In personal fight with Parkinson’s, Predators coach battles little things

Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 10:51pm

Brent Peterson refuses to shed any tears for himself.

Diagnosed more than six years ago with Parkinson’s disease, the Nashville Predators’ associate head coach long ago moved through various stages of coping to acceptance. Since, he has become an advocate for awareness and an invaluable source of support for those similarly afflicted as well as those affected in other ways.

The tears come in relation to things other than his health. A lot of things.

“Maybe it’s just old age or maybe it’s the medication, but I’m a wimp now, I just cry at everything,” he said. “I cry at stupid movies. I can’t even get up and speak because I cry all the time. I’m just like an emotional wreck.

“I used to never cry at anything. I was a tough, old hockey player but now I …think everything’s a reason to cry. I’m getting more emotional as we go along every day.”

The fact that it is external, not internal factors that lead to the waterworks is an important distinction.

As he has come to grips with his illness and educated himself on various aspects of it, Peterson has determined that attitude is critical in dealing with the disease daily. He has learned that it is imperative to get out of bed each day with a purpose and not a ‘poor me’ mindset.

Thus, he recently created the Peterson Foundation for Parkinsons, a charitable group dedicated to benefiting local organizations involved in both research and support (i.e. swimming therapy or yoga) for those with the disease.

The first major fundraising events occurred last week when Peterson hosted his third annual golf tournament. Proceeds from the previous two went directly to the American Parkinson Disease Association and were distributed nationally.

This year, with the support of Peterson’s foundation, a fundraising dinner tied to the golf outing was created. Both events were sold out. Plans also have been hatched to add a half-marathon and a bike ride as additional annual fundraisers.

“Some people wear you out, coming at you all the time with charity stuff, but I don’t feel bad about asking for anything,” Peterson said. “I’ve had unbelievable support. It’s been overwhelming.

“We’ve raised some good money over the last three years. …(Now) we can keep some money in the area.”

No trouble on the ice

The progression of Peterson’s illness has been slow compared to some, and the coming season, which commences this week with the start of training camp, promises occasional relief — albeit temporary — from the symptoms.

He jokes that the half-hour nap he typically takes on game day offers immeasurable benefits.

In seriousness, though, he looks forward to spending time on the ice virtually daily for the next seven months or more. It’s there that he even enjoys a little freedom from the weight of the situation on his mind.

“On the ice, for some reason, I have no trouble at all,” he said. “I can pass and shoot and do everything just fine. It’s just sort of natural. There’s no real thinking about anything out there. (Off the ice) there are times when I have to think just to make my hand move a certain way.

“(Also) when I’m on the bench during a game I’m so focused I don’t even think about it.”

In Peterson’s case, the most pronounced affect of Parkinson’s is rigidity in his right hand. It comes and goes in seemingly random fashion rather than as a result of stress, fatigue or any other outside influences.

Thus far, he has not experienced tremors, a significant loss of balance or any of the more serious manifestations of the disease. Doctors have told him that based on the pace at which the disease has developed and the current strength of his medications he need not expect significant alterations to his daily life for at least another five or 10 years.

“Mine has progressed slowly,” he said. “Some guys I know, in five years they’ve gone right into a wheelchair and have to be cared for all the time. I have progressed a little bit, but I haven’t gotten close to that point.”

Still, there are daily reminders that the disease exists within him and exacts a physical toll.

“It takes me a little longer to shower and get ready in the morning,” he said. “It takes me forever to put my belt on and to tuck my shirt in, but that’s just an inconvenience, it’s not a bad thing.

“But the little things that go with it never go away, so that gets frustrating. Just little things.”

Dream deferred?

Perhaps the most significant reality that confronted him after he was diagnosed was the realization that he likely will not be a head coach in the National Hockey League.

Peterson won one Memorial Cup, the championship of North American junior hockey, when he was coach in Portland. It also was there that he helped develop future stars such as Marian Hossa, Adam Deadmarsh and Brenden Morrow.

He had aspirations of leading an NHL team from the time he joined the Predators shortly before their inaugural season. Soon after he was diagnosed, though, he understood that teams likely would not be willing to invest their fortunes — literally and figuratively — in someone with an uncertain medical future.

“I’m over it, but back when I was wanting to do it, I was a little bitter that this guy or that guy who I thought I was a better coach than got a (head coaching) job,” Peterson said. “Now that I’m past that, I’m focused on doing the job as an assistant coach for the Predators and using the foundation to raise awareness for Parkinson’s research.

“Those are my two goals.”