Ian Laperriere quietly roamed the hallways of the Flyers Skate Zone during last week’s Developmental Camp with a skewed smile and some pep in his step.
He had just stepped off the ice after running the annual Flyers rookie camp for the second year in a row in Voorhees, New Jersey.
The newly appointed Director of Player Development, with his signature closely-cropped hair, was in demand. First, by a few young players seeking a quick word of advice from the recently retired 16-year National Hockey League pro, and second, by the small group of reporters huddled up waiting for his valuable words.
He was upbeat and spoke with excitement.
But just weeks earlier, standing alone outside a Flyers executive suite inside of CONSOL Energy Center during the NHL Draft, he took a much more somber tone.
“I couldn’t see out of my eye; that was the panic. It looked that way [on video] because it was panic.”
Laperriere was brutally honest.
Daunt and downcast.
“For a guy that didn’t wear a shield, that was always my biggest fear of losing an eye. My first thought was, ‘Again? Are you f****** kidding me?’ I blocked shots like that my entire career, over 1,000 times.”
“When I talked to Jimmy [Jim McCrossin, Flyers Athletic Trainer/Strength and Conditioning coach] on the ice, I was worried if my eyeball was there. It took 5-10 minutes for my vision to come back.”
“It was the scariest thing in my career.”
It was Thursday, April 22, 2010, with 16:09 left in the third period of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between New Jersey and Philadelphia. Devils defenseman Paul Martin unleashed a slap shot from the point that struck Flyers forward Ian Laperriere in the eye.
An on-ice scene not for the faint of heart followed.
The force of the puck caused severe nerve damage in Laperriere’s right eye, and the impact shattered his orbital bone. The shot also caused a bruise and bleeding in the front of his brain.
“The CAT scan showed my skull wasn’t broken but there was bruising,” Laperriere said. “I’m glad it did. If I would have gone back and got hit, I would have died on the ice.”
82 regular season games plus 13 playoff games is all that Ian Laperriere played for the Philadelphia Flyers, but it’s what he did in those games that formed a never-ending bond between him and the city.
“It was a short time. That was one of my only regrets, it was so short. Wish I could have played here in my mid-twenties, more of a chance to show what I could have done,” he added.
95 total games for the Orange-and-Black, three goals, 21 points, and 168 penalty minutes comprised Laperriere’s playing career in Philadelphia. But his commitment to the organization and to his teammates went far beyond those 95 games.
After more than 1,080 NHL games, his career officially came to a close in mid-June. He will be known as one of the toughest players to ever play the game.
One month after the April 22 incident, Laperriere made his return to the Flyers lineup for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens. The brain bruise cleared and Laperriere played the next seven playoff games.
“I came back and wasn’t all right, but you play all your life to win a Stanley Cup, and we were so close, I wanted to be a part of it,” Laperriere said.
“Was it too early for me to come back? Who knows? I don’t think any doctor could tell me that. We will never know because I did come back, but I don’t regret anything. That’s what made me who I am as a person and a player. I don’t regret that.”
“I just wish we would have won — it would have been a nicer story.”
The puck to the face from Martin wasn’t the first time that year he experienced a scary on-ice situation.
Earlier in the season, during a regular season game against the Buffalo Sabres on November 27, Laperriere dropped to his knees to block a Jason Pominville point shot. The puck exploded off Pominville’s blade, striking Laperriere directly in the mouth.
The puck shattered bones in his mouth, broke eight teeth, and caused him to receive 100 stitches. He returned to game action one period later.
“It was more painful, but I wanted to make sure to show the young guys on the team that if you’re okay you should go back,” Laperriere said. “They took the second period to stitch me up, but in the third I was back on the ice. I was brought in to show the rope to the young guys and I had to chance to go back and show them something, so I did.”
After sitting out the period for stitches, Laperriere returned, much to the surprise of teammates and then-coach John Stevens.
“I had major pain in the face and swelling, but other than that I was fine,” Laperriere said. “I remember James van Riemsdyk was sitting next to me, and Claude Giroux, along with all the young guys were there. And that was why they brought me here; to be an example to the youngsters.”
“I remember Stevens looking at me and saying, ‘You sure you’re okay?’ Then [he] sent me out there. I didn’t miss a shift or game after that [until the Devils game].”
His dedication and work ethic were instilled in Laperriere from his childhood. He grew up idolizing his parents, who sacrificed much to help him become a successful NHL player. His well-known warrior mentality likely came from his father, who passed away from cancer. His father’s battle with cancer served as inspiration to Laperriere as he carved out a successful NHL career.
A career that came to an end too soon.
As the 2009-10 season came to an unfortunate close for Laperriere and the Flyers, he could tell something wasn’t right during the offseason.
“It was a bad summer, but you’re in denial [that your career may be over]. I’ve had seasons where I’ve finished with headaches, but summer would take care of it. This one was different. I couldn’t shake it off.”
“I tried to come back to camp, and played a preseason game, and I felt my head was going to explode. I went to see [Paul Holmgren] and [Jim McCrossin], and I told them I couldn’t keep going.”
Laperriere was faced with a situation no professional athlete ever wants to face: a premature end to his career.
Laperriere, who still suffers blurry vision from the Martin slap shot, understands the risks of the ultra-physical and fast game, and noted he still believes it should be a player’s decision whether or not to wear a shield.
“I knew consequences. Unfortunately I’m suffering it. Concussions aren’t going anywhere. The game’s too fast, the guys are too strong, and it’s a contact sport.”
“There are ways to reduce them, but there isn’t a way to completely erase them,” he said.
Moving forward, Laperriere will forever be linked to the organization and fans who fell in love with his style of play, and he’s right where he wants to be.
He was named Director of Player Development on June 29.
“The Flyers keep me busy with the young guys. Hockey is the only thing I know, and only thing I want to do.”
“It’s a job that suits me well,” Laperriere added. “It’s one of those jobs that you need a relationship with the young guys, and you need to have some experience, and I think I have both. I’ve always been able to relate well with anybody, from 18-year-old kids to 40-year-old veterans. It’s always been one of my strengths, so I’m going to use that with these young guys. I’ll do the best I can to help all our prospects be successful. It’s a challenge for me, and I’m looking forward to it.”
The 38-year-old has remained active within the Flyers organization working with the club’s prospects and doing television analysis on Comcast SportsNet. Following the 2010-11 season, Laperriere won the NHL’s Bill Masterton Trophy for his perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.
Entering the 2012 season, more than two years removed from the untimely end to a career, his perseverance, take-all-comers attitude, and heart is still missed inside the walls of the Wells Fargo Center.
“I was an honest player and did everything for my team, and took pride in that,” Laperriere said. “Philly was more of my crowd. Hard-working people watching hard-working hockey. I wish I could have played more than one year, that’s for sure.”
As the Flyers rookies and prospects skated up and down the ice crunching each other with body checks, the players hung on every word from the man behind the bench with the signature closely-cropped hair.
He was upbeat and spoke with excitement.
Encouraged and satisfied.
“I don’t regret anything. Hockey has given me everything I have.”