by | Dec 13, 2005 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He began with a smile, but within seconds he was sniffing back tears, trying to do the impossible, to say thank you for saving me and don’t forget me at the same time.

And even as young Jiri Fischer spoke, earnestly, passionately, you couldn’t help but hear what fate was whispering in his ear.

The only thing worse than almost dying on the ice is dying on the ice.

Let it go.

“Not too many people get a second chance like I did …” Fischer said, his voice choking Monday, in his first public statements since collapsing on the bench from cardiac arrest during a Red Wings game three weeks ago. “You know, on the same day that I was the lucky one, there was a 15-year-old girl that … um … that didn’t make it, and it … uh … really puts in perspective that … uh … being at the right time at the right place.”

He could barely catch his breath. It was that emotional. Yet when someone asked the 25-year-old defenseman if he had been advised not to play hockey again, he paused, he blinked, he hemmed and hawed. Then he said:

“What would you advise me?”

That’s a question, not an answer. But the answer was all over him. The answer was in his reddened eyes, and in his sniffing nose, and in his choking throat. The answer was in his shaky voice that, when asked about his fiancée, clutched up so badly with gratitude and love that he couldn’t even speak.

The answer was in every inch of Jiri Fischer, alive and kicking, and if he couldn’t find it, it’s because he is young, and the young sometimes lose their way around the most obvious lessons.

But older people can tell him. And older people should tell him.

The answer is good-bye.

No reason to take a chance

Now, understand, good-bye is not a tragic word here. A tragic good-bye is whispered by a gravesite.

Saying good-bye to a career may be sad, but it is survivable. And sooner or later, the Red Wings and the doctors and finally Fischer himself will have to agree on that word, no matter how talented he is, no matter how promising he is, because right now, with the current medical technology, letting Fischer back on the ice could be akin to suicide.

On more than one level.

First of all, what NHL doctor would clear Fischer to play? When I asked Wings physician Anthony Colucci – whom Fischer thanked as “my guardian angel”- even he danced around a response before finally saying, “I have not seen a case here in the United States that someone in a professional sport has suffered a cardiac arrest and a) survived it and b) gone back and played.”

Secondly, what NHL team would take such a chance? The legal implications – which ultimately mean financial implications – would be far too risky. NHL franchises like the Red Wings are well aware of lawsuits against teams and doctors, such as the ones filed by the widows of the Minnesota Vikings’ Korey Stringer and the Boston Celtics’ Reggie Lewis.

And thirdly, and most importantly, why should Fischer himself take that chance? What if the next time it wasn’t in a well-staffed arena? What if were during a morning skate on the road? Or on the bus?

One week after he slumped over on the bench, one week after he lay on the ground being pounded upon by Colucci, who brought him back from the dead, one week after he was raced to the hospital with an anxious city holding its breath – one week after that, at home, Fischer had another small incident, an irregularity with his heartbeat, and he and Colucci had to go to the hospital again.

One week later?

And a team would put him back on the ice?

“I don’t foresee myself coming back the next couple of weeks,” Fischer admitted when pressed, “but this is what I know, this is what I worked for my whole life …”

He sniffed hard. His voice melted into fluttering sounds. And he said the words that every athlete dreaded.

“I don’t want it to be taken away.”

But Jiri.

It was just given back.

A long life could lie ahead

What Fischer must understand is that Monday was not a funeral. It was a celebration. He is alive. How many other people who suffered what he did were never able to hug their families again, never able to talk about what comes next? The 15-year-old girl he referred to – a promising swimmer from Howell – was not as lucky as he was.

Fischer was diagnosed with a heart abnormality in 2002. There are some medical folks around town who feel he shouldn’t have been on the ice after that. The fact that he was, the fact that he had a major incident (Colucci said Fischer “was flat-lined for 24 seconds” during the frantic efforts to revive his heart that night), the fact that here he was Monday holding a news conference, is enough whistling past a graveyard, don’t you think?

Fischer sees his case as a medical opportunity, a chance for doctors to study him and come up with something unique. And maybe that can happen. But it won’t happen quickly. And it won’t happen fast enough for him. And even if it did happen, would Fischer and his hockey club be the guinea pigs?

“I think the first question is does he want to take a chance to come back?” Colucci said. “Do you … really want to trust on someone else’s opinion? … I mean, he had a cardiac arrest, and as we all know, that’s not normal in a 25-year-old.”

Which means Jiri Fischer is special. He is special to have survived it. He is special to be talking about it. He is special and he is young and he is engaged and wealthy and able to smile, and as hard as it might be to hear it, he should take that second chance and wrap himself in its blessing for the rest of his hopefully very long life.

After all, burying a career is not a tragedy.

Burying a human being is.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” at noon Wednesday at Borders Express in the Renaissance Center and at 1 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Northville.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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