VANCOUVER – The player who used his heart to build an unlikely National Hockey League career, used his head when he decided to end it. But that doesn’t make it any easier on Derek Dorsett’s heart.
The former Vancouver Canucks winger, abruptly forced into retirement last week by back injuries, met the media one last time here Wednesday morning and explained with clarity and conviction why he needed to retire.
The only time during his press conference at Rogers Arena when Dorsett’s voice cracked with emotion was when he described waiting under the stands last Saturday to participate in a pre-game ceremony for Daniel Sedin’s 1,000th point and saw his teammates going on the ice without him to face the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I was waiting down by the tunnel and seeing the guys go out, that’s when I got emotional, knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to go to battle with those guys,” Dorsett, 30, explained. “That’s when it kind of hit me.”
Later, he said: “I’d like people (to remember) that I played the game hard, honest. That I showed up every night and did whatever I could to help my teammates and my teams win. My teammates mean everything to me. The jersey I put on over my head means everything to me.”
An undersized seventh-round pick from Kindersley, Sask., Dorsett pulled an NHL jersey over his head for 515 games in the best hockey league in the world. The last 184 games over three-plus seasons were with the Canucks. He also played with the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers.
Dorsett’s final game was Nov. 18 in an overtime loss at home against the St. Louis Blues.
Three days later, he awoke before a game in Philadelphia feeling sore and stiff and knew there was something wrong with his back, which underwent a cervical fusion one year ago. One week later, after doctors in Vancouver discovered further bulging in the player’s discs, Los Angeles surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins told Dorsett it was no longer safe to play.
As Dorsett spoke Wednesday, it was one year and one day after his back surgery.
“Your health is everything,” Dorsett said. “I think that’s why I’ve come to peace with it. I’m making the right decision to step away and look after myself because it wouldn’t be fair to me or my kids if I wouldn’t be healthy enough to enjoy what this next chapter in my life is going to bring.
“Going into the surgery, I was told I can recover and be able to play. But there’s always a risk that something might not go right. The surgery didn’t fail; the surgery’s still a success. But all along I kind of knew if I had more issues with my neck, that this would be the outcome possibly. And here we are today.”
Dorsett said there was no option to continue playing, that there was a “catastrophic” risk of permanent injury if he did so.
He said the hardest part were the phone calls he made from Los Angeles to his wife and family to tell them his NHL career was over. They greeted the news not with horror but relief, he said.
Dorsett and his wife Allison have two boys under age three.
“Obviously, my family and everyone was excited that I was back playing,” Dorsett said of his comeback this fall, when he scored six times in the Canucks’ first 10 games and played some of the best hockey of his career. “But I could sense – and I’d never sensed it ever before in my career or my life – that my family was worried about me. The times I would get in a fight. . . I could sense that they were worried. So it was kind of a relief for them, a relief for them knowing that I’m going to be able to lead a happy life.
“Like I said before, I wasn’t going to change the way I was going to play. I wasn’t going to just go out and give a 50-per-cent effort. I was going to come out and try to play the way that I’ve always played: a physical game, sticking up for my teammates. I’m proud that I could come back and do that.”
The only good thing about so sudden a retirement in mid-season is that Dorsett has a chance to say a proper goodbye to the game and his teammates. Players rarely get such privilege and closure. Usually, a player’s contract expires, he waits months for a phone call from another team that never comes, then sometime after that realizes on his own that his career is over. And by then, he is already separated from the game and his old team long ago moved on.
“I’m not a guy that likes the attention that this has brought,” Dorsett said. “But it gives me peace of mind that I was playing my best hockey. It’s not, obviously, the way any player wants to go out. But it’s a nice way to say bye, for sure.”
He said it meant a lot to him that the Canucks, on the day his retirement news hit them like a dagger to their heart, teammates channelled their emotions and rallied to beat the Nashville Predators last Thursday.
“That’s what hockey players do,” he said. “They rally around tough times.”