Recovery Doesn’t Stop After Injuries Heal
By CHRISTOPHER BOTTA
Published: November 27, 2011
Almost four years after sustaining severe head injuries and having his nose severed by a skate during an N.H.L. game, the former linesman Pat Dapuzzo is working as a scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The move, although an important step on the road to physical and emotional recovery, follows a decision he made earlier this year whose implications could extend well beyond his personal healing.
Pat Dapuzzo, now a Toronto Maple Leafs scout in the New Jersey area, has committed to donate his brain and spinal cord for research.
Dapuzzo sustained severe head injuries when he was struck in the face by a Philadelphia player’s skate blade on February 9, 2008.
While working on a fund-raiser for the Tomorrows Children’s Fund, Dapuzzo, 52, made a commitment to donate his brain and spinal cord to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. One of the hockey stars Dapuzzo had lined up for the charity event was Keith Primeau, who retired from the N.H.L. in 2007 because of lingering symptoms from multiple concussions sustained over a 15-year career. Several months earlier, Primeau had agreed to donate his brain to B.U.’s researchers.
Primeau agreed to help Dapuzzo, but he had one condition.
“Keith said, ‘I’ll do your event if you donate your brain to B.U.,’ ” Dapuzzo said. “I told Keith, ‘It’s a deal, and you’re getting the short end of it.’ ” Turning serious, Dapuzzo added, “I’m sure the doctors will be able to learn a lot from what I’ve been through.”
After jumping to avoid a collision when Rangers defenseman Fedor Tyutin threw a violent hip check at Flyers wing Steve Downie during a game in Philadelphia on Feb. 9, 2008, Dapuzzo was struck in the face by Downie’s skate blade, which severed his nose.
He dropped to his knees while his blood formed a large puddle on the ice. He then rose and attempted to play peacemaker while three fights broke out simultaneously. Kelly Sutherland, a referee, intercepted him. The Rangers trainer Jim Ramsey covered Dapuzzo’s face with a towel and led him off to be treated by the medical staffs of both teams.
“The doctors sewed my nose back on,” Dapuzzo said. “It took more than 40 stitches. My left eye drooped, and that really was an alarm for the doctors. I told them I wanted to go back and finish the game. The doctors said I had multiple facial fractures. One told me, ‘If you go back on the ice, you are going to die.’ Honestly, it wasn’t until then that I had any idea how serious this was.”
In addition to the severed nose, Dapuzzo sustained a concussion and 10 fractures to his face. His right cheekbone was shattered. He lost his teeth. He later developed sleep apnea. Bone fragments in his right ear caused debilitating earaches. He fell into depression.
Postconcussion symptoms caused Dapuzzo the greatest agony. At his lowest point, the depression it caused was so severe that he would not answer the door at his Rutherford, N.J., home when his fellow officials would stop by to see him before Devils games.
Dapuzzo said he had had depression before, in the mid-1990s, but did not know the cause. Six months after the incident, however, he underwent a series of tests conducted by Dr. Wilfred van Gorp, the director of neuropsychology at Columbia’s medical school, that revealed earlier concussions.
“All of a sudden, it started to make sense,” Dapuzzo said. “I had a bad collision with Slava Fetisov in a game in New Jersey. Fetisov went to the locker room. I threw up in the penalty box and worked the rest of the game, even though it felt like the Meadowlands Arena was spinning around me. There was another game — I’m sorry, I don’t remember when — where two hits I took sent me flying over the boards and into the team benches. In one game, I made two of ESPN’s top-10 plays of the day. I thought that was cool at the time, but obviously, these hits were taking a toll.”
For 24 years, Dapuzzo was one of the league’s most respected linesmen. He worked just short of 2,000 N.H.L. games as well as the 1991 Canada Cup final between the United States and Canada. In 1994, he worked Game 6 of the conference finals, when Mark Messier’s three goals beat the Devils and put the Rangers on the path to the Stanley Cup. He also worked Wayne Gretzky’s last game in 1999.
“Dap was a great one,” said Pat LaFontaine, a center for the Islanders, the Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres whose career, like Primeau’s, was cut short by concussions. “The players really respected him because he was a strong communicator. If you had a problem with a call, he took the time to explain it.”
After working four straight conference finals from 1991 to 1994, Dapuzzo missed the next season to be treated for depression. He returned for the 1995-96 season wearing a helmet for the first time, but he never worked a playoff game again.
After leaving the ice, Dapuzzo, who says he still has bouts of depression, coached youth hockey, advised Division I players from New Jersey and was a consultant for the East Coast Athletic Conference. He says he believes his job offer from Brian Burke, the Maple Leafs’ president, is attributable at least in part to the untimely deaths during the summer of the enforcers Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien.
“My friends around the league knew what I was battling, and they were worried after we lost those three great kids,” Dapuzzo said. “A lot of people were looking after me. I can be honest about it. I just didn’t want to be anybody’s charity case.”
Dapuzzo said N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly, made sure he received disability and family medical insurance from the time of the incident until early August.
“Most people probably thought I was retired,” Dapuzzo said, “but I needed a job and couldn’t lean on the league office any longer.”
Daly calls Dapuzzo “one of the good guys in hockey.”
“His return to the game doesn’t just benefit himself; the Leafs and the entire N.H.L. community are better for it,” Daly said.
Dapuzzo accepted the job with the Maple Leafs because Burke offered a defined role and some tough love.
“Burkie knows New Jersey has become a pipeline for top hockey talent,” Dapuzzo said. “He knows I know this area and these players as well as anyone in the state. But Burkie also said to me, ‘You’re my friend, Dap, but if you don’t do your job, I will fire you.’ ”
Dapuzzo needed to hear those words.
“When Brian made the offer, it was like getting a blood transfusion,” he said. “My spirit, my purpose, my entire life was rejuvenated.”
Burke wrote in an e-mail that he believed Dapuzzo would be an asset to the organization.
“Pat is a quality guy and a good friend with a sound knowledge of the New Jersey hockey scene,” he said.
Still, even with a vote of confidence from Burke, Dapuzzo knows his recovery is far from complete.
“I’m not out of the woods yet, and my family and my employers know it,” said Dapuzzo, who a year ago would not even watch his son play high school baseball because the only place he felt comfortable was in his home.
“I didn’t want to communicate with anyone,” he said. “People mean well, but when you’re in that darkness, the last thing you want is to be asked all the time, ‘How are you doing’?
“The honest answer is that I don’t know if I’m going to be O.K. But with this job, this responsibility Burkie has given me, I feel for the first time in years like I have a chance.”