Life after hockey for Jiri Fischer
Since my return from Detroit Red Wings Skill and Development Camp in Traverse City, Mich., last week, I’ve constantly been asked which player impressed me the most.
At first, I'd say defenseman Ryan Sproul or forwards Martin Frk and Anthony Mantha.
But my mind keeps going back to Jiri Fischer.
Fischer hasn't played an NHL game since Nov. 21, 2005. On that night at Joe Louis Arena, he collapsed on the Wings bench and went into full cardiac arrest.
If not for the quick response by Detroit's medical staff -- administering CPR and using an automated external defibrillator -- Fischer, now 32, would have died right there.
“I don’t remember anything that happened on the bench that night against Nashville,” Fischer told me a few years ago. “I don’t remember any ambulance ride or doctors working on me.
"I remember all of my life except for a half-hour of it. I am hoping one day it will come back to me.”
“I’ve already died once. Every time I say that I feel like the luckiest guy. I was told by several doctors that I won the lottery -- the lottery of life.”
Fischer was a member of Detroit’s 2002 championship team and learned from two of the best in the game. His defensive partner was Hall of Famer Chris Chelios and his coach was Scotty Bowman.
By 2005, Fisher was well on his way to becoming a premiere NHL defenseman. Drafted by the Wings in the first round (25th overall) in 1998, he had the size (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) and talent to be a Red Wings fixture for many years to come.
Everything was falling into place with Fischer’s playing career until it was snatched away on that November night.
As much as he wanted to continue playing, Fischer knew he would never receive medical clearance to play in the NHL again -- unless modern-day medicine could provide an answer as to what happened and prescribe medication to control his ailment.
So he started a quest to find out why his heart stopped. For a few years, he attended medical symposiums all over the world that focused on the heart.
An extremely bright individual, Fischer became such a fixture at these conferences, it was assumed he was a doctor. He exchanged information and shared his theories, always listening intently, trying to figure out why he couldn’t play hockey anymore.
All along, his "new colleagues" were clueless that Fischer was a former professional hockey player who had nearly died.
Even with the advances in medicine, Fischer has never been given a definitive diagnosis. Doctors know what happened to him, something called ventricular tachycardia, which in layman’s terms is an extremely rapid heartbeat.
But doctors still don't know what triggered the episode -- if it was a previous condition or something more immediate -- and whether it started on the ice or the bench.
With those key questions unresolved, Fischer eventually came to the conclusion that, although he felt fine, his playing career was over.
Red Wings GM Ken Holland quickly offered Fischer a position in the organization, and he’s about to enter his seventh season as Red Wings director of player development. It's a job that takes Fischer across the globe, mentoring Detroit’s prospects on hockey, education and, most important, life.
Last week in Traverse City, Fischer, Grand Rapids head coach Jeff Blashill and Wings assistant GM Ryan Martin were in charge of running the prospects camp. Until this year, the camp was set up by Jim Nill, who recently left the organization to become GM of the Dallas Stars.
There was Fischer looking every bit like a young executive: cell phone in hand, texting constantly, answering questions from Wings officials and rink employees, pumping up the prospect and occasionally doing an interview with the media.
But something has changed. He's now much more guarded with his answers than he was as a player. Back then, he’d talk for hours with an enthusiasm and zest unmatched by most players.
“I really enjoy my job,” Fischer told me last week. “Over the last seven years, what I’ve really appreciated is all the mentors, starting with Ken Holland.
"He’s a special man. There is nobody like him. I’m totally convinced he’s the smartest man in hockey.”
When I tried to press him about his aspirations -- if he hoped to someday follow in Holland's and Nill’s footsteps, be a general manager in the NHL -- Fischer doesn't seem to look that far into the future.
“Let’s just go a day at a time," he said. "I enjoy where I’m at."
Which makes sense. If anybody knows how precious each day of life is, it’s Jiri Fischer.