- John Buccigross, SportsCenter anchor
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"Always remember there was nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name."
-- The Avett Brothers
rom the moment our children first slide into this world, we do all that we can as parents to make the ride even smoother. We round out corners. We sandpaper, flatten and refine. We yearn to appease the dangerous edges, control the uncontrollable, and make every fall soft and pillowy as our children flit about in an unpredictable and coarse world.
Some of us sign our kids up for hockey to counter life's overprotected playpens and to teach them that actual life is actually hard. We parents know that real adult life, like hockey, is lived in the corners and on the edge and that there are few soft falls. Hockey is hard.
Hockey players are somewhat prepared for life's obstructions, for they are humbled from their very first stride on ice. Hockey is hard. No game is more frustrating because no game has as many difficulties, dangers and obstacles. That's why the highs are so high (SCORRRRRE!) and the lows are so low (BLEEEEEEEEP!). Hockey is like golf in that way. Despite its difficulty, once it grabs you, it doesn't let go.
Hockey is the fastest, toughest, most difficult game. A dangerous, perilous pursuit sliding along that fine line between classical music ballet and punk rock anarchy -- from the orchestra pit to the mosh pit in the blink of an eye.
Montreal Canadiens property Blake Geoffrion is well aware of the inherent dangers of the game. They're in his bloodlines, the bruised and battered elephant in the room.
Geoffrion's great-grandfather, the legendary and dominant Howie Morenz, was the most electrifying players of the 1920s and early '30s. In a game in what was to be his final NHL season in 1937, Morenz broke his leg in four places. While recuperating in St. Luke Hospital, Morenz shockingly died a little more than a month after his injury, his life ended by an undetected blood clot. He was 34.
Morenz's daughter, Marlene, who was 2 years old when her father died, married Blake's grandfather, Bernie Geoffrion. Sportswriter Charlie Boire of the Montreal Star dubbed Bernie Geoffrion "Boom Boom" from the "boom" of his shot and the "boom" of the puck hitting the boards. Boom Boom's team won six Cups in eight seasons from 1953 to 1960 to help construct Montreal's first dynasty. Geoffrion broke his nose nine times and received 400 stitches in his 16-season career.
During a Canadiens practice in 1958, Boom Boom collided with a teammate and collapsed a few seconds later, his intestine perforated. He was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery and given last rites at age 27. He survived, and five weeks later he returned to the ice to help lead Montreal to another Stanley Cup victory.
Boom Boom's son, Blake's dad, Danny Geoffrion (whose worst injury was a fractured tailbone), was an excellent player in the Quebec Major Junior League for the Cornwall Royals, scoring 68 goals in 71 games in his final season. Twenty-one days after the Canadiens won a third straight Stanley Cup in 1978, the Habs made Danny Geoffrion the No. 8 pick of the 1978 NHL draft.
After a season in the WHA, Danny played 32 games for the Canadiens the next year but didn't score. He was traded to Winnipeg after the season and netted 20 goals for the Jets in the 1980-81 season. He retired from the game at age 26 after a 37-goal AHL season for the Sherbrooke Jets and one more year in Japan for the Yukijirushi Sapporo. Today, he is the vice president of sales in the Southeast for Bank Direct Capital Finance.
To go along with great-granddad, granddad and dad, Blake Geoffrion also grew up with three hockey playing brothers: Nick, Sebastian and Brice. Hockey dominated the house in every way when they were growing up. And when hockey is in your blood, rest assured, you will eventually bleed.
• • • • •
Blake Geoffrion was born in Plantation, Fla., in 1988 but his family moved to Nashville when he was 1, proving that hockey is a great enough game to be loved and played anywhere. Blake started skating when he was 2 and started playing hockey when he was 3.
"He was such a sweet little boy," says his mother, Kelly. "He had white, white hair and blue, blue eyes, and he could get away with anything because he was so darn cute. When he wasn't on the ice, he was a serious cowboy. I mean, his room was all cowboy. He wore boots and spurs everywhere, and he lassoed everything. I was always buying rope at Walmart."
When his mom or dad would come in to wake him for an early-morning hockey practice, each would ask, "Blake, do you want to go to hockey today or just sleep in?" Blake would fly out of bed and say "No way, let's go! I'm ready!" Energy and focus were never a problem.
Mom demanded that teeth got brushed. For Dad, brushing was optional. Probably because he grew up in a hockey era when teeth were usually optional. Full facial protection through college and professional good fortune has left Blake with all of his jibs.
Blake played his youth hockey in the Nashville Youth Hockey League. An early bloomer, he blossomed at USA Hockey Select Festivals in the summertime, leading a couple of those tournaments in scoring. "That was where people really started to see a kid from Nashville, Tenn., could play," Blake says.
What also helped get attention was reaching 6 feet as a teenager. Great-grandfather Howie and grandfather Boom-Boom topped off at 5-9.
"We never had any problems with Blake," Danny says. "He was always a good student, a good athlete, and had great friends. He also was a powerful left-handed-hitting catcher in baseball. He hit monstrous home runs."
"Blake matured very quickly and, even at age 10, on his own, was following a nutritional diet," Kelly says. "My kids were either shooting pucks in the backyard, playing hockey video games or watching old games on NHL Network. It was all hockey."
After cutting his sometimes-brushed teeth in Nashville, Blake was off to the Cleveland Barons AAA Pee Wee team. It meant lots of miles of driving for Kelly and Danny. But that's what hockey parents do: They drive, another example of the unspoken, matter-of-fact sacrifices hockey parents make.
After a couple of tournaments for the Barons and a couple of successful USA hockey festivals, Culver Military Academy in north-central Indiana sent Blake a letter informing him it was interested. Danny Geoffrion had played major junior hockey in Canada, was drafted and went off to the NHL barely seeing his parents during his teenage years. He knew this was part of the process.
Blake was 15 years old and headed to a military school. It was one of the hardest decisions of his life at the time, and it was even harder for his mother. "For a mother to send [her] teenage son away to boarding school is gut-wrenching. My four sons were my life. I did everything with them," Kelly says. "We got in many arguments over boarding school. I still get choked up and my stomach still hurts thinking about that."
Geoffrion was 16 years old in the summer of 2004 when he was offered a spot in the U.S. national team development program, a program that has developed some of the best American players in the NHL. Geoffrion would represent his country and fly around the world to play the best players in his 16- and 17-year-old age group. His chances of making the NHL were growing into his maturing, developing body. One of his coaches, David Quinn, now Boston University head coach, says today, "Great kid. Good size and skill. Hard-nose player."
• • • • •
In the first half of Year 1 with the USNTDP, Blake was dead last in scoring. Both of the goalies had more points. He went from the first line to the fourth line in a matter of weeks. He was embarrassed. Hockey is hard.
But he fought back, and the person who helped him fight most was his coach, John Hynes.
"I had a meeting with him that year at Christmas, and we sat down and he told me, 'Don't worry about anything that has happened,'" Blake says. "He said to go home and be with your family and don't think about hockey. 'Just enjoy your family and always remember that this adversity will only make you stronger. I have learned that those lows are what makes us who we are.'"
It worked. Blake came back and had about a point a game in the second half of that season.
Blake's second year while with Team USA was unforgettable. He committed to Wisconsin, got drafted in the second round by his hometown Nashville Predators (the family had six season tickets growing up) and won a gold medal at the world under-18 championship.
Then, in the middle of all that euphoria, heartache.
On March 11, 2006, grandfather Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion died.
"My pappy was one of the most loving, funny and caring people I have ever met," Blake says. "He was someone who cared about every individual he spoke with. He was patient yet so competitive in every aspect of life. I remember one time I was shooting pucks in the backyard into a net my dad had built for us. My pappy came out, grabbed my stick from me and says, 'Here is how you put the puck in the net!' He turned the stick around (because he was a righty and I am a lefty) and took a slap shot. He missed the net and put a hole through our fence. He proceeded to say something under his breath and then shot another one. Bar down. He then said, 'If I had right-hand stick, I score on the first one!"
Hall of Famers can make the hard look easy.
Then, in 2006, cancer. Nothing is harder.
"He had become so sick so fast that he wouldn't let the grandkids come see him because he didn't want anyone to see him in the condition he was in," Blake says. "He was too proud."
Boom Boom Geoffrion's time on earth was ending fast. He was on life support and suddenly not saying a word.
"My dad said that I needed to call Nana and say my last words to Pappy because they didn't think he was going to make it through the night," Blake says.
Blake called his nana at the hospital.
"Blake, I am going to hold the phone up to Pappy's ear for you to say your last words," his nana said. "He probably won't respond because he hasn't spoken in a while, but the nurses assured me he can hear you."
What do you say to someone when they are the last words they will ever hear from you?
Trying to hold back from bursting out crying, Blake said, "Hey, Paps. I just wanted to let you know I scored two slap shot goals for you tonight [which was true]. I love you, and I will miss you always."
Then Boom Boom said, "It's about time."
"They were the last words he ever spoke, and they were to me," Blake says. "I miss that dude every day. His last words describe the way he was. He was always joking around and having fun."
• • • • •
After Blake was drafted by Nashville, it was on to Wisconsin and NCAA hockey. Once again, a terrible first year: six points in 36 games. But Blake got better. He always got better. Hockey is hard, but it's not impossible. His goal totals at Wisconsin went from two to 10 to 15 to 28 and the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player. On to pro hockey.
Blake's first full pro season began in the AHL in the fall of 2010: 37 points in 45 games got him a call-up to Nashville, where he scored six goals in 20 regular-season games, including a hat trick in Buffalo. That projects to about 25 goals over a full season, which seemed like a reasonable yearly number to expect from Blake Geoffrion for the next 10 years.
Blake played the first 22 games of the 2011-12 season with Nashville and didn't score as his role was changing. Back to the minors. Twenty more games in Milwaukee and just two more goals. Traded.
In February 2012, he was traded to the organization that his great-grandfather and grandfather had starred for and that his dad had played 32 games with. Blake Geoffrion was a Montreal Canadien.
Geoffrion had mixed emotions. He was miserable in Milwaukee, and that was affecting his play. When Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton told him he would be heading to Montreal, he couldn't believe it.
"I called my dad right after and said, 'Dad, you're not going to believe this, but I just got traded to the Montreal Canadiens.' He said to me 'Ha-ha. Real funny. I'm in a movie with Nana, let me call you back.'"
Dad didn't believe Blake because they would occasionally call each other and say something ridiculous, like "Crosby got traded to Nashville!" to try to get the other guy to bite.
After Blake assured his father the deal was legit, Danny and Nana were overwhelmed with excitement. The fourth generation of his family to play in Montreal. Howie, Pappy, Dad, Blake.
"I thought he would feel tons of pressure going to Montreal where his dad, grandfather and great-grandfather played," says Danny Geoffrion, "but Blake told me he felt more pressure in Nashville than he would in Montreal."
Blake reported to Montreal's AHL team in Hamilton and, in his first game, he came out flying. A goal, an assist, nine shots and a plus-2.
"It was unreal, best time of my life putting on that jersey and representing my family and a great organization," Blake says.
Twelve points in nine AHL games got Blake the call-up to Montreal to finish the 2011-12 season. He had two goals in 13 games, one scored in Vancouver and one at Carolina. The next step? Score a goal in Montreal and raise your hands to the rafters and maybe look up at No. 5 (Boom Boom) and No. 7 (Morenz) and give a salute.
• • • • •
With the NHL lockout canceling the first month of the regular season and with no end in sight, 18,582 hockey-starved fans filled the Canadiens home arena, the Bell Centre, on Friday, Nov. 9, to watch Montreal's AHL team, the Hamilton Bulldogs, host the Syracuse Crunch. Blake was on the Bulldogs, collecting his AHL two-way, $62,500 salary.
The puck dropped at 7:40 p.m., and his parents were in the stands watching. The plan was for Danny and Kelly to watch Blake play, then drive to Boston to watch Blake's brothers, Sebastian and Brice, play college hockey for Alabama-Huntsville the next night. Alabama-Huntsville was playing two games against Northeastern that weekend.
"Midway through the first period, I was on the ice coming back into the defensive zone," Blake says, "and the puck transitioned pretty quickly up the boards, so I came down to support my winger, Mike Blunden, and he passed me the puck."
Three seconds later, everything changed.
Geoffrion skated at full speed up the left wing side a couple of feet from the boards with the puck. At about the red line, he peeked over to see who was coming. It was 6-2, 215-pound defenseman Jean-Philippe Cote, a former Hamilton Bulldog who played eight games with Montreal in '05-06.
"I have done the move a million times," Blake says. "The D-man is trying to gap up on you. So you try to slide the puck through his stick while he is doing that. You can usually jump around him because his momentum takes him out of the play."
But that did not happen this time. Cote didn't gap Blake, he came right after him Rob Blake hip-check style, just outside the blue line. Geoffrion tried to jump out of the way, but it was too late. Cote laid the entire right side of his body into the torso of Geoffrion.
"I will be the first to say it was a clean, legal hit," Geoffrion says. "It's one that makes the game of hockey fun and entertaining to watch."
Geoffrion was hit with such force that his body twirled counterclockwise like a windmill, his right skate at least 7 feet in the air at its peak, his head like the hand on a clock going from 12 (when hit) to 3 (his torso parallel to the ice) to 6 (his head smacking the ice about a foot from the boards).
But before Geoffrion's head hit the ice, Cote's razor-sharp skate blade carved into the bone two inches above Geoffrion's left ear with blunt force.
"I don't remember getting cut at all when the actual hit happened," Geoffrion says. "When I got hit, the first thing that went through my mind was, 'Wow, that was embarrassing.'"
So, at first, Geoffrion thought he was fine. But as he went to get up, a pool of blood came racing off the left side of his head like nothing he had felt before. His long hair was actually soaking up much of the blood flow, sparing visual evidence on the ice. Still, he figured 10 stitches and he would be back out on the ice.
But as Geoffrion walked backed to the trainers room with Canadiens head trainer Graham Rynbend and assistant Nick Addey-Jibb, he began to feel nauseated. He thought he was going to throw up right there. He could feel blood trickling down his chest and back. The blood flow plus nausea usually signaled a broken bone.
Geoffrion still did not fear the worst. His fear was focused on being out of the lineup for maybe a month for whatever reason and perhaps losing his place in the lineup. These are the kinds of things young players feel at the moment of injury. They make an instant self-diagnosis and project what it could mean to their playing time and career, not their personal health.
Back in the trainers room, Rynbend took away the gauze pad and saw there was minimal blood on it. Rynbend had difficulty finding the cut. When he did see the wound, his expression instantly changed to significant concern.
Dr. Dan Deckelbaum, the trauma surgeon who was in the Bell Centre that night (NHL arenas are required to have a trauma surgeon in attendance), asked to take a look at the cut. He started to move Geoffrion's hair to see where the cut was exactly. A huge piece of skin fell off the side of Geoffrion's head.
"The cut was so deep," Geoffrion says, "that you could pull the skin off my head and see inside there, or at least that's what it felt like. When that happened, all of the trainers/docs had the 'deer in the headlights' look on their faces. Doc immediately closed it up, put a gauze pad on it and told them to get the ambulance and get me to the hospital as soon as possible. They figured I had a fractured skull."
Geoffrion was then laid down to immobilize his head and neck. The trainers began to cut some off his equipment. "This really rattled me," Geoffrion says. "I loved my elbow pads, had them forever."
Again, yes, this is what hockey players think of while they are being carted off to the hospital. Competitive adrenaline, blood, pain, uncertainty, fear and a measured pragmatism cocktail all mixed together. It's what makes athletes unpredictable, fascinating and a breed apart.
While Geoffrion's precious hockey gear was being cut off his body, he told the trainers to call his parents, Danny and Kelly, in the stands. They were escorted from their seats to the ambulance, and they all rode to the hospital (at very high speed, says Danny, who sat in the front) with Blake talking all the way in his normal tone and manner. Blake, strapped to a spinal board, remembers it all. The ride to the hospital was about five minutes, and it was now approximately 8:30 p.m.
Blake was assuring his mother that he just needed a few stitches and urging her not to call his fiancée, Katelyn. Because Blake was calm, everyone was calm.
Arriving at Montreal General Hospital, Geoffrion was wheeled into the ER and was told he was going to go to the CT scan room, which was not being used. This is the last thing he remembers.
While getting his CT scan, Blake suffered a seizure. Fragments of his fractured skull were on his brain lining. Danny and Kelly immediately were asked to sign papers for their consent so doctors could perform emergency surgery. Again, fortunately, an operating room was open and ready, which is not always the case. It was just shy of 9 p.m., and the delicate brain surgery would take three to four hours.
"That's when I lost it," Kelly says.
Deckelbaum was the surgeon in charge while highly experienced Dr. Mohammad Maleki performed the surgery on Blake. Even in his worst moment, everything was going Blake's way. He turned out to be in the right place at the right time for such a severe head injury.
Maleki had to make a large, reverse C incision, lift Blake's skull, scrape the brain lining to get the bone fragments off his brain and put the skull back. Maleki also removed a silver-dollar-sized piece of Geoffrion's skull that was crushed from Cote's skate blade and replaced it with a titanium and metal mesh plate. Five screws and an acrylic bone also were inserted, and there they remain. The skate blade basically took a divot out of Geoffrion's skull.
At about 1 a.m., David Mulder, the Canadiens' head team physician and chief surgeon, informed Danny and Kelly Geoffrion of Blake's condition. They thought that the surgery went well but that they needed to do a CT scan in 30 minutes to check for brain swelling. If there was swelling, that could mean brain damage.
"The doctors told us," Danny says, "if Blake had swelling on the brain, he definitely would wake up tomorrow morning with permanent brain damage."
Geoffrion was put into an induced coma for the night to keep him still. In the morning, doctors wanted to keep the respirator on but wanted to wake Blake up to ensure he could move his hands and feet.
The next Montreal morning, Blake awoke and tried to pull out the breathing tubes that were in his mouth. He had a burning pain from the middle of his throat down to his rib cage. He tried to pull them out, but the nurse tied his hands down. The hands and legs could move.
Blake was trying to talk but couldn't speak with the breathing tubes. He was given a pen and paper by a nurse and was told to write what he was trying to say. He wrote, "When can I skate again?"
• • • • •
Geoffrion would awake periodically and would see new faces each time. First the wrestling nurse, then his parents, then Canadiens owner Geoff Molson, GM Marc Bergevin and then Katelyn. Every time he woke up, someone was crying. So, he figured he would join in and cry, too. Although he wasn't sure why.
Eventually, Blake was moved into the regular hospital under the alias George Benson. He was told there were reporters there, saying they were family, trying to get pictures, so an alias was used.
"I remember the doctor coming in told me I was very lucky to be alive," Geoffrion says. "I was starting to get a little down and depressed. Then he took the dressing off. I asked to see a picture of it because I was so curious to see what it looked like since it felt like half of my head was gone. He took a picture with my phone and showed me. This was the time when it hit me and hit me hard. I instantly lost it."
Geoffrion cried like a baby for 10 minutes. The kind of deep, desperate, crushing cry where you can't catch your breath. The scar was nasty and huge. The picture said it all.
"They had practically opened half my head up, and I now realized they weren't joking around at all and that, yeah, I almost did die," Geoffrion says. "For something this drastic and bad to happen in my life just doesn't seem possible. I was still in shock and disbelief that this had happened to me."
Blake remained in the hospital for a week, his mother and Katelyn (who graduated from Loyola in May and takes the bar July 30 and 31 and who plans to marry Blake in August) at his side.
After a week at the Crystal Hotel in Montreal, Blake returned to his home in Chicago to rest, recuperate and ponder his future.
So, now what? His contract ending in April, his brain battered, his future bride at his side. At one point, Blake turned to his dad, the man who gave him his name, and said, "I wonder if this should be it for me."
His dad leaned in and said, "Well, I certainly hope that it is. It's just not worth it anymore. You played for your country; you won the Hobey Baker; you got a hat trick in the NHL. Look at all you've accomplished, not what you haven't."
But when you see the glow in a father's face from your playing the NHL and when the son can feel the mother's pride and joy at seeing her baby excel in front of others, of her just sitting back and enjoying the moment instead of orchestrating a household 24/7, well, you don't want to disappoint those who sacrificed so much for you. And you don't want to disappoint yourself or the organization that traded for you.
How do you walk away from that?
"I've always told my boys," Danny says, "'Don't play hockey because of your family name; you got to play hockey because you love the game.' I'm just glad that Blake has the foresight to play college hockey, stay four years to get his degree and have something to fall back on."
"I love the game of hockey more than anything, and this decision tears me up inside, it's killing me," Blake says, "but we are talking about my brain. Not a knee or a shoulder. I want to have a family, have kids and a strong quality of life for another 60 or 70 years. The first three months of recovery were hell. The plate in my head is still sensitive. I've tried to put a hockey helmet on four or five times, and I can't even put that on yet."
One has ample time to think when recuperating from injury and surgery. Immobility and isolation make our heads noisier. We need peace. We need closure. And after hours and days and months of thought, Blake Geoffrion, at age 25, has retired. He is taking a job as a pro scout with the Columbus Blue Jackets and will be based in Chicago.
"I think this particular situation," Geoffrion says, "is trying to make me realize that family and friends are the most important thing in my life, not hockey. I might have had those backwards. But it's hard because I left home at age 14 to attend military school and to chase my dream of becoming an NHL player. So, it's like I didn't want anything to get in my way, even if that meant sacrificing friends and family. Well, after this has all happened, I am dead wrong. The amount of people that have reached out to me and shown their support is unbelievable. And I can't even start to say the support my family had shown. I love my family, my friends and my fiancée with all of my heart."
Life without hockey will at times be hard.
"My career has been incredible, and I truly believe the Lord has a plan for me," Blake says. "Our family has great faith. I have met and established relationships with some really great people and accomplished almost every hockey goal I had set for myself. I am proud for what my family and life has taught me, and I am proud to have worn the Geoffrion name on my back."
John Buccigross' email address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.
15dScott Burnside and Craig Custance