Spinal problems forced Derek Dorsett to retire from the NHL at the age of 30. But, to hear him tell it, playing in the league at all was a dream come true.

There are a lot of people I want to thank. And I’m going to get to them.

But if there’s one thing I want you to know, it’s that I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. If you could give me a script and say, “This is the story of your life,” I would do it over and over again, a billion times. Hockey gave me every opportunity I could dream of. I lived the dream every Canadian kid wants to have. I got to play in the greatest league in the world, in the greatest sport in the world.

So, no, don’t feel sorry for me.

Programming Alert
Tune into Wednesday Night Hockey on Dec. 6 to see Elliotte Friedman's sitdown interview with Derek Dorsett

In Kindersley, Sask., we lived right across the street from Elizabeth School. You could see it from our front window. I remember being really young, probably three or four. My older brothers (Chad and Mike) would go to school, and my dad (Dean) coached the senior hockey team. The rink was right next to the school and my dad had the key. He would put on my skates, toss me on the ice and go get breakfast. That’s my earliest memory of hockey.

Both sides of my family were hardworking and entrepreneurial. My parents owned and operated an A&W in the city. That was my lunch spot. My dad coached my brothers and me. He always made it fun, but never showed any favouritism. If anything, he was probably harder on us than our teammates. My mother (Donna) loved us no matter what we did, but she is hard-nosed. She always says I get all my toughness from her.

My parents believed in me, but I was cut from every Midget Triple-A team I tried out for until my last year. I never thought I would make it. I remember training with my friends, many of whom were drafted by Western Hockey League teams. I wasn’t. I had a bad reputation on the ice as undisciplined and unpredictable. Always taking a lot of penalties.

I was invited to camp as an 18-year-old by the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels, but didn’t make it and they dropped me. Then, in the middle of the season, Medicine Hat called, but I wasn’t going to go. The previous year the team I played with, the Kindersley Klippers, went all the way to the Royal Bank Cup before losing in the final. The whole team was back. We had a great chance to win this time and that’s what I wanted to do.

I was starting to get scholarship offers in the United States, but I was kidding myself. I wasn’t the best student and all I cared about was hockey. My dad knew I so badly wanted to play in the WHL, so he sat me down and said this was the best chance I would have to play there or in the NHL. It was the 2004-05 lockout, so I’d play in front of all the scouts. He told me with the style I played at my size, I had to prove I could play a big schedule. I still didn’t want to abandon my teammates in November. Medicine Hat had injuries, but once everyone got healthy, would I be sitting in the stands and not playing?

Some of those teammates pulled me aside and said, “You have to go.” Until last week, the hardest decision of my life was to leave them.

Going into it, I doubted I was good enough. How were those guys going to treat an 18-year-old rookie? What I learned about myself is that when I play nervous, it helps me. Those guys treated me great. I was on a line with Darren Helm right away and, later, Kevin Undershute. When the playoffs came, I hit my stride.

We played Red Deer in the first round and my job was to get under Dion Phaneuf’s skin. Remember, Dion would have been in the NHL that season if it weren’t for the lockout. He smoked me a couple of times, but if I got him to take a coincidental penalty, I knew I was doing my job. I definitely irritated him.

He is one of the guys who sent me a text last week. We’ve battled against each other since those junior days. That he took the time to send that meant a lot — they all meant a lot.

“I was actually glad I wasn’t invited to the Combine because I was such a weak little kid. I would have been the guy who does one bench press, or two pull-ups.”

We beat the Rebels in seven games, but lost to Prince Albert in Round 2. I gained a lot of confidence. At the team banquet, assistant coach Shaun Clouston was handing out the awards and announced me as playoff MVP. I looked at my parents, and said, “Really?”

I think they wanted me to take that as a challenge to become a bigger part of the leadership group. I started to think, “Maybe I could play in the AHL or the ECHL.”

Not even the NHL.

In Medicine Hat our radio play-by-play guy, Bob Ridley, also drove the team bus. During my second season, we were on that long road trip through Vancouver, Kelowna and Prince George when he asked to tape an interview and told me that I had been ranked by NHL Central Scouting. I had zero idea. I was like a deer in the headlights and so excited. It gave me more confidence.

I was actually glad I wasn’t invited to the Combine because I was such a weak little kid. I would have been the guy who does one bench press, or two pull-ups. On the day of the 2006 draft, I was in the basement with my parents, brothers and some friends. We kept hitting refresh on the computer. The fifth round came, then the sixth, the seventh. Kris Russell was in Columbus at the time and his father, Doug, told me they were interested in me.

So, when their seventh-round pick arrived, I was thinking, “This is my only chance.”

The phone rang from a number I’d never seen before. One of my buddies was on another computer and cheered because he knew the pick. I was ecstatic. So happy, so relieved. There was a big slo-pitch tournament going on in Kindersley that day. I was legal age and we partied pretty hard.

Getting His Shot
Dorsett watched the 2006 NHL Entry Draft from home in Kindersley, and was "ecstatic" when Columbus picked him in the seventh round

I remember my first trip to the Traverse City rookie tournament. Columbus had a tough team. Jared Boll, Marc Methot, Tom Sestito, myself. We won it two straight years — and there were a lot of fights.

Then I remember being in awe, star struck around Sergei Fedorov, Anson Carter, Adam Foote and Fredrik Modin. I’d be riding the bike and if there weren’t any to use when a veteran walked in, I’d pretend I was finished just to see if they wanted it. What surprised me was how normal those guys were. They were great guys, although I didn’t say much my first couple of years at camp. Mike Commodore gave me his number right away and told me if I needed anything to let him know. He would lend me his car and made sure I knew the door was always open at his place. And I couldn’t believe how welcoming the owners, the McConnell family, were.

It’s funny — my rookie dinner was right here in Vancouver at the Gotham Steakhouse. Luckily, there were about seven of us. I spent $5,000. I haven’t spent that much on a dinner since and never will again, but it was the best $5,000 I ever spent. My first goal was against the Canucks, too. Some people said I put it top-shelf, but I know I flubbed it and the puck trickled past Roberto Luongo. Today it’s at my mother-in-law’s house in Columbus.

One year, on the night before training camp opened, a few of us went out for dinner and stopped for a quick drink. There was a table of attractive women and we started chatting. The next day, I went for lunch after medicals and ran into one of them, Allison. It was a Saturday, a Buckeye football game day.

Allison always jokes that in Columbus, she is more famous than me. She captained the Ohio State cheerleading team for a couple of years. We ran into each other again and I asked her out on a date. The rest is history. We got married 10 days after I played in the 2014 Stanley Cup final with the Rangers.

I had no idea a trade was coming in April of 2013. I’d broken my clavicle and was basically done for the season. I lived right across from the arena — there were six or seven of us who lived in this complex. Derick Brassard texted to say he thought he was being traded to the Rangers, so I walked across the hall to talk to him. I missed a call from the 614 area code, but didn’t think much of it.

There was Brass, Steve Mason and John Moore, who thought he was being traded, too. I gave him a hug, said, “Good luck, buddy,” and then saw a text from Rick Nash. It said, “If everything goes through, it will be great to be back on your team.” I thought he meant it for Brassard and texted the wrong guy. Then I heard on TV that it was Brassard, Dorsett and Moore.

I said, “I guess I’m coming with you.”

Five minutes later, Glen Sather called. The call I missed was from Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. I was on an airplane 50 minutes later.

A funny story I remember from New York: The players asked me what kind of music I liked to get pumped up before a game. I’m not a big music guy. I told them if I go on a four- or five-hour drive, I won’t put on the radio because I just like to think. Marc Staal looked at me and said, “That’s insane.”

The Stanley Cup run with the Rangers was crazy and a great time. The playoffs at Madison Square Garden, and doing it with an Original Six team. The Yankees and Knicks were not that good at the time. You could feel the buzz. I wasn’t recognized that often in New York City, but during the playoffs I’d ride the subway to the arena and people would yell, “Let’s go, Dorsett!”

I will never forget being down 3–1 to Pittsburgh and Martin St. Louis getting the phone call that his mother had passed away, just as our plane landed. It was such an emotional time for our team. One of our best players and leaders was having a hard time and we knew we had to rally for him. The morning skate the next day when he walked in…. Wow. I can still remember that feeling when we saw him. Not much was said. Not much needed to be said.

The way he played. The funeral. He gave the best speech I’ve ever heard.

Doing it with the guys I started with, Brassard, Moore and Nash, was special. The billboards that went up in my hometown: “Good luck Derek in the Stanley Cup final.” You think of those times when you were a kid “fake lifting” the Stanley Cup on the street.

I didn’t see Alec Martinez’s Cup-winning goal. Two shifts before, there was a collision and I twisted my ankle. I’d gone down the tunnel to be evaluated. I didn’t see the replay for a year, because I wasn’t going to search for it. The room afterwards was so quiet. I don’t remember what anyone said. We were devastated, but proud of what we accomplished.

I miss New York City and loved playing for the Rangers. The way the fans and team treat you is unbelievable.

New York, I Love You
During the 2014 playoffs with the Rangers, Dorsett remembers fans cheering him on the subway on the way to the arena

I could see I wasn’t going to play that much the next season. I think I’ve got a good grasp of the business sense of the game, so I understood where I fit and where I belong. We were stacked down the right side with Nash, St. Louis, Mats Zuccarello and Jesper Fast. I spoke to Sather and coach Alain Vigneault and told them if there was an option for a better situation, I would like the opportunity to work for another contract to stay in the NHL. I had one year remaining on the current one.

They told me they were not going to trade me just to make a trade, and I respected that. I thought it would be Calgary or Vancouver. I’d heard the Flames wanted me at the deadline, but it didn’t go through. Willie Desjardins, my junior coach who would get the Vancouver job, was on our guest list for the wedding.

On the day of my rehearsal dinner, we were cleaning up after spending the day shooting clay pigeons. I got a call from Sather, who said: “We appreciate what you’ve done for us, and, as an early wedding gift, we traded you to Vancouver.”

Ten minutes later, Trevor Linden called.

“It’s been hard for me to come to the rink. Watching my buddies go out to play when I couldn’t was very hard.”

It was my childhood dream to play in a Canadian market. It had been an off-year for Vancouver the season before, and they were hungry. You could see it. The city wants you to win and I loved that pressure. It holds you accountable. I loved how passionate it was. Playing with Jannik Hansen and Bo Horvat, I had the best year points-wise of my career and I signed a new contract that set me up for a long time.

I wondered how it would be playing with Kevin Bieksa and Alex Burrows because they were two guys I hated playing against. Of course, they were great. Bieksa and I fought once during the pre-season when I was with the Rangers. The first time I saw him, we laughed about it.

When I was asked to participate in Daniel Sedin’s ceremony for his 1,000th point, it was a top-three moment in my career. It was a huge honour to give that special puck to a future Hockey Hall of Famer. I was a little bit emotional. It’s been hard for me to come to the rink. No one knew I was going to be there for the ceremony. Then watching my buddies go out to play when I couldn’t was very hard.

I was standing there under the bleachers, telling myself I’ve got to get it together, because I was about to present to a great friend. The messages I got from them that said great things about me made me emotional. Then I started thinking: “I can’t cry in front of everyone!”

Some fans saw me in the Zamboni area and started yelling some supportive things. That helped me focus. I thought I had it together, but when Daniel looked at me, I almost lost it. I’m surprised I didn’t break down.

The injury?

Well, there were times I’d feel a bit of a stinger, but it would immediately go away and everything was fine. On the hit in Los Angeles last season that started this process, it felt like something popped. I thought it was my other collarbone, because the pain and numbness felt the same as when I broke the first one. But the numbness stayed. It wasn’t right. With treatment and time off, everything resolved itself, but the symptoms returned after a few games. Against Arizona, my arms went numb after an innocent push. That’s when I knew something was really wrong.

The best option was the fusion surgery because it gave me a good chance to recover to normal. No one told me I’d never play again. The attitude I had was that I was coming back 100 per cent. I remember at the end of last season, the media asked if I could play the same way I always played. I made it clear that we were going to find out and that I was not going to change who I was.

I knew only one way to play and that was the only way I was going to play. It would have been easy for me to not finish checks or fight. But that is not who I am.

I worked my tail off and came back better this season. I was playing the best hockey of my career and that gives me peace of mind — makes it easier for me to accept the fact I will not play again.

Through training camp, you could see what kind of role Travis Green wanted for me. With Markus Granlund and Brandon Sutter, he wanted to create a line that could play against other top lines. Our opener against Edmonton? I was never told 100 per cent we were getting matched against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but we knew.

I watched McDavid get a hat trick opening night. I’m thinking I’ve got to stop this great player, and I’m getting a little nervous. But remember what I said earlier? Nerves help me.

You know what made me proudest about that 3–2 win over Edmonton? We played McDavid hard and were able to shut down his line.

I was excited to be back and to prove myself again. I don’t really follow the blogs, but I’m a fan of the game. I watch TV, I follow what is said. A lot of people thought I’d be bought out, sent to the minors or waived. That motivated me. I wanted to prove that I belonged in the NHL. Success built confidence and scoring came from being confident with the puck. I felt I had a long leash and a mistake didn’t mean I’d get sent to the press box.

Going into surgery, I was five games from 500 on my career. Getting to that number meant a lot to me. I never thought I’d play 500 games in the NHL.

Did I think there was a chance for soreness and tightness? Yes, but I thought I was managing it well. I hated people saying I shouldn’t be fighting. I was not coming back just to put my stick on the ice. I was doing proper maintenance every day and the treatment resolved any problems.

I want to be clear: There were no stingers until that moment I woke up in Philadelphia.

I was starting to get some of that weakness, which felt like something more than general soreness. I got out of bed, my arm locked, and something was not right. I tried to practice, but when I reached for the puck, there was a pinch. It was time to dial back and get things looked at.

“No one in my family would admit it, but I could pick up that they had been worried. It’s not the answer they wanted, but I think there is relief.”

Dr. Rick Celebrini went with me to Los Angeles to see my surgeon, Dr. Watkins. First we looked at where the fusion was, the C5-6 area of the spine. It was still solid, the plate and screws were good. That was important. The C4-5 above the fusion had a small bulge, so we went back to see how it looked before surgery. It was worse, not terribly worse, but it had progressed more than we thought. Below the fusion, the C6-7 had something bigger. That was the main issue.

Dr. Watkins told me I could not play anymore. Too risky.

That’s when it became a blur to me. I zoned out. I’m thankful Rick came with me because I would have had no clue how to relay the news Dr. Watkins gave me. I thanked him for his honest opinion, but I wasn’t prepared for the news he gave me, though I knew it was a possibility.

It was the worst answer I could have gotten, but in some ways the best, too. I was confident in him and what he said. If he would have told me rehab and time were all I needed to avoid further risk of damage, I would have worked my tail off to come back. I would not have quit. Dr. Watkins telling me it was over made it easier to take.

My wife said I’ve had a great career, I’ve done everything I could and she was proud of me. She told me the best is yet to come, and I will be successful at whatever I choose to do next. My parents said they were very proud of me and were happy I could live a normal life.

No one in my family would admit it, but I could pick up that they had been worried. It’s not the answer they wanted to hear, but I think there is relief.

We have two sons. Dylan turns three next Tuesday and Ethan will be two in April. Dylan saw the scar on my neck last summer and would say, “Daddy has a boo-boo.” I was not allowed to lift more than five or 10 pounds last summer, and he was about 20. I know the most important thing is living a healthy life with them.

At home on ice
Dorsett returned to Rogers Arena on Saturday, Dec. 2, to help celebrate Daniel Sedin's 1,000th point

The support from Jim Benning, Linden and the Aquilini family from the moment I was told the news about my playing future has been tremendous. I needed some time to come to grips with everything and they were incredible.

To all of the fans who reached out through social media, there was so much and I saw it all. Thank you.

You know what I learned? You are never alone.

Friends, former teammates, people I don’t know who got my number and reached out. I mentioned Phaneuf. Milan Lucic. I never played for Brad Treliving or Brian Burke or Mike Babcock, but got something from them. People telling me if I needed anything to let them know. Or “Let’s go for a beer or a coffee, we can chat anytime.” The support from current and former teammates. They said things that made me really proud.

Hockey players don’t open up like that too often, but I feel the same way about the guys who messaged me. I’ve learned that when I see someone I played against go through a tough time, maybe I should reach out to them, too.

I have other interests, including real estate and construction. I partner in a construction company with my dad and brothers, but I’m not going to rush into anything. I would like to stay in the game. Like my dad, I’m going to coach my sons.

Oh, the Grouse Grind? I haven’t done it yet. The twins do it all the time. But before I leave Vancouver, I’m going to do it (and beat the twins this time).

Thank you to the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks. This has been a dream come true. Don’t feel sorry for me. Hockey gave me everything I’ve ever wanted and more.

It led me to my wife and kids. I’m going to enjoy a long life with them.

Photo Credits

Sean M. Haffey/Getty
AP Photo/Alex Gallardo, FIle
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II