Mormon hockey coach shows toughness in taking on Parkinson's

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."

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