Nearly 15 years ago, Erik Cole lay in a Pittsburgh hospital bed with two fractures in his vertebra, wondering about his future.
Brooks Orpik had crushed him with an illegal check from behind in a game on March 4, 2006, an act for which the Penguins’ punishing defenseman was suspended three games. One fracture came from the top of Cole’s vertebra. The other came up from the bottom, turning into the spinal canal. Because of the nature of the injury and the ferocity of the impact, logically the bone should have entered that canal.
“If it had, then I would probably be a paraplegic,” Cole said at the time.
It did not. Instead, Cole returned to the ice for the Carolina Hurricanes in Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Final that year, giving his team an emotional lift as the Canes won their only championship. He would play nine more seasons in the NHL, but his health was never the same; Cole cited his broken neck as a factor when he shut down his 2014-15 NHL season with the Detroit Red Wings as a result of a bruised spinal cord injury
Again, he worried about his future, to the point of hanging on to the past. Cole wasn’t ready to retire at age 36. “I pouted a bit. I couldn’t find a doctor that was willing to clear me to play,” he told ESPN recently.
In summer 2015, Cole went to Switzerland for a stem cell therapy treatment. “I tried to get my neck to look well enough to get a doctor to OK me to play. I felt like I was still capable,” he said.
The doctors disagreed. Cole retired officially from the NHL in 2017, signing a ceremonial contract with the Hurricanes.
It was time to face the future.