NASHVILLE, Tenn. – You know the game, so often joyful, can turn as cruel as the business, and so you try never to take any of it for granted.
You tell yourself that any shift gone horribly wrong could be your last in the National Hockey League, and you try to be ready. You tell yourself that one day it will be your career that ends, and it may not be your choice.
And all that telling and reasoning still probably did not come close to preparing Derek Dorsett for the devastating medical news, stark and merciless, that he will never play another NHL game. Never sit in the dressing room again as a full member of the Vancouver Canucks, never carve another turn on the ice or feel the weight of the puck on his stick, never score another goal and get mobbed by teammates. Never hear the roar of the crowd.
It is just over.
"I talked to Dorse this morning and it was tough to fight back tears," Canucks defenceman Michael Del Zotto said after a morning skate in Nashville. "I played with him in New York, so I’ve known him a long time. Just talking about him among ourselves (with teammates) it was emotional.
"From the time you are five years old, your life is hockey. You dream of playing in the NHL and you practise and play, and then you get ready for your next game. You get some time off in the summer and you do things with your family and friends, but then you’re thinking about training and getting ready for another season. Hockey is all you’ve known. What is he, 30 years old? He’s still young. It’s not easy."
Canucks veteran Daniel Sedin said: "For anyone who plays, hockey is such a big part of your life. To have that ripped away… it’s tough."
Canucks players love Dorsett. And it wasn’t just the standing up for teammates or even the hockey, Del Zotto said. It was everything about the undersized, unpretentious winger from Kindersley, Sask., who built an NHL career because his heart was bigger than his body.
And in the end, his body could not keep up.
One year after undergoing cervical-fusion surgery to replace a damaged disc, Dorsett’s doctors in Los Angeles last week discovered another herniated disc near the rebuilt section of his back and told him he shouldn’t play again. And that was that.
Dorsett contacted several teammates the last couple of days to tell them he can’t play anymore, and the Canucks officially announced the end of his career in a press release this morning.
The 189th-overall draft pick from 2006 played 10 years and 515 games in the NHL. And this season, after a health scare in which Dorsett had worried about his quality of life, he played some of the best hockey of his career.
He scored six times in Vancouver’s first 10 games, playing an elevated role as a shutdown forward deployed against the opposition’s best players.
"It’s amazing what you can do when you feel healthy," Dorsett said a month ago.
His comeback from spinal surgery became an early rallying point in the dressing room as the Canucks surprised everyone by starting 6-3-1. Teammates were elated for him. Now they’re in mourning.
When Dorsett flew home last week from the Canucks’ six-game road trip, which ends Thursday night against the Nashville Predators, there was obvious concern for the player after he experienced stiffness in his upper back.
But there was a strong hope that it might be a more-or-less natural consequence after so serious a surgery, and that a little rest and rehab could be all Dorsett needed. The announcement just nine days later that his career was over was almost too much to process for Canucks players.
"It’s tough to wrap your head around," defenceman Chris Tanev said. "I can only imagine how hard it is for him right now. He would do anything for his teammates. You see how he treats his friends, how he is with his family and his kids. He was a guy everyone loved to have around. This is terrible news."
"It’s almost your worst fear – that you don’t get to walk away from the game on your own terms," defenceman Erik Gudbranson said. "It’s a tough sport, and he played the game the right way. (But retiring) is the right thing to do; your health is first and foremost. He’s got a beautiful young family. It’s tough because he’s a huge part of this team, a huge part of this locker room. But once the dust settles, he’s going to do just fine. He’s going to be a very successful human being."
After his triumphant return to the Canucks in October, Dorsett talked about learning to love hockey again after he had resented the game for what it had done to him. He had never been happier playing in NHL, and was grateful to be able to play at all.
But Dorsett’s decision to accept the advice of his surgeon, Dr. Robert Watkins, and the Canucks’ medical team led by Dr. Bill Regan, is proof that he has his priorities in order – that there are things far more important to him than hockey.
Dorsett and his wife, Allison, have two sons. Dylan turns three next month, and little brother Ethan is 1½. Derek’s 31st birthday is Dec. 20.
In time, hopefully, Dorsett may see the 20 NHL games he played this season as a kind of victory lap for his will and spirit, something he will remember with fondness, rather than as a cruel false start to the rest of his career.
As Allison Dorsett told Sportsnet last month, Derek’s dad, Dean, taught all his children an alphabet of four Ds: determination, dedication, desire and discipline. Derek will now direct those values to other things, including the construction business in which he has partnered with his father and brothers.
The business is expanding in the Vernon, B.C., area.
"I’m always going to be a guy who’s prepared for after hockey," Dorsett told me in October. "I’m not going to be a guy who just sits around. I come from a very entrepreneurial family, a hard-working family that’s had a lot of success in business. That’s something I’ll be involved in once I’m done playing, whether it’s two years or another five years."
He got 10 more games.