VOORHEES, N.J. – Marc-Andre Bourdon had been skating on the ice at Skate Zone for about 25 minutes.
He was out there working with Flyers’ assistant coach Joey Mullen on the sheet of ice usually reserved for Flyers’ practice.
The Skate Zone was practically deserted at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday morning. And after those 25 minutes, Bourdon asked the first person he saw walking by the rink if they can figure out a way to turn the lights on.
You see, Bourdon was skating – with limited vision – in the dark, which is ironic, because that’s how he’s entire 2012-13 season could be categorized.
Bourdon has been trying to recover from post-concussion issues since February, 2012. He’s still not 100 percent. He’s confident he’ll get there, but he doesn’t know when.
After skating for an hour with Mullen, Bourdon said he felt good, and has been feeling good for awhile – but he’s still not completely himself.
There are still headaches – although far more infrequently than before. He doesn’t suffer with moodiness or other personality affectations.
He still has some light sensitivity, but that was the case before his concussion with the Flyers 15 months ago – although he’s now learning the reason may have been from a previous head injury that he played through.
And that’s the kicker for Bourdon. For a guy trying to scratch and claw his way to an NHL career, Bourdon had always wanted to play through injuries – or in this instance, play through not feeling well – just to prove he belongs.
Some would call it a mistake of youth. Those taking the opposite side of the debate would praise Bourdon for his determination, work ethic and dedication to his sport.
But, no matter what side of the argument you fall on, it’s one that rages on in athletics around the globe when it comes to concussions.
For Bourdon, a third round pick of the Flyers (No. 67 overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, after what he deemed a successful 45-game NHL debut in 2011-12, there’s not even a question as to what side he favors still – even after what he’s been through.
Continue to work. Continue to persevere. Continue to play until someone tells you that you can’t.
Which is what happened last November when his post concussion-symptoms put him at a crossroads.
After the lights came on, Bourdon and Mullen skated for another 35 minutes.
As he left the ice, Bourdon thanked Mullen for the workout, saying it was constructed in such a way that he liked it because it allowed him to really focus and concentrate on the ice – which are his biggest deficiencies in his recovery effort.
Bourdon is trying to retrain his eyes to focus – because they are easily distracted by ancillary movement. It’s why he cannot be cleared by doctors yet to play hockey again, because as of now, Bourdon’s eyes have minds of their own – and he can’t control them.
Bourdon has to endure the monotony of eye exercises for five hours each day. It’s an incredibly lonely and tedious endeavor, but one that Bourdon has accepted.
After the practice Bourdon was incredibly candid about his situation, going into great detail about what the past year has been like.
And when talking to him about his situation, you could sense the frustration, but at the same time, you also know that he is going to persevere. That he is not going to let this thing lick him, no matter how long it takes.
But, at the same time, you get the sense that he knows the clock is ticking. Bourdon will turn 24 during training camp in September. He will be entering the final year of his contract with the team before he would become a restricted free agent in 2014.
He knows that if he wants to make his mark in the NHL that he’s going to have to be at his best during the 2013-14 campaign, which is why he’s skating daily.
And now, he’s talking about that freely – which he feels is therapeutic as well.
What follows is a transcript of an interview he gave to PhiladelphiaFlyers.com Friday. After reading it, it’s a safe bet that you’ll find yourself rooting a little harder for Bourdon in September then maybe you would have before.
Q: How is the rehab going?
A: “I feel much better. I hadn’t been doing anything for awhile. I saw a few doctors and in the last month and a half I’ve been working out. I started skating a month ago and have been pretty much skating every day. I started by skating 20 minutes and then 30 minutes and have been building myself up to skating something equivalent to a game. I’m doing pretty well. I just came back from the doctors [last Wednesday] and they were happy with my progression. I’m doing a lot of exercises for my eyes but they stepped them up to another level. They’re pretty pumped and I’m pretty pumped too. Hopefully I’ll be fine soon.”
Q: Aside from your eyes, are you pretty much symptom-free?
A: “My headaches are pretty much gone. Well, they’re not gone, but I almost don’t have headaches anymore. The thing is, my eyes are out of range kind of and I need to pretty much reset them. I have to learn again to focus on things and I have to practice converging and diverging my eyes. That’s what I’m doing right now. But, when my eyes get really tired, that’s when I have headaches. It’s a signal to my body that I need to shut down for a bit. It happens after four or five days of working out but I’ve been skating every day. [The doctors said] that’s normal though. I’m supposed to have symptoms in my rehab – but they are controlled symptoms.”
Q: Is it a situation where your eyes get distracted by other things around you that makes you unable to focus?
A: “I can’t focus on stuff off the ice much. When I’m on the ice, it’s hard for me to focus on one guy because there’s a bunch of other guys out there moving too and the background is always moving because of the crowd and stuff. If I can give you an example: If I move my head down to look at the ice to catch a puck, when I lift my head up again, in that movement, my eyes are too slow to send a message to my brain. That’s why I have tons of exercises to do to fix that. I do it for five a hours a day and I do feel much better now. I’m confident those exercises are going to put me where I need to be.”
Q: I noticed you are now wearing a tinted face shield. Does that help?
A: “It’s been awhile now that I’ve had problems with light sensitivity – since my first concussion I think – it’s just that I never realized it. But when I went to the eye doctor, it was the first time I realized that I had it. Did this concussion make it worse? I don’t know. Maybe it did. I have no idea. But [switching to a tinted visor] was a decision I made so that I can put ever chance on my side to recover successfully.”
Q: Doing five hours of eye exercises a day sounds repetitive and mundane. Is it?
A: “Obviously. It’s been a frustrating year for me. Especially seeing what went on defensively [for the Flyers] I knew I could have helped this team. With what I accomplished [in 2011-12] this past season was a huge step backward for me. But, I still have a contract for next year. I’ve had a lot of bumps in my career. The story of my career has pretty much been that I’ve had a lot of walls to run through. This is just another one. I’m pretty confident. The Flyers have treated me real well, sent me to a lot of doctors and really taken care of me. I’m thankful for that. So, I’m going to do everything I have to do, even if it’s repetitive and boring to get back. I want to play hockey and I need to do those things if I want to get back to playing and I’m confident that doing this will put me right back where I need to be.”
Q: You’re confident, but do you get the sense the doctors are confident as well?
A: “Oh yes… they’re even more confident than me. All of my reflexes and normal abilities with my eyes are still there. They can see it with the tests we have had done. If they weren’t there anymore, I wouldn’t be here right now trying to get better. I would have just quit playing and tried to do something else. But all the doctors told me that everything is still there, that it just needed to be worked on and rehabbed. It’s like a bad knee or a bad shoulder. It takes some time to get back. You have to re-exercise it and rehabilitate it to do the things you used to do before everything happened.”
Q: Is your goal to be back for training camp in September?
A: “My goal is to be ready before that. My goal is to be ready as soon as possible. I’m going back to the doctor in [early June] and I’m shooting for that to be the time I’m cleared. Nobody knows for sure, but I’m working really hard for that to be the time. I’ve been pushing it a little bit and I feel good. I’m doing more exercises than I’m supposed to do, but I want to be ready for camp. I want to play for the Flyers next year. I want to help this team. I want to grab my spot on this team back. It’s been a long time that I’ve been off the ice and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Obviously, I tried shutting it down, but always in my mind I’ve been telling myself, ‘I know I can play in the NHL. I want to play in the NHL. I want to play for the Flyers and help the Flyers and I want to be good. I don’t want to just be a guy on the team or on the depth chart. I want to be a good player. I know I can do that. That’s why I have been working so hard rehabbing.’”
Q: In this time you have been out, have you been able to determine if your problems were related to the hit in February, 2012, or was there another hit when you were playing with the Phantoms during the lockout that got you to the point you were at when you decided to shut it down?
A: “Nobody can really tell me. Once I got cleared [at the end of the 2011-12 season] by the doctors, I thought I felt pretty good. But, once I got back to contact, I realized that wasn’t right. I’ve had a few hits to the head since 2011 and after having that many, you reach a point where you don’t really know what ‘normal’ feels like anymore. I thought I felt ‘normal’ but I really wasn’t. I kept saying, ‘I was good’ and ‘I was fine.’ But every time I had contact on the ice, I didn’t feel right. Then at some point there was a bigger hit [I don’t know when exactly] and I knew I had to fix myself. I knew I either had to take a long time off… well… I never put a period of time on it, because I wanted to come back as soon as possible… but it was either taking the time needed to rehab and find out what was really wrong, then come back and have a long career, or play 15-to-20 games, get hurt, come back play 15 more and get hurt again and keep doing that. That’s not the way you want to be because rehabbing all the time is not fun. When they were on the ice last year and practicing and playing in the playoffs and I was off to the side throwing a tennis ball to myself against a wall, it was not fun. It was lonely. Yes, when you are hurt you have to recover by yourself. Even though you have the trainers the exercises and all the resources, you still have to do it by yourself. Nobody can force you to do it. You have to do it. You have to do it at home, where nobody sees you.”
Q: Do you plan on staying in Philly all summer to rehab?
A: “I don’t know. If I have to stay here all summer I will. I’d like to see my family though and take some time off and just rest my mind from all of this rehab. But, if I can’t and I have to stay here working all summer I’ll stay here working all summer. I’m just focusing on playing hockey again and if that’s what’s needed, that’s what’s needed. We have great trainers here and good resources, so I couldn’t be in a better spot to rehab. The Flyers have sent me to see doctors in Pittsburgh and Atlanta and have been really good with me. I know there are some teams in the league who refuse to do that but not the Flyers. They have been really good to me. They’ve given me time and have been really patient with me and I’m really grateful for that. No one is pressuring me. Everyone understands what is going on and I think that is something that is really helping me because I realize I have the support of everyone in the organization and they are going to do whatever it takes to get me back on the ice.”
Q: Have you talked to GM Paul Holmgren about your situation and see what he thinks about where you are and where you might fit in next season?
A: “We had our end-of-the-year meeting and I didn’t really talk much. He did all the talking. He told me that he thought I could have helped the team this year if I was healthy. I think he’s right. I could have helped. I think I played pretty well [in 2011-12] but that’s the past. He also said he thinks I can help the team next season, but that I have to make the team [in training camp]. That’s the thing. I’m pretty much starting back at zero. I need to be ready and to play good. Because if I don’t play good, I’m not going to be on this team. It’s not a given for anybody. I’m going to be ready. I know I can be good if I am healthy and I can help this team. I want to play to my full potential. Two years ago, there were always little things wrong with my head from a long time ago and I never really knew it. Now, when I get back to 100 percent, I’ll be even faster and better than I was before.”
Q: You mentioned having old head injuries. I know you probably don’t know the answer to this question, but if you had to guess, how many concussions do you think you’ve had?
A: “I don’t even know. It’s hard to say. Nobody can tell. I don’t want to get into any numbers because if I do, people might freak out. But concussions are handled differently now than they were in the time of Eric Lindros. There are ways to fix concussions now that there weren’t then. I mean, my eyes are still weird from my concussions, but the doctors don’t think that I am still concussed. It’s just the post-concussion symptoms that are still there and need to be fixed. But all the doctors I’ve seen are confident that I’m going to get back and I’ve seen the best in the world. The study of concussions have really improved in the last few years and I’m sure if Eric Lindros or other guys like him would have been able to see these doctors 10 or 12 years ago, they would have been O.K. and good to go. The science keeps getting better and better. I’m fully confident in the doctors I’ve seen and that’s why I’m confident I’ll be back.”
Q: You asked me to turn the lights up while you were skating. Is that because you wanted to test your eyes again with the light sensitivity?
A: “No. I’ve tested it enough with the lights. It just kind of sucks to play in the dark. The first half of the practice was in the dark and if I didn’t ask you to put up the lights I was going to have to get some night-vision goggles or something to see the puck. The tinted visor makes it better. In a rink like here, it’s not that bad either way [with or without tint] because it’s a small rink but in a rink like [Consol Energy Center in] Pittsburgh where it’s a new rink and the lights are really bright that’s where I feel it makes a difference. I felt the sensitivity in the past while playing in places like that, but I never knew that was a problem that was unique to me. Now, I know that it had been happening before.”
Q: With the renovations that are being done here at Skate Zone and you having to rehab off-ice at the Wells Fargo center with the training staff, are you going to have to do a lot of back-and-forth to keep skating in the summer?
A: “I plan on skating here. No one said I couldn’t, so I will. If I have to go to Wells Fargo first and then come back, or whatever, I’ll do that. If I can’t skate here I’ll find ice somewhere. I’m going to keep skating every day. I have to. I have a lot that I need to catch up on after last season.”