Part 1: Penguins radio analyst Phil Bourque feeling the effects of his many concussions
January 28, 2016 12:00 AM
Former Penguin Phil Borque is now a broadcaster for the team who, at 53, is feeling the effects of his playing career.
Phil Bourque was a member of the Penguins' Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Phil Bourque was willing to do whatever it took to succeed in his NHL career.
What he didn’t realize at the time was that, more than 15 years after retiring, he’d be paying a different price. One for having multiple concussions as a player.
At 53, Bourque, the Penguins’ radio analyst who was a member of their Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992, is beginning to experience memory lapses that he can’t shrug off as simply a byproduct of advancing age.
“There have been big gaps the last six or eight months,” he said. “Sometimes you think, ‘Well, geez, am I just tired, or have I been pushing myself too hard?’
“But it’s abnormally long gaps in memory and not being able to recall the simplest things, like people’s names who you’re around all the time. Complete blanks.
“We all have that moment where you kind of forget something, and it comes right back to you. Now, it doesn’t come back at all, and it’s actually kind of scary. People that you see every single day, you’re like, ‘What’s your name again?’ ”
Those lapses, Bourque said, happen about a half-dozen times per month and have been occurring with increasing regularity.
“I don’t know what to do to rectify it,” he said. “It’s not like you can take a pill or you can go for a longer walk.
“It’s one of those things where you cross your fingers and hope it comes back to you. I’m 53. I shouldn’t be forgetting things this frequently at this age.”
Bourque estimates that he suffered “a dozen, for sure” concussions while playing hockey — “It’s hard to remember them all, right?” he said — although only a few were formally diagnosed. That total includes “probably five times when I was knocked out cold.”
Bourque never was shy about throwing his body around — a Pittsburgh Press profile in the 1980s described him as being responsible for “more hits than Bruce Springsteen” — and admits that “I probably lied to the trainer numerous times” about being ready to return from a concussion when he really wasn’t.
Seven days was the most he would allow himself to sit out for one of those, Bourque said.
“The only thing that kept me out longer than a week was separated shoulders or ACL [injuries] or broken bones,” he said. “I never would have let a concussion keep me out more than a week, no matter how bad I felt.”
It was, by Bourque’s reckoning, a matter of professional survival.
“Every single time, I know I came back earlier than I should have because I feared for my job,” he said.
Although Bourque got the vast majority of his concussions on hockey rinks, his first came on a street in his hometown of Chelmsford, Mass., when he was 9.
“We used to ride down this cul-de-sac with a steep hill,” he said. “We’d pedal our bikes as fast as we could, then we’d stand up and step on the brakes and fishtail in the sand that would gather at the bottom.
“I went to the back of the garage and grabbed my brother’s buddy’s bike that nobody was riding, and I know why: I got halfway down and was pedaling as fast as my legs would move and all of the sudden I lifted up on the handlebars and they came out of the holder.
“The last thing I remember was the front wheel wobbling. I remember that feeling of hearing your head hit the concrete and being knocked out cold.”
Bourque, whose only protective gear that day was a full head of hair, recalls doing a full face-plant, tearing flesh from his forehead to his chin.
A gruesome accident, but probably not as bad as one he had while playing junior hockey for Kingston in the Ontario Hockey League.
“I was tied up with a guy in front of the net and I never saw the shot coming,” he said. “Guy took a one-timer from the point and, as I turned to look where the puck was, it hit me square under the nose. People have said they saw my feet go up over my head and I had an out-of-body experience where I was sitting in the stands.
“I remember the feeling of being on the ice — when stuff happens to you, it kind of slows down — and this was so out-of-body that I was actually sitting in the stands, watching myself on the ice, seeing the puddle of blood kind of spread out underneath me and thinking, ‘Wow. That really sucks. I’m sure that’s going to hurt a lot.’ I was sitting in the stands watching myself have this happen. Again, out cold.”
A few years later, while playing an American Hockey League game in Hershey, he was rendered unconscious again.
“I went to hit a guy — had him lined up, and I was going to smoke him — and he was up against the boards and ducked down,” Bourque said. “I hit my head on the corner of the dasher.
“I don’t remember any of this, but I started convulsing on the ice. Like an epileptic seizure. The next thing I know, I woke up in the Hershey Medical Center.”
Bourque said he has not sought medical advice for his memory issues, although he might in the future.
“I’m probably like most people,” he said. “I’ll wait a year. After a year, if it continues, I probably should talk to somebody. But I’m stubborn, like everybody else. It probably will take a lot for me to do that. … But it’s definitely a concern.”
So far, he said, his children — he has a daughter, Madison, who is 11 and a son, Dylan, who is 9 — do not appear to notice when his memory betrays him.
“They’re still young, so they’re not quite paying attention to stuff like that,” Bourque said. “And I probably don’t let it happen in front of them.
“I probably cover it up quicker in front of them, because I don’t want them to think their dad is losing his marbles or anything.”
Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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