Columbus forward Nathan Horton can't stand up or run or play with his kids, and the Blue Jackets have removed his stall from their locker room. The 29-year old's career is in serious jeopardy thanks to a degenerative back injury that has left him in searing agony and with a life-changing decision to make.
In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Horton spelled out his dilemma: various medical procedures haven't worked on his back. He can either wait for his injury to heal and return to the ice or he can have surgery that would relieve him but prevent him from playing ever again.
It's easy to say that Horton, who signed a 7-year, $37 contract with the Blue Jackets in 2013, should just take his money, his Stanley Cup (won with Boston in 2011) and hang up the skates and go home. But for athletes who have spent their lives preparing for, excelling at and living inside the world of professional competition, finally walking away can seem like an impossible decision, especially when the player isn't even 30 years old.
One name that pops up in a lot of the stories about Horton's condition is Mike Bossy, the Islanders legend who retired earlier than expected due to his own back issues. Bossy's resume has been memorized: 573 career goals, nine straight seasons of more than 50 goals, a Calder trophy, a Conn Smythe trophy, four Stanley Cups and a legion of fans at least 118 miles long.
With all due respect to Nathan Horton, he isn't Mike Bossy and he'd probably be the first to say that. But reading stories about Bossy's retirement echoes Horton's quotes and shows two proud men that were helpless when having their livelihood and driving forces taken from them by physical pain.
Best Laid Plans
In 1981, Bossy signed a five-year contract extension with the Islanders (for the whopping sum of $600,000 a season) with one eye already looking towards retirement.
"I have always maintained that I wanted to retire around 31 or 32 and now I can say that I am 99 percent sure that this will be it for me."
Bossy was entering his fifth year in the NHL, had won two championships, led the league with 68 goals the year before and felt secure with his family on Long Island. He most likely wasn't thinking about injuries but about a post-playing career in business or broadcasting, two professions he would take up after retirement.
Seven years later, Bossy would keep his promise and announce his retirement at 31. But the conditions under which he did so were most likely not preferred.
Problems with Bossy's back began flaring up during the 1986-87 season and caused him to miss 17 games. It's the only season of his career in which he didn't score at least 50 goals, but he still finished tied for the team lead with Pat LaFontaine with 38. The following preseason, his condition didn't improve and he sat out for all of 1987-88 after having surgery. But the procedures and the waiting weren't enough to bring him back to where he wanted to be.
Bossy announced his retirement on Oct. 24th, 1988, stating, "My back problems have won the battle. My career is over."
"There was a time last month, in September, when I was going back to Montreal once a week for therapy," he said. "It felt like it was getting better. Until that moment, I certainly hadn't given up hope. Then I got out of bed one morning and it felt the same as it did last year. I actually realized it was no use dragging it on anymore."
Bossy was emotional in thanking Islanders teammates, coaches and management for helping him become what he was.
I thank Bill Torrey and Al Arbour for giving me the chance to prove I could play in the NHL. Bill and Al allowed a skinny kid from Laval, Quebec, who they said couldn't check a suitcase, go out there and prove them wrong."
A tearful Bryan Trottier, Bossy's longtime linemate and close friend, said at the time that, "There has been no person or player or friend who has meant more to me than you."
After retiring, Bossy moved back to his native Quebec to do broadcasting work for the Nordiques until 1990. He's had a smattering of various jobs through the years and currently has a front office position and does occasional on-air analysis for the Islanders.
He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991 and despite not playing in the NHL for four years, the pain was still with him.
He said his back "is probably worse than it is when I stopped playing. There are good days and bad days. I've learned to adapt to my situation and know what I can and cannot do."
No Easy Call
After ten seasons of almost unparalleled and unbelievable success, Mike Bossy was forced to leave the game he was born to play because he is human. After all that hardware and all those accolades, he still found it difficult to make the decision to move on. He may have wanted to walk away from hockey at 31, but he didn't expect to do it under unceasing conditions of physical torment.
Only Nathan Horton can decide what his next step is. He's been a good, hard-nosed and productive player in the NHL for a long time. He's seen the lows of playing for non-playoff teams in Florida, the highs of bringing a Stanley Cup to Boston and the personal satisfaction of signing a massive free agent contract with a club that wanted to build around him in Columbus.
But the pain in his body is only one aspect of what's weighing on him right now.