With a minute to play, and the Nashville Predators joyously assured of advancing to the Stanley Cup final, Brent Peterson turned off his microphone and sobbed.
It was all too much to take in – his 13 seasons as the team's associate coach, the diagnosis, the surgery and now his time as colour commentator on the Predators' radio broadcasts.
All of that triggered what neurologists call the Pseudobulbar affect, the uncontrollable stirrings that can come with Parkinson's disease. Days later, even talking about the Predators' six-game ousting of the Anaheim Ducks is a difficult exercise. He stops and chokes back the words until they're log-jammed in his throat.
"Don't cry," says his wife, Tami.
"I finally realized we were going to make it there," her husband says of the Predators' first trip to a Stanley Cup final and a date with the Pittsburgh Penguins. "[Radio play-by-play man] Pete Weber watched me cry, then we went downstairs for our postgame show and it was really fun to [think] of [Predators' former head coach] Barry Trotz and all those people who worked so hard … They got there. They made it."
The Predators are, without a doubt, the biggest surprise of this NHL postseason, and that makes the 59-year-old, Calgary-born Peterson the emotional focal point. His story has been one of remarkable grace under duress.
A hard-working player (620 NHL games over 11 seasons with Detroit, Buffalo, Vancouver and Hartford), a diligent and respected assistant coach, Peterson has been with the Predators since Day 1 and Game 1 – as an assistant coach when the team made its 1998 NHL debut at the Bridgestone Arena, a 1-0 loss to the Florida Panthers.
He was also there in 2001-02 when the Predators recorded their 100th win in near-record time for a 1990s expansion team. He was there in 2003-04 when Nashville reached the playoffs for the first time, only to lose in six games to the Detroit Red Wings. He was there in 2010-11 when the team won its first playoff series. He was there in 2011-12 when, in the second round of the playoffs against the Phoenix Coyotes, the Predators suspended Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for a game for breaking curfew.
He has seen and done most everything with the Predators, including his comeback from the throes of a brain disorder that he hid from the team for 10 months until he told general manager David Poile, whose father Bud Poile had died of complications from Parkinson's. From there, Peterson told Trotz, assistant coach Peter Horachek and the players.
Then slowly but surely, like a constrictor coiling itself around its prey, Parkinson's took hold of Peterson and there was no letting go. His hands shook; he moved in a rigid shuffle, his level of exhaustion was beyond anything he had ever experienced before.
He became a prime candidate for deep-brain stimulation (DBS), a procedure whereby a neurosurgeon removes the top of a patient's skull and inserts eight electrodes deep into the brain and stimulates them with a battery-powered neuro-transmitter. Dubbed the "brain pacemaker," it sends electrical pulses to areas in the brain that control movement. Peterson was awake through the entire procedure. When it was done, he played catch in the operating room with his neurosurgeon. (Parts of the operation were recorded and can be seen on YouTube.)
Peterson had retired from coaching to become a hockey adviser after falling on the ice during a team practice. After his DBS, he felt good enough to work on the Predators' radio broadcasts. But the constant travel and demands have been a burden on him. He sat out the California games against Anaheim this spring to rest up for what he hoped could happen.
"In the first series against Chicago we were terrific. Everyone bought in defensively for that series, and when we won four straight we knew we had a chance to win something," Peterson says.
"[Goalie] Pekka Rinne was good and then Ryan Johansen got hot. We beat St. Louis. And then Anaheim, that series was a war. I didn't like the hockey in it. [Ryan] Kesler, [Corey] Perry and those guys, they didn't care if they played hockey; they just wanted to hurt somebody. But we got through it, and every game was built up to be bigger and bigger. It went way past what I thought it would be."
After the game, Peterson went home and tried to sleep. He couldn't, not for long, anyway. He woke up at 5 a.m. having rested on the couch for a few hours. It's a part of the disease and proof not all his Parkinson's symptoms have been corrected.
"I'll be quite honest, when I first heard Brent had Parkinson's I was mad," says brother Greg Peterson, a former defensive back for the Calgary Stampeders who is also a radio analyst on CFL broadcasts. "I wanted to know, 'Why did it have to be him?' He's my older brother. I looked up to him when we were kids.
"I know he doesn't feel this way," Peterson adds, "but I'm quite sure he got it from hockey. He had a lot of concussions."
Brent had five concussions as a player along with a medical-chart list of broken bones and surgeries from his shoulders to his knees. Not one to point an accusatory finger at the game, Peterson has chosen to concentrate on raising money for Parkinson's research and relief efforts for those in need. He and the Predators have contributed more than $700,000 (U.S.) over the years. For that, he has become a beloved figure, one with the opportunity to do what he couldn't have imagined as his playing career ended and his coaching career began – be a part of a Stanley Cup final.
All in all, it has been enough to bring him to tears.
"A guy scores a touchdown and I can't watch the football game or I'll start crying," he says. But before he sounds like someone with a lot to complain about, he wants it known, "One thing about it is: you're still alive and kicking. You're still doing the things you want to do. That's what really matters."