The Rebirth of Patrick Eaves

Everyone knows dogs are your best friend. They come running to the door when you get home, get excited when you throw their favorite toy, and lick your tears when you are sad. For the Dallas Stars’ Patrick Eaves his Newfoundland, Reuben, was there for him when he needed him the most.

“My dog caught me a lot of times,” remembers Eaves. “He would stay next to me. He would know I’d be off-balance and come over and kind of be there so I could hold on to him. So that was nice, I didn’t fall as much as I probably would have.”

In 2016-17, Eaves is having his best season in over 10 years. At the All-Star break, the 32-year-old is tied with Tyler Seguin for the team lead in goals with 18, leads all Stars’ players with 10 power play markers and has played in 49 of the team’s first 50 games. But just a short five years ago, there was a time when Eaves thought that he would never play again.

Nov. 26, 2011. Joe Louis Arena. Third Period.

Eaves was a member of the Detroit Red Wings and on the penalty kill when Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi fired a one-timer that hit Eaves, who was kneeling at the time, square on the side of his face. “Fortunately I didn’t eat it,” recalled Eaves. “But it got me through my ear hole on my helmet, broke my jaw in a bunch of places — kinda just blew up my ear up a little bit and dislocated everything so I was a mess for a while.”

Eaves was carted off the ice on a stretcher and went to the hospital, as fans, teammates, and the Predators looked on. He had surgery on the jaw that Monday and the team listed him as out for six to eight weeks — a time estimate that was way off.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a concussion is a “traumatic brain injury—or TBI—caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth.” Symptoms can vary from personal to person but can include headaches, nausea, and balance problems.

For Eaves, he went from playing under the bright lights of Joe Louis Arena to spending his days and nights in a dark room.

“I think the stuff you could see, the physical part of it was the easiest part,” said Eaves when discussing the damage to his jaw and right ear. “But it was the concussion that was the lasting injury from it.

“I had a lot of issues with being in the light and being around any sound or anything. I wasn’t sleeping so that was the worst part of the whole thing. I looked like a zombie … sleep wasn’t happening, and I was very uncomfortable just with my balance and my migraines.”

The Road to Recovery Was a Long and Winding

While there are people who recover in days or a few weeks, Eaves fell into the group where recovery can take months and or even years, and is then termed post-concussion syndrome. But once his broken jaw healed, and finally knowing his symptoms were not related to it, he connected with Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher of the Sports Neurology Clinic in Michigan. Through his guidance, he began to take the steps to healing his brain, beginning with vestibular and vision therapy.

“I’d say [vision therapy] was the biggest thing,” explained Eaves. “Just retraining my eyes so my body wasn’t spinning all the time. That took a while actually. But I was able to use ping-pong — which is something I love — to help train my eyes again. But getting out on the ice, sometimes you’d just fall right over and you’re — what’s going on?”

Getting back on the ice took time. Hockey is already a complicated sport — hands, eyes, feet, everything, has to move in perfect coordination. These all need to have their timing down while having to focus on a small black puck, and balancing on thin skate blades. Imagine having to do all that, at an NHL level, after having your entire balance system broken.

On Jan. 21, 2013, 400 days after he left the ice on that stretcher, Eaves returned to the Red Wings bench.

“I was nervous,” said Eaves. “I had a family … and I didn’t want it to have any lasting effects. I have the rest of my life to live, and I want to be a father and a husband, and that’s more important than hockey. So I wanted to make sure I was going to be ok before I came back.”

In 2015, Eaves suffered another concussion, this time as a member of the Stars. Although he was knocked unconscious after the puck “hit a nerve in my face and kind of shut the lights off,” he knew once he woke up that it was not as damaging a blow as the one he suffered in 2011. This time he only missed seven games.

“Everyone is different. Every body is different. Every hit is different.”

One one of the issues the medical field is facing in regards to concussion diagnosis and recovery is that each one is different. There is no set timetable. There is no game plan to follow. The process can be slow and arduous.

“Everyone kind of has to go through their own journey,” said Eaves who acknowledged that concussions are often coined an “invisible disease” due to their lack of outward physical traits. “But I think there’s a lot of emotional things that go on that I think you’d be unaware of unless you went through it — depression, anxiety and you just get agitated easy. There’s a lot of internal stuff like that you have to go through and not be afraid to lean on your friends and family.” Eaves credits his then-pregnant wife, young child, family, and of course Rueben, for getting him through it all.

“I just think it’s great that [concussions are] part of the conversation because I think the more awareness we bring to it, that it is an issue, the stronger we can make the protocol to protect guys. We can only do this [job] so long, and we’ve got our lives to live after this, so I think it’s more important than anything.”

Right now, Eaves is riding a wave of good fortune. While he does have a foot injury that has forced him to miss team practices and morning skates, he is otherwise healthy and producing. Although he attests his production this season to “getting a lot of good opportunity the year,” he’s just one point shy of tying his career best set back in his sophomore season with the Senators.

Some athletes who suffer concussions with symptoms that don’t clear up in a few days are never the same. Those that return to the ice may shy away from the action, some appear to have lost a step and others just don’t play as they once did. It may have taken some time, but it seems that Eaves is the opposite and his career has been reborn.