Mormon hockey coach shows toughness in taking on Parkinson's

By Aaron Shill

Mormon Times

Published: Monday, April 18 2011 4:30 a.m. MDT

Brent Peterson doesn't feel sorry for himself.

The rugged ex-hockey player has made a living out of being tough, grinding out 11 seasons as a player in the National Hockey League and surviving 13 years at the same job in the less-than-stable coaching profession.

He's even tough on the golf course, where he once played a round with three broken ribs.

But when Parkinson's disease delivered a blindside hit, Peterson was staggered.

He kept the diagnosis secret for an entire year. He started asking, "Why me?" He even felt a little sorry for himself.

That's when a friend and former teammate, hockey hall-of-famer Cam Neeley, got him on the phone with someone who could toughen this tough guy up — actor Michael J. Fox.

"Michael sort of straightened me out and said ... 'You can't cry about what you have,'" Peterson recalled. "'Just go and do something about it.'"

So he did. Peterson, the associate head coach of the Nashville Predators and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, started a charitable foundation to help pick up others the way Fox picked him up. Among those Peterson has inspired since then is former NBA player Brian Grant, who also has Parkinson's.

But the disease keeps delivering hits. Parkinson's has affected Peterson's balance to the point where he has trouble staying on the ice. So after 13 seasons with the Predators, he's reluctantly walking away from coaching.

"It's just catching up, so it's time to move on," Peterson said. "I don't want to, but that's the way it's been. Everyone has adversity, and mine's been with Parkinson's. It's going to push me out of coaching, but there's nothing I can do about it."

He's not feeling sorry for himself.

Taking on Parkinson's

Parkinson's disease has its visible grip on some high-profile individuals, from Fox to former boxer Muhammad Ali, arguably the world's most famous athlete.

There is no cure for Parkinson's, which causes body tremor, rigidity, slowed movement and impaired balance, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Medication can provide significant relief, but as symptoms get progressively worse, patients have trouble walking, talking and completing simple tasks.

For Peterson, a Calgary, Alberta, native who's always been an athlete and competitor, things like shaving and buttoning up a shirt are now challenges.

"It sort of gnaws at you every day," Peterson said. "Mentally it just beats you up."

In 2004, Peterson went to the doctor when he noticed his hand wouldn't swing when he walked. He didn't want to believe the diagnosis.

"It was pretty devastating," he said. "I really felt sorry for myself."

At the time, he was interviewing for head coaching jobs around the league. Peterson and his family decided to keep the diagnosis secret, which they did for a year.

He never did get a head coaching job, but Peterson has been able to stay on the ice and be part of a long-tenured coaching staff. The Predators organization has been "fantastic," Peterson says. And although the team accommodates his limitations, "we don't have any excuses," he said.

Peterson hopes to stay involved with the Predators in some capacity after the season. But with Nashville involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Peterson — who says "there's nothing better than playing, and the next best thing is coaching" — is facing his final games on the bench.

"It's a little hard because I love coaching," he said. "I'm too young to pack it in. I've just got to accept it and move on."

Along with hockey, family and faith have provided strength. Peterson, who is married with three children and until recently served on his stake's high council, says family support and "eternal possibilities" keep his challenges from overwhelming him.

"It certainly would be a lot harder to take," he said. "Someday I know I will be back with my family and be whole."

A tough, good guy

Barry Trotz knew he wasn't just getting a good coach, but a good guy.

Charged with leading the expansion club in Nashville, Trotz was looking for an assistant in 1998 and targeted the head coach of the Portland Winter Hawks, a junior hockey club that was playing its way to a Memorial Cup championship. He asked Peterson to fly out for an interview as soon as he could.

Once the season was over, Peterson got on a plane — but not before having back surgery and taking only two days to recover.

"I could tell right away that Brent was not only a good hockey guy, but was a terrific person," said Trotz, who along with Peterson has coached the Predators for 13 years. "He was just a genuine guy. He would just give me his best every day."

The team was "stunned" when Peterson finally revealed he had Parkinson's, Trotz says. The coach, not wanting his assistant to feel sorry for himself, told Peterson, "Just because you have Parkinson's, don't think that I'm going to let you off the hook."

Peterson just smiled and told Trotz that was a nice thing to say.

Those who know "Petey," as he is called in hockey circles, say he is defined by toughness, competitiveness and discipline. John Overmyer, a close friend and fellow Latter-day Saint, was playing golf with Peterson once when he noticed him breathing hard. When Overmyer asked what was wrong, Peterson said he was dealing with three broken ribs.

He's also been tough in the locker room. As rare as Mormons are in other professional sports, they're even more so in hockey. Throughout his playing and coaching career, Peterson has been questioned — and teased — about his faith, whether it's explaining why he doesn't drink or, more recently, about the BYU Honor Code. ("Hey, rules are rules," he tells them.)

"He's been a fabulous example in the way he lived and the toughness he showed, not only now but when he was playing," said Lynn Ellsworth, also a close friend and fellow Mormon. "His weaknesses are certainly nothing I know about."

Everyone knows Peterson is LDS, Overmyer says, and that's brought him respect. Throughout his career, teams have relied on Peterson to be an example for players, and he's made a difference in many lives.

"There's no doubt that Brent's a man's man, but he's probably one of the most Christlike people I've known," Overmyer said. "He's the kind of person that everyone likes. You can't help but like him."

Lifting others

When Trotz found out that a member of his church had been diagnosed with Parkinson's and wasn't doing so well, an introduction seemed in order.

He arranged for the man and his wife, who attended the same Christian congregation as the Predators coach, to meet Peterson following an afternoon hockey game.

They sat in the arena and chatted like they'd known each other for 25 years, Trotz says. Peterson was honest with the man, but said that when he cuts himself shaving or can't get to the top button on his shirt, all he can do is laugh.

The talk was inspiring, especially for the man's wife.

"It was so powerful for her to see someone who has Parkinson's who had such a positive attitude," Trotz said.

Ever since Fox told him to stop feeling sorry for himself and do something, Peterson has been lifting others affected by Parkinson's. He formed a foundation called Peterson for Parkinson's that raises money for research, primarily through an annual celebrity golf tournament.

His foundation has a dedicated supporter in Grant, a 12-year NBA player who, at age 37, announced that he had early-onset Parkinson's disease.

Peterson sought out the former Trail Blazer, who spent most of his career in Portland, and the two had lunch together. Peterson says Grant was at a familiar stage — the one where a patient asks, "Why me?"

"I basically gave him some tough love," Peterson said. "I basically did what Michael did for me."

The meeting, which was chronicled by a Portland Tribune columnist, served as a catalyst for Grant to start his own foundation. Grant called Peterson a "warrior" and said the hockey coach "reminded me of other people with other diseases who aren't as fortunate as we are, to be able to survive what we're going through."

"Brent and I share a special bond, not only because of the Parkinson's, but also because of our lives in sports and our connection with Portland," Grant told the Deseret News through his publicist. "We know we're in this thing together and it's good to have friends like Brent who understand the ups and downs. It’s an honor to know him and support his foundation’s efforts to fight Parkinson’s, and I truly appreciate his support of mine."

When it comes to fighting Parkinson's, Peterson has been doing a lot of giving. But he rarely asks for help for himself, one of his close friends says.

Overmyer knows, however, that as his disease progresses, Peterson will find there are plenty of people who want to lift him the way he's lifted others.

"Everybody who knows Brent wants to be his friend," Overmyer said. "And because of that they would do anything for him. … He's going to find that he's blessed by his friends."

Aaron Shill is the editor of Features and Mormon Times at the Deseret News.

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