Penguins president's hard lesson


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Because Penguins president David Morehouse has normal blood pressure and decent cholesterol levels, isn't more than a few pounds overweight, doesn't smoke, drink or eat junk food and has no history of heart disease in his family, there can be only one leading contributor to his heart attack this month.

The sight of actor Ethan S. Smith.

More on that in a moment.

First, a good-news update: Morehouse, 49, is fine and has been told by doctors there is no significant long-term damage to his heart from his heart attack Nov. 8 while traveling with the team in San Jose, Calif. He had a stent put in to open a 98 percent blockage in his left anterior descending artery, flew home four days later, was at his office at One Chatham Center for a bit the day after that and was at Mellon Arena for the Penguins-Boston game the next night when "Bill Guerin tried to give me another heart attack" by scoring the tying goal with four-tenths of a second left.

"I know I was lucky," Morehouse said last week. "I'm not going to squander that luck. I'm going to use it as an opportunity to watch myself for the rest of my life, for the next 40 years, to do what I should have been doing all along, exercising, keeping my stress level down and eating properly."

Here's hoping the rest of us can learn from the lesson Morehouse had to learn the hard way. That's his wish, anyway. That's why he agreed to share his story even though he said he's embarrassed by it.

During Morehouse's most recent physical, his doctor told him he should exercise more and try to lose 10 pounds. Sound familiar? Of course, he did what most of us do; he forgot the advice before he was out of the office.

But Morehouse did try to exercise, especially when he was on the road with the Penguins when he seemed to have more free time. After working out in Anaheim Nov. 3, he felt dizzy but didn't think much about it because he hadn't eaten. After running in Los Angeles Nov. 5, his left arm started hurting and he felt nauseous. He thought he might have strained a muscle or perhaps was coming down with the flu. He still wasn't too concerned when his left arm hurt again after the game in San Jose Nov. 7.

But on the team bus to the airport the next morning, Morehouse's left arm ached from his shoulder to his fingertips. His jaw tightened. He felt sick.

"You're not getting on the plane," Penguins trainer Chris Stewart told Morehouse. "You're going to the hospital."

Morehouse protested.

"Look at you. You're sweating through your shirt," Stewart told him.

Morehouse finally agreed. Stewart called Sharks trainer Ray Tufts, who lives 5 minutes from the airport and agreed to take Morehouse to the hospital. Sharks team doctor, John Chiu, would be waiting when they arrived.

"If it hadn't been so convenient, I probably would have gotten on the plane," Morehouse said. "I would have thought it was the flu and sucked it up and it wouldn't have been good ...

"Stewie literally saved my life."

Tests quickly were run on Morehouse. "You've just had a heart attack," the emergency room people told him. "We need to get you to another hospital."

In the ambulance, Morehouse called his wife, Vanessa, who called Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle in Los Angeles. Burkle called the leading heart specialist in Los Angeles, who called the San Jose hospital and gave instructions for Morehouse to be transferred to his Los Angeles hospital.

"There's no time and we can't move him," the Los Angeles doctor was told. "We need to do something fast -- like within 10 minutes."

Imagine being Morehouse, in that hospital bed, listening to all of that.

"Yeah, I did," he said when asked if he thought about dying. "But I wasn't so much frightened as I was mad at myself for allowing it to happen. This isn't rocket science. It's fairly simple. It's about taking care of yourself. I know I should have exercised more. No matter what, I'm finding the time to exercise now."

Morehouse also thought about his wife and their three young children -- Jackson, 6, Mackenzie, 4, and Hayden, 4 months -- back home in Bell Acres. One of his prized possessions in his office is a picture him holding up Jackson on the ice in Detroit after the team won Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in June.

"I didn't want my kids to have to grow up without their dad," Morehouse said.

A best guess? The cumulative stress from Morehouse's high-powered jobs before he joined the Penguins in January 2005 is what led to his heart attack.

Which brings us to Ethan S. Smith.

Well, almost.

Before Morehouse became a big shot with the Penguins, he was a big shot in the Democratic Party. He joined the Bill Clinton presidential campaign team and made such an impression that he quickly rose through the ranks and held a number of jobs in the Clinton White House, at one point coordinating the president's travels. He estimated he made the equivalent of 17 trips around the world on Air Force One.

Later, Morehouse worked for the Al Gore presidential campaign as trip director and senior counselor and for the John Kerry campaign as traveling chief of staff and senior adviser. Had Kerry beaten George W. Bush in the 2004 election, Morehouse almost certainly would have been his deputy chief of staff. Both Kerry and Gore called to check on him after his heart attack.

Not bad for a kid from Beechview, who didn't go to college when he graduated from South Hills Catholic High School, joining the welders' union instead. He said he still would be a boilermaker if he hadn't been struck in the head in 1982 when a steel beam snapped as he was welding it.

"I guess I'm the type of person who has to be hit in the head or have a heart attack to do what I'm supposed to do," Morehouse said, grinning.

"Getting hit in the head knocked me cold, knocked some sense into me and knocked me in a new career direction."

Which, finally, brings us to Ethan S. Smith.

HBO Films did a movie last year -- "Recount" -- detailing the hotly contested Bush-Gore race for the presidency in 2000. Smith played the role of David Morehouse. "Fat, sweating and nervous," Morehouse described him.

Not exactly Brad Pitt, as Morehouse had been hoping.

Anyway, in real life, it was Morehouse who literally stood in front of Gore to prevent him from making his concession speech in Nashville on election night. "Mr. Vice President, something's wrong in Florida. We've got to go on hold," Morehouse recalled telling Gore.

That wasn't quite enough drama for television. Much to Morehouse's dismay, the directors had Smith fall as he ran to stop the Gore concession. Just talking about it seemed to test Morehouse's newfound dedication to stress management.

"I did not fall," he said without much humor, "and I was not that nervous."

Hey, all's fair in love, war and television drama, right?

Things have turned out quite nicely for Morehouse, the heart attack aside, of course. He said has "a perfect job, my dream job" with the Penguins. Burkle, a close friend of Clinton and a giant in the Democratic party, thought Morehouse would make an excellent consultant as the Penguins fought to get their new arena. After that goal was accomplished, Burkle and co-owner Mario Lemieux kept him on as president in April 2007. He has done such a marvelous job on the business side that the Penguins' brand ranks eighth in all of sports, according to the most recent study by Sports Business Journal, done last year before the Cup win. The Steelers were No. 3.

Said the man who has met many of the world's most powerful leaders, "Meeting Mario made me nervous. It was surreal for me. He's a legend."

Sounds as if Ethan S. Smith would have been perfect to play Morehouse that day.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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