Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NHL [Print without images]

Friday, June 25, 2004
Brave soul

By Eric Adelson
Special to ESPN.com

There he was in the stands of the Montreal Forum that June day, twenty years ago, seated with all these teenagers who were about to become heroes. Duncan MacPherson didn't expect to get called in the first round of the 1984 NHL draft, so he settled deep in his seat and took it all in. He watched Mario Lemieux go first. Kirk Muller came second, followed by Eddie Olczyk and Al Iafrate. Shayne Corson went eighth, four spots ahead of Gary Roberts and nine before Kevin Hatcher. Then MacPherson heard his own name. He was the 23rd pick, headed for Long Island. He hopped up from his seat and hustled up to the dais as kids with the names Patrick Roy, Brett Hull and Tom Glavine waited. Perhaps they saw Duncan MacPherson and silently wished for a moment they were him.

The Islanders, hoping to shore up their teetering dynasty with a stay-at-home defenseman, saw something rare in MacPherson. Here was a 6-foot-1, 195-pound teenager raised in the Canadian prairie town of Saskatoon, a guy who owned the corners and patrolled the open ice with a scowl and a ready shoulder. He was not afraid of the hardest puncher in Canada, nor the shiftiest forward in junior hockey, nor the saltiest coach on earth. Duncan MacPherson seemed perfect for hockey. And he turned out to be strong-minded, as expected. Fearless, as expected. A leader, as expected. But what became of Duncan MacPherson? No one could have ever expected that.

He made his name in a place called The Arena, right there on 19th Street in the heart of Saskatoon. The rink had asbestos dangling from the ceilings, orange insulation peeling from the walls, and rats as big as cats scurrying between locker rooms. The place had the feel of impending doom. The flimsy front doors barely contained the haze of cigarette smoke and the dull drone of the old Zamboni making one last turn. The Arena filled with 3,000 edgy fans who only fell silent in the moment after the Blades' big defenseman saw a forward skating up ice with his head down. Duncan MacPherson could line up an open-ice hit like no one else in the Western Hockey League. It was like slow motion, with both benches staring and the crowd standing and Duncan lowering his stick like a bull lowering his horns. Then a crunch of flesh and an explosion of sound. Fans paid for hockey, but Duncan gave them what they really wanted.

That was Duncan -- the fan favorite, the hockey player's hockey player. He got that rep the night the hated Regina Pats put a football player on skates. Duncan's teammates heard the news and looked at each other with that little hint of concern in their eyes. Duncan shrugged. Then the puck dropped, and Duncan drifted over to the goon and that was the last time the skating football player visited The Arena.

"He was old-style, play-for-keeps all the time," says teammate Randy Smith, who now coaches the Swift Current Broncos. "He'd make sure it's a tough battle -- a guy that if you tried to take the easy way out, he'd make you pay. And if you did a drill at half-speed, he'd run right over you. He wanted everyone to be accountable for everything the team wanted done."

MacPherson was born brave. When he was three years old, he insisted on taking the bus to the doctor's office all by himself. He knew to take the "down" bus to the doctor, and take the "up" bus home. When hours went by and Duncan didn't come back, his folks worried. But Duncan showed up before dark, saying the "down" bus wouldn't pick up a little kid so he took the "up" bus until it turned into the "down" bus. Then there was the time when Duncan, age 4, got lost at the fair. His parents turned all Saskatoon on its ear, only to find Duncan waiting at the house. He asked a police officer for a ride home. Then he raided his piggy bank and went out into the night to get some bubble gum.

In fact, no MacPherson thought twice about straying. Duncan's mother, Lynda, left Saskatoon as a teenager to find work as a schoolteacher in the Northwest Territories, only a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. That's where she met Bob MacPherson, who had grown up in Nova Scotia and worked for an oil company before getting his pilot's license so he could go anywhere and everywhere.

So no one raised an eyebrow when Bob and Lynda's first born son took off by himself on a mountain bike or a whitewater raft or any vehicle not designed for pavement. No one frowned when Duncan refused to blend into the hockey fraternity, choosing some hike over another night at the bar with the boys. Duncan loved hockey -- gave it everything. But the sport was just part of the journey. Just part of life. Duncan, you see, was born to roam.

But he was too slow for the NHL. Duncan was a throwback at a time when hockey didn't really want throwbacks. A severe leg injury, suffered while playing in the minors, sealed his hockey fate. "The league was in transition," says Bob Strumm, who scouted MacPherson for the Islanders and now works for the Columbus Blue Jackets. "There was a renewed importance on quickness. He didn't have the quickness." Duncan never played a single NHL game.

MacPherson accepted reality, brutal as it was. That was the other thing about Duncan. He seeked truth as eagerly as he looked for adventure. Maybe the two things were really one. But in both cases, he knew it when he saw it. Duncan wasn't going to make it in the bigs. So he quickly and quietly hung up his skates. Islanders fans clucked, but Duncan wasn't afraid of being a bust anymore than he was afraid of being hit. "He didn't necessarily live and breathe the sport," says Smith. "If you told him there would be no hockey, he would've moved on to something else." In 1989, he did.

Duncan didn't have the speed, but he never lost the fearlessness scouts loved. In that sense, he was every bit the player the Islanders imagined. Duncan was brave as a can't-miss prospect, brave as a failed draft pick. Brave until the day he died.

He took a coaching job in Scotland. That was vintage Duncan -- a little hockey and a lot of travel. So on his way from visiting friends in Germany, he detoured to a mountain in Austria to teach himself this brand new sport known as snowboarding.

The reaction when Duncan stopped calling home from Europe was not dread. His friends thought he was off on some safari with a board in one arm and an exotic European girl in the other. Some back in Saskatoon pictured him on a cruiseliner, laughing. He couldn't have been kidnapped; only a townful of thugs could have brought Duncan down. And even if there was some accident, well, Duncan would have figured his way out of it. Duncan never panicked.

And Lynda did not collapse when the sports agent called to say, "Mrs. MacPherson, Duncan never made it to Scotland." Fear wasn't Duncan's way, and it wasn't hers. No tears for Duncan. Not on the frigid days on the outdoor rink behind his school, when pucks felt like bullets. Not on the rare occasion when the burly defenseman got beat by a lucky forward. Not when he played his last pro game with the Indianapolis Ice only a few months before. And not now, when he wasn't coming home. She could almost hear Duncan telling her, "You going to sit there and feel sorry for yourself, or are you going to do something?" When Duncan's NHL dream died, he did something. So Lynda MacPherson would not be afraid. She would do something.

She went to Austria to look for her son. The poor woman had never been to Europe, but remember, this is a MacPherson. So she and Bob searched -- searched the way Duncan did, except with something in mind. They visited every TV station, every embassy. They plastered 2,500 missing persons posters in three different languages in four different countries. That's the way they are, she would explain over and over. The MacPhersons are not afraid of reality. They do not accept easy answers. They want facts.

Fact: Duncan took a snowboarding lesson at Stubai glacier on the afternoon of August 9, 1989. Fact: No one saw him since. Fact: Duncan's car sat in the ski resort parking lot for weeks on end. Question: why didn't anyone report the abandoned car? Question: why didn't anyone consult the snowboard instructor -- the last man to see Duncan alive? Question: why didn't the absence of a rented snowboard and pair of boots spur a days-on-end manhunt?

Your son is over 18, authorities told Lynda. He has a right to get lost.

But Duncan had not withdrawn any money. He hadn't cashed any checks. These people at the resort, they didn't understand. Duncan always made it home.

Weeks passed, then months, then years. Time didn't heal. The MacPhersons gave those Austrians hell until every person in that village knew Duncan's name and his parents' mission. Bob and Lynda spent their life savings on 10 trips to Austria. They refused to change their phone number. They refused to move. What if their son came wandering home one day and knocked on the front door to find strangers?

Birthdays stung. Duncan would have been 24, 25, 26. Then in 1994, around Duncan's 28th birthday, the phone rang. A German TV station had broadcast a report: an amnesiac had surfaced in Austria. His name was Mark Shoeffman -- a name the man made up after wandering out of the woods in, yes, 1989. This man's disappearance came only days after Duncan's. He wore jeans. He spoke English perfectly. Same height as Duncan. Around the same age, too. The guy even said he remembered spending time in New York. This had to be it. Had to be Duncan. The MacPhersons waited for the mail every day. Finally, Mr. Shoeffman's photo came.

Oh no. This man was gaunt, with a narrow nose and blond hair. He looked European. Duncan had that square jaw and prominent forehead with dark hair. A Canadian, from the prairie. They stared and stared, hoping the features would morph into the son they remembered and imagined every night. How they stared at the last best hope of seeing Duncan again.

Then they got back to work. They continued to collect every news clip, file every business card, organize everything. They continued to question the authorities in Austria, especially after finding out Duncan's rental equipment had in fact not been returned. Was this some sort of cover-up? Did some lazy grooming machine operator seal Duncan's fate by not looking for crevasses? Could Duncan have been saved? Duncan's parents were relentless, not even realizing their photos of a ski resort began to outnumber their photos of the boy who disappeared there.

Meanwhile, at the '90s came and went, the rest of the world took new photos. Lemieux, Roy, and Hull found their place in hockey lore. Glavine had a Hall of Fame resume in a different sport, baseball. Duncan's younger brother, Derrick, got married and started a family. Bob decided to build a log cabin up in the hinterlands of Saskatchewan, where Duncan loved to visit during the summers. Many of Duncan's old friends started having little hockey players of their own. Four named their children after Duncan. After the milennium hit, Lynda mentioned quietly to Bob that maybe they would never find out what happened to Duncan. They were exhausted, and nearly bankrupt.

At 11:15 am on July 18, 2003, the phone rang in the MacPherson home. A body had been found on Stubai glacier.

Suddenly it was 1989 again. The hockey fans in Saskatoon shed fresh tears. Former teammates, now with minivans and receding hairlines, cried for Duncan as if he had died only the day before. The hockey stories came alive again. Remember the old arena? The rats? The smoke so thick you couldn't see the fans across the rink? The smell of fried onions? Remember the jokes Duncan told? The time he first wore parachute pants? Oh, and those hits! Duncan, man, he always had your back.

Lynda and Bob boarded their final flight to Austria. Waiting for them was a well-meaning pathologist with a ready explanation of what happens to the human body after death. Many skiers, the man said, fall into crevasses and surface dozens or hundreds of years later. Duncan made it to sunlight in only 14. Lynda nodded slowly and realized a complete stranger was explaining to her what her own son had been through. But she would see for herself. She would do it. Brave, she was, to the very end.

The pathologist walked to a gurney and carefully peeled back a sheet. The body's limbs had decayed away. Its flesh had hardened and grayed to the color of putty. But the face ... Duncan's face. The pathologist looked up at Lynda. She nodded, and cried.

The MacPhersons had their son cremated. They put Duncan's ashes in an urn and stowed it in a backpack for the last trip home. Back in Saskatoon, Lynda put the urn in a wall unit with some of Duncan's favorite outdoor adventure books, a shred of his jacket, and a blue Ocean Pacific wallet with a Massachusetts driver's license and a torn calling card.

Now Lynda MacPherson sits at her dining room table in front of mounds of photos and sympathy cards. Here's a letter from a doctor who became penpals with Duncan back when the man was an 8-year-old boy learning to skate. Here's a picture, from several years ago, of Lynda standing on the Austrian glacier, propping herself up with a ski pole. Eerily, she's standing directly above where Duncan's body was found. It's not far from the chairlift. In fact, it's much closer to the main skiing strip than those at the resort always said. What actually happened on that mountain? Did Duncan go exploring? Get lost? Or just build up some speed and then take a bad fall, invisible to the few other skiiers nearby in the late-day August sun?

"In this day and age, he would be into rock-climbing or ice-climbing," says friend and former teammate Dave Chartier. "Something with a little risk. I'm thinking if he's skiing alone there, he's so curious, if there's a hole there, he's the kind of guy that would look in. I could truly see him looking in and wondering 'What is down there?'"

Maybe no one will ever know what really happened on that mountain. Because Duncan died as he lived: off the beaten path, in motion, never a loner but always on his own. Duncan had the charisma to convince anyone to go snowboarding with him that day, but that wasn't like him. He had too much imagination to hang only with a hockey crowd, and he had too much wanderlust to stay away from the unknown.

His mother, her face now creased with worry lines, blames herself. If only she had been with him somehow. If only she had let herself mourn instead of pushing herself to keep on. If only she could make sense of one tragic day and 14 unbearable years. "We're just starting to deal with the pain of his death," she says softly. "I didn't give myself permission to grieve. I thought if we worked hard and long enough we would find the answer and know what it is we're grieving. I see all that as wrong now. It was all a big mistake."

A mistake? No. That MacPherson fearlessness served and then betrayed Duncan, so it would serve and then betray his family. Lynda MacPherson blocked her grief for 14 years the same way her son fought back any concern about getting into a fight or giving up the game he loved or swiveling down that mountain slope without an eye on him. To wish Duncan's loved ones had accepted loss, or to wish Duncan had driven right past that mountain, is to wish the man had skated away from every oncoming forward, and from life itself.

Twenty years later, Mario Lemieux is remembered as the greatest player of his generation. Patrick Roy is known as the best goalie ever. Brett Hull is a legend's son with hundreds of goals and one unmatched one-timer. Duncan MacPherson? Just a name on a board. But to those who recognize that name, MacPherson will always be remembered as a man blessed and cursed with a rare courage not even a hockey rink could contain.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.