The Recovery of Éric Dazé

It was June 9th, 2010, just shy of 10:10 p.m. Central Standard Time, when Chicago hockey was reborn, when Patrick Kane snuck the puck into the Flyers’ net, when the Stanley Cup’s new owner was confirmed, when thousands upon thousands of Blackhawks fans erupted in joy not equaled in half a century.

Twenty miles outside the city, inside a stately home within the prestigious suburb of Hinsdale, Éric Dazé watched the revelry in bewilderment, overcome by conflicting emotions: great pride and nagging regret. He was not yet thirty-five years old, still a competitive playing age for many professional hockey stars, but he had not worn a Blackhawks’ jersey in more than four years. On a television set he watched his former teammates, like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, celebrate the sport’s crowning achievement. His happiness for his friends was countered by the tear-forcing thought, “That could be me.”

“It was bittersweet. I got really emotional,” Dazé recalled. “Somebody from my hometown called me for an interview right after and I got emotional, because it’s a dream of all of us. We all failed in a way since 1961 (the last Stanley Cup win for the Blackhawks before 2010), when those guys won the Cup, and now these guys do it and it’s a relief, but at the same time, you wish you were there. … I was still young back then. I would probably have been able to play. I wish I was there, but you’re (also) amazed by what they did. You’re happy. You know how hard it is.”

The feeling was extra confusing because Dazé had no one to blame, except maybe fate, maybe God, neither of which he could check into the boards. Like many of his Montreal brethren, Dazé always loved and always pursued hockey. His third back surgery in five years ended the love affair in 2005, when an injured Dazé skated off the ice and disappeared from the game. But the game didn’t disappear from him. His post-hockey life featured a young family, successful real-estate ventures, and constant pain that pulsed throughout his body every day. Everything hurt. It was agonizing. “The first two years, to be honest, I was in so much pain I was really scared what was ahead of me,” Dazé said. “I was barely thirty and sometimes I would give my daughter a bath and I couldn’t reach to get her. You really feel down on yourself, because you’re worrying about what’s ahead. Hockey was the last thing on my mind.”

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Dazé had a knack for putting the puck in the net, but left hockey at thirty years old after three back surgeries within five seasons. (Courtesy of N.H.L./Chicago Blackhawks)

Fourth-round draft picks rarely turn out as well as Éric Dazé. But after the draft, the youngster, still a teenager, proved himself in the junior leagues, recording back-to-back fifty-goal campaigns with the Beauport Harfangs. The winger and natural scorer continued the production as soon as he was called up to the Chicago Blackhawks late in the 1994-1995 season. He scored in his second game and logged some minutes in the postseason as Chicago made a run to the Western Conference final. The ensuing year, Dazé scored thirty times and added twenty-three assists to become one of the most impressive rookies in the league.

His career went on from there. Armed with a quick release and exceptional agility for his size (6-foot-6, 235 pounds), Dazé tallied twenty or more goals in eight straight seasons. “It was just a great setup for me, playing on the third line with Denis Savard and Bernie Nicholls. As a shooter, you need a guy who can pass you the puck. I had great players my first year. I had a lot of success right away,” he said. “My confidence was high. … It kind of built up the momentum. If you struggle at first, it’s tough. But I was able to score goals and gain a lot of confidence and kept going after it.”

Dazé cemented himself as part of a young Blackhawks’ contingent that could keep alive the team’s streak of twenty-plus seasons with a playoff appearance. But fate had other ideas.

The Blackhawks’ slide began after their conference finals appearance in 1995. Chicago made a nice playoff run in 1996, but then within the next three seasons, three Hall-of-Fame players would leave. Jeremy Roenick was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996. Savard retired—though he joined the bench as an assistant coach—after the ’97 season. And Chris Chelios left for the enemy, the Detroit Red Wings, midway through the 1999 campaign. Dazé and Amonte were the captains left aboard the sinking ship. After twenty-one straight post-seasons, starting in 1997, Chicago missed nine out of the next ten.

The brand-new, world-class arena, the United Center, once bursting at the seams for the Blackhawks, started to look empty. The throngs of people had better things to do than to watch mediocre hockey.

Meanwhile, Dazé’s back started to act up. A pull here, a spasm there forced Dazé to occasionally miss a game or two. Soon, though, there was a more serious problem. A herniated disc forced surgery in 2000, near the end of that season. At first, it seemed like a solved problem, however, as Dazé returned in dazzling form, notching the two best statistical seasons of his career in 2000-2001 and 2001-2002. In 2002, Dazé was selected to his first All-Star Game, in which he scored twice and was given the M.V.P. trophy—and a new pickup truck that still sits in his Hinsdale driveway.

It is those two seasons that stick most in Dazé’s craw. He felt he had hit his prime. And his prime was leading the team back to relevance. Chicago returned to the playoffs in 2002. It was something on which they could build. The dream of holding high the Stanley Cup was real once again. Instead, something else returned: Dazé’s back problems.

In 2003, he had to have a second surgery. And the following year, after just nineteen games played, a third. The lockout year couldn’t have come at a better time for Dazé’s back. Maybe a year off is what it needed. But the injury was more stubborn and debilitating than that. “By the second one, I knew something was up and I knew I was in trouble,” he said. “I couldn’t feel my right leg, just numb. I couldn’t push. I came back at the end of the season and finished really strong. After that, in 2004, the third one, the last one. After the lockout, I just couldn’t skate the same. I was just always upright. It was so weird. I think I needed a couple years off, but in that business, you can’t.”

Dazé played one game—a “bad game, just bad” game—to start the 2005 season. In warm-ups of the second game, the pain was too much. He skated off the professional ice for the last time. “I was in so much pain,” he said. “It’s like a train going a hundred miles per hour and hitting a brick wall. That’s how I felt. Everything shows up: your knees, your elbows, your shoulders. You just wake up with pain. It made no sense, because I had no pain before.”

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It’s funny how children change your life. It’s not really “funny”; that’s just the word people use. What they really mean is it is “amazing” or “surprising” how children change your life. Éric Dazé knows the sentiment well, each of his children playing their part in his healing process.

Éric and Guylaine, his wife and high-school sweetheart, welcomed their first child in 2005, at the same time Éric was in dramatic pain but still hoping to return to professional hockey. Kayla, now twelve, was a “lockout baby,” laughed Dazé, explaining how many N.H.L families welcomed new children after the 2004-2005 season was wiped out because of a contract dispute, what is best known as a lockout. The Dazés had always thought they’d move back to Montreal after Éric’s career ended. Kayla’s arrival changed things. They knew they loved Chicago—Éric the city, and Guylaine the suburbs. Why not raise a family here? “The lockout really opened our eyes that we wanted to live here,” Éric said. “We didn’t stay here because of hockey; we stayed here because we loved the city. By then, after 2004, that’s when we knew this was home for us. I’ve been in Chicago longer than I was at home. I left home at sixteen; I’ve been here since ’95. So this is the longest I’ve been somewhere.”

After his final N.H.L. game, Dazé dejectedly placed his hockey gear in his basement. There, untouched, it remained for seven years. Too much pain and what-ifs clung to those pads. Dazé was born unto ice in Montreal, where, he said, hockey youth have two goals: to play in the National Hockey League and to win a Stanley Cup in the National Hockey League. He felt he had the constitution to do both. Once he made it to and succeeded in the N.H.L., he was closer than ever to conquering dream number two. To think it was all taken from him, by something out of his control no less, was too much to bear. “Anyone who knows me knows I love hockey—I love the stats, I know the history of hockey,” Dazé said, his words and gaze trailing off. “I just needed a break physically and mentally for two years, and two years turned out to be seven. … I was kind of lost for the first two years.”

Four years later, the couple’s second child was born. A boy. Derek. As Derek learned and grew, he began to love hockey, just like his father. Soon, he was ready to be on the ice, a place Éric had not been in years. But, by the time Derek was born, Éric had improved mentally and physically. He had himself on a schedule. He was training again. But those hockey pads remained bagged in the basement below—far from mind, far from body. Even the one or two times he got on the ice with Derek, he kept things simple. He took small steps. But they were important ones. A resurgence process had begun, even if Dazé didn’t know it. Without realizing it, he was back. “When my son started playing, that’s when I got re-introduced to hockey and kind of fell in love again with the sport and just watching him,” he said. It was all downhill from there.

Dazé in his Hinsale home in front of a mural painted by friend and former teammate Denis Savard’s wife.

Working with Derek on the ice got Dazé out there, feeling not only at peace with the game, but also happy with it. He looked forward to chasing the puck with his son. Word got around that Dazé was skating again. His best friends took notice. In 2013, longtime friend and teammate Denis Savard asked Dazé if he’d like to play in a charity hockey game in Peoria. It was a big event. The Blackhawks alumni were squaring off with the St. Louis Blues alumni to raise money for the victims of a fatal tornado that swept through Washington, Illinois, among other places, and resulted in multiple deaths and a billion dollars in damage. Dazé took the final step. He went down to his basement to get his pads.

From there, Dazé became an ice rat once again, skating with other former Blackhawks on Wednesdays at The Edge in Bensenville, as well as some Fridays at a Y.M.C.A. in Elmhurst. He is loving every second of the ice time with the guys. “It’s good hockey, nothing crazy. It’s fun,” Dazé said. “You get that intensity a little bit. We’re not pros anymore; (we) go out there like we’re ten or eleven years old. Just go out and push the puck and chase it around.”

He also was asked to help coach his son’s travel hockey team out of Darien. He’s currently in his second season of helping the Phantoms. “It’s amazing to watch,” he said. “I try to teach them how to shoot the puck. On face-offs, I show them how to do some stuff. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Just little things. Kids really want to go out there and learn, sometimes just little adjustments on how they hold their sticks or shoot the puck. They are eight, but already getting into passing and where to go. It’s fun to watch.”

Derek is a forward, just like Dad. He shoots a good puck, just like Dad. But there are plenty of differences. For one, Derek “is a way better skater” than his old man, who did his best for a tall forward. “When I was drafted, I was sixteen years old and was six-four, a hundred sixty pounds. Figure that out,” he said.

The family spends summers in Montreal, where the kids re-establish their French speech, smoothing out any bad habits learned from the year, much to the delight of their parents. Kayla’s accent is more authentic, while Derek has the English-French dialect, like his father. During the year, Grandma and Grandpa come down to Hinsdale for visits. The Dazés keep up their real-estate ventures. They just sold their house in Montreal, and now have a cottage near the mountains. They travel—to Italy two years ago; Paris will be later this year.

It’s a busy life and very much an American cliché—one boy and one girl from loving and successful parents in the suburbs where activities are plentiful and education takes priority. It takes up nearly all of Dazé’s time. Though, there is one thing for which he’ll make the time: the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks are part of the “Original Six,” the six teams installed along with the modern N.H.L. in 1942. As a kid, he watched them play his Canadiens on Saturday nights. Visions of old Chicago Stadium burn in Dazé’s memory. When he was drafted by Chicago, Dazé knew he was part of N.H.L. history. “You want to play in the N.H.L.; it’s your dream,” he said. “If you have the chance to play for an Original Six, it’s really special. And I was really proud to put that jersey on.” To this day, that is not lost on him. “We do some of the alumni, charity games, and the Blackhawks convention,” he said. “When they call and ask, we will do whatever it takes for them.”

About the author

Joe is the publisher of Chicagoly and 22nd Century Media, where he's worked since 2006. A born and bred Chicagoland native, he is an award-winning features and sports writer and authors What Now? and On These Streets (ghost-writes) each issue.

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