FOXBOROUGH — It was a good day for Steve Heinze, a really good day among old pals on the ice, a day when the former Bruin played hockey again for the first time in forever.
“Besides being around my kids,’’ said Heinze, whose NHL career ended abruptly and painfully some 13 years ago, “the rink is the happiest place I know. It’s what I love. So, yeah, this is cool. This is super cool.’’
Heinze, 45, Thursday played on the grandest hockey stage ever assembled in New England, reclaiming his Black-and-Gold threads for a Bruins Alumni squad that took on a collection of venerable old Canadiens at Gillette Stadium in the run-up to Friday’s ballyhooed NHL Winter Classic.
The Bruins won the Alumni Game, 5-4, in a shootout. A Bruin for eight-plus seasons (1992-2000), Heinze grew up in North Andover, played at Boston College, and turned pro with Boston after playing for Team USA in the ’92 Olympics. He was already a winner Thursday, just being on skates one more time.
To get on the ice at Gillette, Heinze first had to rummage around his garage in Santa Barbara, where he lives these days with his wife and four kids, and dig out a pair of rusty skates.
“In fact,’’ he said, “when I saw Keith Robinson [Bruins equipment manager], I said, ‘Keith, you think you could sharpen these? I think you were the last one to switch the blades out of ‘em, I don’t know, I guess maybe 15-16 years ago, right?’’’
Until the Alumni Game, hockey stood all but silent for Heinze for most of those years, since midway through the 2002-’03 NHL season, when he played his last game for the LA Kings. His career ended with a check, delivered by hard-hitting Jody Shelley of the Columbus Blue Jackets, one that left Heinze with a second concussion in a span of only some 6-8 weeks.
“I played the rest of the game,’’ recalled Heinze, realizing later that he had no business playing so soon after the previous concussion. “But as soon as I got hit that night, I knew, ‘Oh, that’s not good.’’’
It grew worse that night, and quickly. On the flight home to LA from Columbus, Heinze pulled out papers to begin preparing his taxes. It was too much. His brain addled from the Shelley blast, he couldn’t concentrate.
“I literally broke into tears,’’ he said. “It was, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t’ . . . you know, just panic attack kind of stuff. I was scared. I couldn’t think. I didn’t know what was going on.’’
And that was it, career finished. Within roughly a year, his contract bought out by the Kings in June 2003, Heinze was the on the phone to his agent, Steve Mountain, to admit his playing days were a thing of the past. In those early months, recalled Heinze, he could barely get off the coach. He would awake in the morning, brew a pot of coffee, then soon head back to bed.
“From what I read later on,’’ he said, “I learned that successive concussions, like I had, are the worst you can have. If you get one on top of already having one, those are the ones that seem to stick.’’
For Heinze, it stuck for nearly a decade. The first 3-4 years were the worst, he recalled, his energy and enthusiasm for most things drained. He would begin to feel slightly better, then regress, the headaches and lethargy, typical symptoms of concussion, continuing to creep back for no apparent reason.
“I’d go to take a few hard steps, and I’d have to go lay down,’’ he said. “That whole time, those first 3-4 years, I wouldn’t say it was awful, but I would spend all my time in bed, on the couch, trying to get going. I just couldn’t.
“It was just always there. Anytime I did something. Then after a while, it would be, ‘Wow, I felt pretty good there for three months!’ Then something would just happen and I’d talk to my wife, ‘What did I do? What the hell did I do? Why do I feel this way again?’ And then it would be a couple of weeks, or a month, and then I’d feel good again. Then those good stretches linked in and linked in and linked in . . . and now it’s been a year or two that I’ve kinda felt pretty good.’’
So good, Heinze is delighted to say, that he now gets out on the ice once a week for light games of shinny with pals, ages 30-50, on a rink in Santa Barbara. He is also coaching the Santa Barbara Royals, the area’s first high school team, part of a new eight-team league sponsored, in part, by the LA Kings.
His wife Lori (nee Powers, originally from North Brookfield), is a physician’s assistant, and their four kids, ages 8-14, all keep busy with a vast array of sports, though none of them is a hockey player.
“I always said I wouldn’t push them into hockey,’’ he said. “You see parents living through their kids all the time . . . uh-uh. We push the books harder than we push athletics.’’
Of late, Heinze has entered into a business venture as part owner and manager of three DIOJI K-9 Resort & Athletic Clubs (in his words: luxury doggy daycare), two located in Santa Barbara and one in nearby Agoura Hills. He and his partner, one of his once-a-week skating buddies, have plans to open more.
Amid his long road to recovery, Heinze also took the bold step to contact the Brain Donation Registry and commit his brain to science. Upon his death, doctors and clinicians at Boston University’s Center for CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) will autopsy his brain and determine whether his concussions possibly trigged the dementia-like disease found in scores of ex-athletes, including former NHLers Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, Rick Martin, as well as ex-Bruins Steve Montador and Reggie Fleming.
He feels fine as of today, said Heinze, but he also wonders . . . are his occasional lapses in memory related to his concussions, or are they standard laments of a man who will celebrate his 46th birthday on Jan. 30?
“It’s not like I am inundated [with symptoms] like I was before,’’ he said. “So now I think, ‘Nah, it’s just old age. I hope . . . I hope . . . inside my brain it’s not the oncoming train that some of these other guys you hear about, the guys that had encephalitis, with the plaque and all that stuff. I have no idea. I hope that’s not the case for me.
“At this point in my life, I feel all good, so to speak, but it took a long time to get here. And you know, at first I didn’t miss hockey, because I couldn’t play. Then I kinda felt all right, started to skate once a week, and realized, ‘Wow, I miss this hockey stuff.’ I miss it more now that I did a year or two after.’’
His hope, said Heinze, is that the study of his brain will help someone. Perhaps, as the science evolves, the whole world of concussions will be better understood, that brain disease from concussive and subconcussive hits can be minimized or avoided. That it won’t take 4, 6, 8, or 10 years to heal fully, to live life without pain and worry.
“So, yeah, I put myself on the list [Brain Donation Registry],’’ he said. “If you can learn something from it . . . hey, if I’m dead I won’t need it anymore . . . they can have it.’’
Heinze said he was asked, but he chose not to join the ever-growing list of ex-NHLers suing the league over concussion-related issues.
“I feel better,’’ he said. “For me, I don’t believe there is a smoking gun there. I don’t think anyone’s hiding anything from me — and I don’t blame anyone for what happened to me.’’
So for a couple of hours, back on a sheet of New England ice, Heinze skated again. His stride was smooth, confident, his smile ever-present. He played right wing, with PJ Axelsson on the left and Ken Linseman as center.
“It was awesome, but it seemed fast out there,’’ he said, “But, I mean, God, to be out there with [Rick] Middleton, [Terry] O’Reilly . . . and Ray [Bourque], he’s still flying. It was just tremendous. I just wish I scored.’’
Point comes in many forms. Even without a goal, it was a good day for Steve Heinze.Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.