TORONTO – Dion Phaneuf calls it the most difficult phone call he’s ever had to make.
After receiving the stunning news that teammate Clarke MacArthur’s bid to return from a concussion had been denied this week, the Ottawa Senators defenceman did what he could to console a guy he’s known since childhood.
“Just support him,” Phaneuf told Sportsnet of what was said between the two. “I support him, he’s my best friend.”
None of the players inside the Senators dressing room saw this coming. It doesn’t sound like the 31-year-old MacArthur did, either.
Four months after suffering his fourth documented concussion over an 18-month stretch, he was a full participant in Ottawa practices as recently as late last week.
Head coach Guy Boucher thought he might be working the veteran winger back into his lineup before the all-star break. Then MacArthur underwent an extensive baseline test last Friday and was told by doctors that he wouldn’t be cleared to play before the end of this season.
“It surprised everyone because he’s been symptom-free,” said Phaneuf. “I’m not going to get into details … but it’s extremely disappointing because he was symptom-free for three, four weeks – longer than that actually, probably a month and a half – but three or four weeks of full-contact practices and then to get that news was a shock to everyone.”
The situation is made more complex by the growing awareness around the long-term effects of concussions.
MacArthur has three years remaining on his contract and desperately wants to resume his career. The Senators would love to have him back. However, the NHL is also involved in a concussion lawsuit with former players and the medical community is naturally inclined to err on the side of caution.
All told, MacArthur has played just four games since the beginning of last season.
Yet you still get the sense there’ll be a psychological toll on a Senators team that entered Saturday’s game in Toronto sitting second in the Atlantic Division. In addition to MacArthur, they’ve managed to get by without Craig Anderson for the last two months while his wife, Nicholle, underwent cancer treatments.
The organization was counting on getting a No. 1 goalie and top-six forward back for the stretch drive.
There was no reason to doubt the determined MacArthur, who repeatedly told those around him he was back to feeling normal. He had been putting in extra hours in the gym and on the ice while awaiting the green light to play.
“To see how hard he’s worked over the past how many months – coming to the rink every day, bag-skating, working out and just keeping his spirits up and being in a good mood and being a great teammate – to hear (he wasn’t cleared) was tough,” said forward Zack Smith. “I can’t imagine how he’s feeling right now.”
“Having him around, being good friends with him, talking to him a lot, he feels good and he feels like he’s all right,” added captain Erik Karlsson. “The way it is, you have to go through these stages in order to get clearance to play. Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s not up to us unfortunately.”
Senators physician Dr. Mark Aubry is a leading expert in the field of concussions. MacArthur is also believed to have consulted with other doctors during the process.
It’s been an unfortunate fact of life for the father of two over the last couple years.
MacArthur hoped it was behind him when he reported to training camp in September, but he suffered yet another concussion after a hit from prospect Pat Sieloff during a scrimmage. That incident cast a pall over the organization and teammates thought the clouds were finally clearing.
“He’s such an integral part of this team in every way,” said Boucher. “The players love him. He’s not just a great leader, he’s a funny guy, he’s a respectful person — everything you hope to have on your team.”
Phaneuf and MacArthur are distant cousins who played together on the 2005 Canadian world junior team, not to mention a three-year stint with the Leafs and again now in Ottawa.
Asked if he expected to see MacArthur continue to spend time around the Canadian Tire Centre this season, Phaneuf demurred.
“I’m not sure – you’re going to have to ask management about the situation,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment. I know from talking with him, he’s very disappointed and it’s a big blow to our team.”