The night hockey didn’t matter

Fans wait nervously to see if Jiri Fischer will be alright after he collapsed during a game at Joe Louis Arena in 2005.

Fans wait nervously to see if Jiri Fischer will be alright after he collapsed during a game at Joe Louis Arena in 2005.

Every precious second became more and more desperate. There was Mike Babcock, a first-year Detroit Red Wings coach, who waved frantically for paramedics. Men in suits flooded the Wings bench. Wide-eyed players stood helplessly.

There was the sullen look on the faces of fans among the chaos. Shock. Horror. Disbelief. Is someone dying? What’s going on? Not a patron knew who was in trouble.

Doctors pumped their arms rapidly atop the chest of Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer, his No. 2 jersey flat on the floor, out of the view of the fans and cameras. Moments earlier, his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame competed against some of the best hockey players on the planet. But when he came off the ice, his heart thumped 300 beats per minute, unbeknownst to his teammates.

“Jiri was slumped over with his head on the boards,” Brendan Shanahan told the Detroit Free Press about that night on Nov. 21, 2005, when the Wings hosted the Nashville Predators. “Sometimes after a long shift, a player might just be gassed or winded. But when Jiri stayed that way, I guess Brett (Lebda) asked him if he was OK, and when he didn’t answer, he pulled him back and he just sort of fell into Brett’s lap.”

Fischer went into convulsions and cardiac arrest. It was an eerie scene as Steve Yzerman and Kris Draper skated a stretcher from the zamboni entrance to the blue-line door of the Detroit bench. Other Red Wings players – helpless as medics performed CPR to revive Fischer – exited the ice via the Nashville bench.

Joe Louis Arena translated from a fun place to an emergency room as Fischer’s life hung in balance. He may been four minutes away from death.

Fischer, who had an abnormal electrocardiogram reading in 2002, was fortunate that team doctor Tony Colucci was three rows away from the bench. He knew immediately Fischer’s heart was the issue, jumped down the railing to the playing level and cut through his shoulder pads and Winged Wheeled jersey.

Fischer underwent ventricular fibrillation, which is the most serious cardiac rhythm disturbance, according to the America Heart Association. Colucci said Fischer “was flat-lined for 24 seconds,” according to Mitchalbom.com. Medics used a defibrillator to shock his heart, which ultimately saved his life.

“What the (TV) camera couldn’t catch (was the) intensity and the feverishness of our doctors and how Jiri was fighting to stay alive,” Shanahan said to Albom. “It was unbelievable. This could have been so much worse.”

Fischer never played again, a sad ending for a 25-year old filled with exuberance and potential. He was the last Red Wing to leave the ice in 2002 when the Wings beat the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 5 to win the Stanley Cup. He actually didn’t play in the game due to a suspension for cross-checking Tommy Westlund in the mouth during Game 4, but he took the ice for the championship celebration and posed with countless pictures as die-hard Wings fans pressed against the glass in the lower bowl.

They loved the kid who was guided by the leadership of elder statesman Chris Chelios, almost like a father-son combination on the ice. Chelios instructed, Fischer listened. Chelios yelled, Fischer never complained.

“I like teaching with a kid like Fish,” a 40-year old Chelios told Mitch Albom in 2002. “He’s quiet, he’s humble.

“He’s exactly what a kid should be.”

Fischer likely would have made the Czech Republic Olympic team for the 2006 Winter Games. The 25th overall pick of the 1998 NHL draft could very well be playing today in Detroit (depending upon free agency) as a veteran 33-year old defenseman, still with many good years ahead of him.

Three weeks after the near-tragic accident, Fischer sniffled and sobbed at a press conference in Joe Louis Arena. He didn’t want a precious career ripe with potential to be taken away.

But it had to end, considering he suffered two more episodes in the next 15 days after the collapse. He wore a defibrillator vest that indicated ventricle fibrillation was the issue, both times. It would be impossible for a franchise to medically insure a player with his history.

The life-saving experience began a quest for Fischer, who traveled across the country to medical symposiums. He tried to discover the root cause for his cardiac arrest that 2005 night at Joe Louis Arena. He’s visited experts, shared theories, and despite advances in technology, he still hasn’t found a concrete answer as of this past summer.

And that’s OK. Life is good for Fischer, who’s in his seventh year as the Red Wings director of player development and is thankful for every breath.

“I died,” Fischer told ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside in 2006. “I died and I was brought back.”

Comments

comments

About Bruce Mason

Bruce Mason's work has appeared on blogs such as allpuck.com and obnoxiousfan.com. A Detroit native, he worked part-time at the Detroit News in 2006-07, freelanced for Crain's Detroit Business, and is now a five-time award winning writer at a daily paper in Idaho.