeyer describes why he chose to continue his professional hockey career despite knowing that a rare blood disorder could literally kill him while he was on the ice.

Ortmeyer broke in to the NHL with the Rangers in the early 00’s and went on to play in Nashville, San Jose, and Minnesota. A grinding winger with a decent scoring touch, he also spent some time in the minors over his 10-year pro career, partly because of recurring knee injuries and partly because of the blood clotting first discovered in 2006.

Ortmeyer’s article outlines in heartbreaking detail his stint in the hospital after coughing up blood. Doctors explained to him that the clotting, and the blood thinners he’d have to take to combat it, placed him at risk of dropping dead if a cut or collision occurred during a practice or game. He flashes back upon his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL and his nascent career with the Rangers – and then paints as clear a picture as I’ve read of “why guys act so recklessly — whether they’re playing with blood clots, or broken bones, or concussions, or even substance-abuse issues. It’s all the same problem at the core. It’s the fear of the ultimate question: Without this game, who am I?” He leaves the hospital determined to continue his career, damn the consequences.

That “ultimate question” is one we’ve pondered a lot over the years, especially with pro sports’ recent attention to concussions. Like Ortmeyer’s blood clotting issues (and those of Steven Stamkos and Pascal Dupuis), brain injury sometimes shows little outward evidence of the trauma within – making it easier for players themselves to conceal the extent of the problem and choose themselves to return to action early.

Ortmeyer acknowledges that from a medical standpoint, his decision to continue playing was wrong. But he also recognizes that his choice was made out of a different sense of desperation: “Hockey was my entire life. It was the only thing I loved, and the only thing I knew how to do well. My fear wasn’t that I might die if I kept playing, it was that if I quit playing I knew at least a part of me would definitely be dead.”

His story has a happy ending: the photo that closes the Players’ Tribune article, of Jed Ortmeyer and his infant daughter, is one of the best parts of a fine article.

Read it.

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