Hossa, Ference help Peterson battle Parkinson's

Sunday, 06.23.2013 / 8:44 PM
Tal Pinchevsky  - NHL.com staff writer

Don't ask Nashville Predators adviser Brent Peterson to take sides in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.

With the Chicago Blackhawks leading the Boston Bruins 3-2 in the best-of-7-series, the former coach and player considers Bruins president Cam Neely and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville longtime friends.

What's more, he has loyalties to a player on each team. Peterson coached the 1998 Portland Winterhawks, the Western Hockey League and Memorial Cup champions, which featured Chicago's Marian Hossa and Boston's Andrew Ference. They're two of Peterson's favorite people, so picking one over the other is a struggle.

But not nearly the struggle Peterson's daily life can be.

Peterson was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2003. The degenerative disorder that affects the central nervous system forced Peterson to ingest an array of medications in order to temper his symptoms. But the medication had severe side effects, and Peterson, at times, was unable to perform even the simplest daily tasks. He managed to stay on Nashville's coaching staff, but after falling on the ice last season, the club decided to move him to an advisory position.

"Some days I don't feel so good. Others I feel great. It just depends on the day. I'm still pretty slow moving at times, sometimes I'm off the wall," said Peterson, who underwent a procedure on his brain a few months ago that he said saved his life. "I'm feeling really good. I had the treatment and I had the surgery. That's really helped me a lot."

The procedure, known as deep brain stimulation surgery, has greatly enhanced Peterson's quality of life, but his real battle with the disease was made easier by the help of his friends in the hockey community -- especially two of the best players he ever coached in Portland. That 1998 team was the last one Peterson coached before moving to the NHL.

"It's great to be in hockey after all these years. I want to be a part of it to some degree, it's hard to get out of it. But I can't go on the ice and I can't coach anymore, which is hard," Peterson told NHL.com. "But that's why I have such good memories of those players; Marian Hossa and Andy Ference. It's special, because they're great people and they were so kind and so considerate. They were very coachable and they went out and did it on their own. I never made them players, they made themselves players."

As 18-year-olds, Hossa and Ference led a powerhouse Winterhawks team that included future NHL player Brenden Morrow. But their respective roads to that championship couldn't have been more different.

Hossa starred as an 18-year-old in the Ottawa Senators'' training camp, but they did not plan on giving him a regular shift on an improving team. So rather than let him sit on their bench, they sent him to Portland, who selected him in the annual Canadian Hockey League Import Draft.

"They sort of came from two different worlds," Peterson said. "Marian put us over the hump. He made us a great team instead of a good team. He was a real good kid, very respectful, very coachable. I'm proud of him that he's done this much and gotten this far."

Ference was an unheralded, undersized 15-year-old defenseman selected by Peterson for his toughness and strong defensive play. Against considerably larger players, Ference became a team favorite for his steadfast refusal to back down.

"Andrew Ference was the smallest defenseman and he just did it with hard work and sheer work ethic. He's always been like that since Day One. [He was] always the hardest worker in practice," Peterson said. "I knew he'd be in the NHL someday. I didn't think he'd be there this long and do as well. Marian Hossa was always going to be a superstar. They were both very respectful kids and very honest and good people off the ice, which is more important than anything."

These very different players formed the nucleus of a dominating 1997-98 Winterhawks team that went the entire season without losing two straight games, finishing 53-14-5-0 before winning the WHL title to advance to the Memorial Cup tournament.

In three Memorial Cup games, Portland went undefeated and outscored their opposition 17-8. And in a historic championship game, the team was tied late against the Guelph Storm when Hossa sustained a serious injury in an ugly knee-on-knee collision with Guelph forward Ryan Davis. Bobby Russell scored the overtime winner and Hossa was wheeled out to join Ference and the rest of his teammates in hoisting the cup.

"Probably the most vivid memory for me was when Marian got hurt in the last game with four minutes to play," Peterson said. "We won it in overtime and we brought him out in a wheelchair and he had the cup right out there. It was pretty awesome."

Peterson left weeks later to join Barry Trotz's coaching staff in Nashville. Hossa and Ference haven't played together since. And 15 years later, they're competing for the most storied prize in hockey. The former teammates haven't discussed the Winterhawks in some time, but the bond borne from that championship remains.

"We haven't chatted about it or anything like that," Ference said. "Obviously it's one of the highlights of my hockey career. I'm sure for both of us. It's a good way to get a first championship under your belt. It was a special time."

Since that magical Memorial Cup run, Peterson has waged a battle that goes well beyond the ice. Fortunately, recent medical advancements have allowed him to live with a drastic reduction in Parkinson's symptoms. But the hard road that got him here was made smoother by the help of his friends in the sport, most notably these two players.

"They've both called me. I see Marian all the time because we play against Chicago so much. [He] always asks how I'm doing. Andy Ference is just a great person. He knows where his roots are from," Peterson said. "It's very special that they turned out the way they did. Andy Ference may not be a superstar but for his size and how hard he plays he's a superstar in my book. Marian Hossa is going to be a Hall of Famer, and he's a hall of famer as a person, which is more important."

Considering all that Peterson has been through, it's easy to see how the kindness of these two former players can mean so much. Which is why he simply can't pick a favorite in the Cup Final.

"One of them is going to get their second Stanley Cup. I don't know who to cheer for," Peterson said. "It's too bad both of them can't win, but it's pretty cool that they're both in it."

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