March 10, 2014, at the American Airlines Center in Dallas was among the rare exceptions.
Less than seven minutes into an NHL game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Dallas Stars, Rich Peverley of the Stars was sitting on the bench waiting to return to the ice when his heart stopped beating. He was in cardiac arrest.
Peverley slumped over and horrified teammates screamed for help. Within seconds, two athletic trainers carried Peverley down a tunnel and into the hallway leading to the dressing room. Players and fans were confused by the commotion, which halted the game. What they didn’t realize was that a far more high-stakes contest was playing out: the race to save Peverley’s life.
Peverley didn’t have a pulse, so rescuers started CPR, giving chest compressions. Then they connected him to an automated external defibrillator (AED) and waited for it to jolt his heart back into rhythm.
When it did, Peverley said he wanted to go back into the game. He had no idea what happened.
“I thought I’d just passed out,” he said. “Then I noticed how scared everybody was.”
They were so shaken that the game was postponed.
On Friday — almost exactly the 2-year anniversary of this near-tragedy — Peverley will be back at the American Airlines Center for another Stars game. This time, he’ll be the guest of honor.
The event is billed as Pevs Protects Night and I’m proud to say that part of the goal is promoting awareness and funds for my organization, the American Heart Association. Most of all, as the name suggests, Peverley is embracing this as an opportunity to protect others who find themselves in a situation as dire as his.
He wants to draw attention to AEDs — what they are and how they work, how easy it is to get trained to use one and how important that knowledge is. He’s also hoping the money raised will help purchase the life-saving machines.
“We need to get more AEDs out into the community,” he said. “I also want to teach people and make them comfortable using it. It may seem easy, until you’re under duress.”
An AED is a lightweight, portable device that delivers an electric shock through the chest to the heart. The shock can stop an irregular heart rhythm and allow a normal rhythm to resume following sudden cardiac arrest.
Sudden cardiac arrest is an abrupt loss of heart function. While often confused with a heart attack, they’re very different. (Think of it this way: A heart attack is like a plumbing problem — there’s a blockage. Cardiac arrest is an electric problem — the power has gone out.)
All things considered, Peverley was lucky. An AED was handy. Trained personnel were nearby. He was only 31 and in great physical condition.
The reason the AED and trained personnel were at the ready stemmed from a similar situation that occurred in 2005. Jiri Fischer of the Detroit Red Wings suffered cardiac arrest on the bench of a game and was revived by chest compressions from a team doctor.
Peverley’s episode came during a roller-coaster period of his life.
In June 2013, he was on the Boston Bruins when they reached the Stanley Cup finals. Having already won a championship two years before, he was hoping for the thrill again. Alas, Boston fell in six games. A few weeks later, he was traded to Dallas.
That September, just before the start of the 2013-14 NHL season, Peverley underwent his routine physical, which included an electrocardiogram, an exam that measures a heart’s electrical activity. This showed an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation. He missed a game early in the season while getting his heartbeat regulated and, after that, everything seemed fine.
“No hiccups,” Peverley said, adding that he took coffee and energy drinks out of his game-day routine, just as his doctors ordered.
In addition to dealing with his heart diagnosis and adjusting to a new team and a new city, Peverley’s dad was dying of cancer. That diagnosis came around the time of the trade. Lyle Peverley died about five months after his son’s cardiac arrest.
“It was a lot to handle,” Rich Peverley said.
At first, Peverley was content to call it a career. As time went on, he thought more about getting back on the ice. However, “it just wasn’t in the cards,” he said. After exploring every option, he retired in September at age 33.
Peverley now works for the Stars in player development. He’s moved back home to Ontario and when I caught up with him recently, he was following players in Sweden.
“Ever since I began playing hockey at a young age, I knew this is what I wanted to do, even after my playing career would be over,” he said. “Who knows where it will lead. I don’t have any set aspirations like I did as a hockey player. I’m just enjoying the role now.”
He’s also enjoying his role as an AED ambassador, from a Pevs Protects night at a recent junior hockey game in his hometown of Guelph, Ontario, to hopefully more like the upcoming event at an NHL game.
“I want people to realize that if an AED is out there,” he said, “we can save lives.”
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