Upon seeing the frightening image of Jay Bouwmeester collapsing on the Blues’ bench Tuesday night, my mind took me to a place I hadn’t been in over twenty years.
It was a sight never to be forgotten even watching on television. Blues defenseman Chris Pronger falling to the ice during a playoff game in Detroit in 1998. He took a slap shot to the chest, continued to play for another couple of seconds until the whistle blew, and then took a couple of halting strides before he lost consciousness and collapsed.
It was a Sports Plus Sunday in the KSDK sports office, with that day’s Blues game as the centerpiece story already. Matt Winer was in Detroit to cover the game and do live reports, while the rest of the staff watched the FOX broadcast. When Pronger went down, the room got completely silent. Within a minute or two, the course of the day and our coverage shifted dramatically.
The haunting image that I still see in my mind from that sequence is an unconscious Pronger staring out with eyes wide open. The blow to his chest had caused cardiac arrythmia, interrupting the normal pulsating of his heart. Pronger was told that he was unconscious for 20-30 seconds.
And it was Mother’s Day.
Chris’s parents were in the stands at Joe Louis Arena that day to watch their son play. One can only imagine what went through their minds as Chris was being worked on, put into a cervical collar, strapped to a backboard and then wheeled off the ice towards a waiting ambulance. By this time, Pronger was lucid enough to ask a Blues official to please get word to his parents that he was okay. Shortly after, Mr. and Mrs. Pronger were getting into a car and following their son’s ambulance to the hospital.
That night Matt did live reports and wrapped around interviews he got after the game. As you might imagine (or remember), there was a lot of hushed reaction and hopes for their teammate’s full recovery. One could sense the uncertainty in their voices.
There is little wonder that anyone could remember the score of that game (Detroit won, 6-1 to even their playoff series, 1-1) or much of anything until they knew their teammate would be all right.
The most remarkable thing about that episode? Pronger spent that night in a hospital but was actually back in the Blues’ lineup two nights later; after getting a clean bill of health, he played 41 minutes in a Game 3 double overtime loss.
There were a couple of connecting threads between what happened with Pronger and then with Bouwmeester nearly twenty-two years later. One was Ray Barile, the Blues trainer who was quick to get to Pronger as he lay out at the top of the faceoff circle. Pronger and others have credited him for his immediate response and getting him stabilized. When Bouwmeester was compromised, again it was Barile who was on the spot to begin treatment.
The other similarity? The Blues brought their dads on this trip, so Bouwmeester also had a parent present when his episode occurred. Dan Bouwmeester was able to be with his son at the hospital immediately after he was taken off the ice.
The NHL stipulates that there needs to be two doctors on the premises for each game, with one being no further away than 50 feet from the benches. One of the Ducks’ doctors came over from his seat behind the home team bench to provide immediate treatment.
As we collectively feel thanks for Bouwmeester’s improved condition, we fans of St. Louis sports can also look back to how often their players have been struck down – some with much more ominous outcomes.
If one goes far enough back, they would find the name Austin McHenry. He was a star on the rise, batting .350 for the Cardinals with 102 RBIs in 1921. The next year he was experiencing vision problems while “only” batting .302. A brain tumor was discovered and he died in November of 1922. He was only 27 years old.
More recently, there was the untimely passing of 28-year-old Football Cardinals tight end J.V. Cain, who collapsed on the turf at Lindenwood (then) College in 1979. He was also a star in the making, but a previously undetected congenital heart condition brought on by the heat and humidity of a nighttime training camp practice ended his life. Jay Randolph reported that he had passed away live from Lindenwood during the late news that night.
Another Blues defenseman, Ed Kea, became permanently disabled in a game in 1983. Sent to play for the Blues’ Salt Lake City minor league affiliate, Kea hit his head on the ice and never played again.
Then there was Darryl Kile. Four days after Cardinal Nation was already reeling from the passing of Jack Buck in June of 2002 came the news that the righthanded pitcher died in his sleep from undetected coronary disease. He became a rallying point as the Cardinals drove through the rest of the season and got to the National League Championship Series. Many lasting images remain from that season, perhaps none so poignant as Mike Matheny putting his hand on Kile’s jersey that the players had begun hanging in their dugout.
And now the episode with Jay Bouwmeester. Like Chris Pronger, Bouwmeester is progressing after a scary episode played out for all to see. His teammates now face their first game since then, and not surprisingly team officials are asking they be left alone to regain their focus. That will be a heavy weight to carry, the thought of a teammate struck down frighteningly in front of their eyes. How long that weight will be there is anybody’s guess at this point. How the team responds, though, is of secondary importance until we find out how Bouwmeester will be going forward now.
We wish him our best.