On the Penguins: 1 day, 1 hit, 1 life-altering concussion
Dave Molinari on the Penguins ... a weekly look inside the team, the issues & the questions
February 19, 2012 10:00 AM
Jason Botterill -- Assistant GM and one-time first-round draft pick out of Michigan
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jason Botterill had been hit hard before, and he had the medical history to prove it.
And this check, well, it really seemed like nothing special.
"I remember going to the bench thinking, 'I got dinged a little bit,' " Botterill said. "But I didn't think too much of it."
Not until a few hours later, anyway.
"After the game, I felt something was wrong," Botterill said. "Especially the next morning, once the adrenaline wore off."
What seemed like a routine hit at the time turned out to be the most significant one Botterill absorbed in his career, because it was the one that ended that career.
Botterill, who already had been diagnosed with three concussions after graduating from the University of Michigan, picked up his fourth in late October 2005 while playing for Buffalo's American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.
That one, though, was different.
In just about every way.
The previous three times, he had been concussed by big hits. The kind that often leave the victim dazed and on all fours, or perhaps stumbling toward the bench like a guy whose blood-alcohol level was approaching the spontaneous-combustion stage.
And each time, despite the ferocity of the check that injured him, Botterill rebounded in about a week. Took it easy for a few days, then went back to work.
Not this time.
Oh, he didn't have to spend his days in bed or in a darkened room after No. 4 was diagnosed, but it was evident from the start that his recovery would not be like any of those he had experienced previously.
"I was very fortunate because, from the standpoint of day-to-day life, I was fine," Botterill said. "I didn't really have too many issues at all. But whenever I started to get my heart rate up, my symptoms were room-spins and [seeing] black spots."
Botterill spent most of that season hoping that he'd be able to resume playing, but he eventually accepted his doctors' advice to leave the game before he suffered something even more serious.
Which, they advised him, was a pretty good bet to happen if he didn't retire.
"They pretty much assured me that I would recover from this concussion, which I feel I did," Botterill said. "But they felt my ability to take a hit had diminished and my ability to recover from concussions had diminished.
"This one was going to take a little while to recover [from]; the next one probably wouldn't be a big hit that would cause it and how long it would take me to recover from that one was a question mark."
So Botterill left the game, but the lingering effects of the game -- specifically, the one that yielded his final concussion -- didn't leave him. Not immediately, at least.
"Even doing the simplest of chores -- like a couple of years afterward, shoveling the driveway -- if I got my heart rate up, the symptoms came back," he said.
He returned to Michigan to pursue an MBA, with the goal of pursuing a career in commercial banking or corporate finance.
While in Ann Arbor, however, he did some part-time scouting for Dallas, the team that had invested a first-round draft choice in him in 1994.
That led to a position with NHL Central Registry and, later, a job with the Penguins, who promoted him to assistant general manager when Chuck Fletcher was hired as GM in Minnesota in 2009.
The Penguins have, of course, endured a spate of concussions in recent seasons, and what Botterill went through gives him particular insight into what players with such injuries are going through.
And to the difficulties they can have explaining their condition to players who haven't suffered one.
"It's a difficult injury to relate to your teammates with and to your coaching staff," he said. "A lot of times with concussions, you are fine just walking around, and around the locker room.
"It's different from, say, your shoulder. I also had a lot of shoulder injuries in my career. At least with a shoulder injury, the coaches and players ... at least you can have some quantitative measure to tell them. 'I went up 10 percent in my weight today in my shoulder exercises. I feel I'm getting stronger.'
"How do you quantify a concussion? 'I feel 5 percent or 10 percent less foggy today than I did yesterday.' It's difficult."
That mental haze is a distant memory for Botterill now. He's developed into one of the NHL's most promising young executives, and that might not have been the case if his playing career hadn't been cut short.
"On one hand, [having to retire early] was an extremely frustrating part of my life, to have to give up the game of hockey," he said.
"But in retrospect, with the way it turned out, the timing of things, it turned out to be a great experience, to be able to join this organization, being able to be part of a Stanley Cup. It's interesting how things turned out."