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Disease forces coach to reassess

by:  BRENT PETERSON

It has been a marvelous season for the Nashville Predators, who upset Anaheim in the first round of the NHL playoffs and are in a Western Conference semifinal battle with Vancouver, the league’s best team during the regular season. It has been an equally discouraging season for Brent Peterson, the Predators’ highly regarded associate head coach since the inception of the franchise in 1998. That was the year that Peterson — star center and captain of the inaugural Winterhawk team in 1976-77 — left Portland after coaching the Hawks to the Memorial Cup championship. Eight years ago, Peterson learned he had Parkinson’s disease. Since then, medication and diet have helped him deal with the disease and continue his coaching career. This season, though, Peterson’s health has taken a turn for the worse. His balance became so unsteady that, about a month ago, doctors recommended he no longer take the ice to coach his players. News outlets in Nashville and throughout Canada have reported that Peterson, 53, will be forced to retire from coaching after this season. Not quite true, Peterson reports. “I don’t think I’m going to retire,” Peterson says. “We haven’t really talked about that. We’re focusing on the playoffs right now. “I’m not able to go on the ice anymore. I’m doing more (video) work and meetings work. This doesn’t mean I won’t do anything (for the Predators) next season. I think I’ll be back in some capacity. We won’t make that decision until the offseason.” Since coming to Nashville, Peterson has served as right-hand man to Barry Trotz, the only coach the Predators have known since their inception. In his 13th season, Trotz is second in seniority to Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff among NHL head coaches. The Predators — who closed the regular season with a 16-4 rush to earn the Western Conference’s fifth seed — had reached the playoffs six times without winning a series until finally breaking through against the Ducks in this year’s first round. “We’d been in playoff mode since January,” Peterson says. “Anaheim is a great team, and it was a big win for our franchise. We needed to finally get out of that first round. We’ve lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion three times. This year we got it done. “Now we’re up against the best team in hockey. (The Canucks) were No. 1 in just about every category (in the regular season). It would be a monumental upset to beat them, but that’s why we play the game. We’re doing what we can to give them a hard time.” Parkinson’s is giving Peterson a hard time. “It has progressed to where I can’t be on the ice,” he says. “Some days I could go out there, but mostly I was trying to stay out of people’s way. My body locks up in rigidity, and I can’t move very well. “It’s a progressive disease. I can’t do the things and be as active as I was. I’m not in a wheelchair or anything. I can still play golf, but I don’t play very well anymore. I’m still walking, slowly. I do everything slow now. I used to do everything fast.” Peterson’s reputation in NHL circles is sterling. His name has been mentioned for vacant head coaching positions over the years. His health may have played a part in him not landing a job. “Without a doubt, Brent should have been a head coach,” former NHL player Ray Ferraro, a one-time Winterhawk who played with Peterson at Hartford in the late 1980s, tells the Edmonton Journal. “He’s smart enough. He has a personality. He has a way of getting his message to the players. … He’s a great man, he really is.” Peterson isn’t feeling sorry for himself. Never has. When he learned last year that Brian Grant had contracted Parkinson’s, he reached out to the former Blazer, offering advice and support. Now the two are friends. Each attended the other’s fundraiser last summer — Peterson in Portland, Grant in Nashville — and will do so again this summer. Grant spoke at a dinner/auction before the Brent Peterson Celebrity Golf Classic, a two-day event through Peterson’s foundation (petersonfor parkinsons.org) that raised $120,000 last September. “Brian was absolutely fantastic,” Peterson says. “He got a standing ovation. He’s a great guy.” Peterson has kept close tabs on the Winterhawks. When we spoke on the phone, he asked for an update on their WHL Western Conference final series with Spokane and spoke highly of Hawk General Manager/coach Mike Johnston, whom he became acquainted with during Johnston’s time as an NHL assistant coach. “He’s a very good coach, a very good person,” Peterson says. “We touch base all the time. I see him when I’m in Portland. Last year, he bought a ticket and came to Brian’s (Parkinson’s) fundraiser.” I’ve known Peterson since his days as a Winterhawk player 35 years ago. My respect for the man has grown over the years. He’s a very good coach, a very good person, who is dealing with his disease with class. “Nobody wants to have something like this,” he says, “but I’ve come to grips with it. I want to be on the ice teaching and coaching the players, but I can’t do that anymore. “I have to accept that and take on whatever’s the next challenge in my life. It’s not what I want, but we don’t always get what we want.”