By Carrie Oehm
Brett MacLean is thankful he can still step foot in a hockey rink, even if he can’t skate on the ice. Starting this season, he will be behind the bench as an assistant coach for the University of Waterloo men’s team. It’s a welcomed opportunity to stay around the game for the former budding NHL prospect who had his big-league dream taken away and nearly lost his life in the process.
In the summer of 2012, MacLean was coming off a 25-goal season in the American League and working toward a full-time spot with the Phoenix Coyotes. One night he joined friends in Owen Sound, Ont., for a pickup game. Without warning, with no history of heart disease and with nothing but positive feedback from testing done at various pro camps, he experienced a sudden cardiac arrest.
Fortunately for MacLean, two fellow players, Jason Silverthorn and Jason Gallagher, reacted immediately and performed CPR until local firefighter Jay Forslund could retrieve the arena’s automatic external defibrillator (AED) and shock him back to life. Paramedics arrived to the scene and MacLean was immediately airlifted to a hospital in London, Ont.
A few days later, he woke up from a medically induced coma accompanied by news that something he had devoted his entire life to, and had wanted since he could skate, was out of the question: his professional hockey career was finished. But the most important news he received that day was that he was alive. The survival rate in Canada for out-of-hospital cardiac arrests is only about five percent. To this day, doctors aren’t sure what caused the cardiac arrest and now MacLean has an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD) in his chest, which monitors his heart for abnormalities and prevents him from participating in contact sports.
MacLean was devastated, but with support from his family he has started to move forward with his life.
“I did get down on the situation at the beginning,” he says. “It was tough to take. I have tried very hard to focus on the positives and not dwell on the negatives. There are lots of things I wouldn’t have done, people I wouldn’t have met and experiences I wouldn’t have had without going through this. I am happy with where my life is today and wouldn’t change that.”
That includes furthering his education at the University of Waterloo, where after his recovery MacLean enrolled in classes prior to being named an assistant coach. He’s also become a spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, telling his story around the country and emphasizing the importance of CPR and AED’s, as well as limiting the risk of heart disease. MacLean even created a charity event called Bar Down For Heart and Stroke, a ball hockey tournament in Port Elgin, Ont., that promotes AED awareness and raises funds for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
Still only 24, MacLean wonders what could have been. He had charisma on and off the ice and life looked promising.
“I felt very confident my future in hockey would be very bright,” MacLean said. “I believed I was on the right track to make the NHL and be a professional hockey player for a long time. I didn’t really consider a Plan B at the time because you kind of get caught up in making the NHL and that’s where your focus is.”
MacLean says he feels very lucky to have gotten the opportunity to play in the OHL, to have been drafted into the NHL and to have played 18 games in the league for Winnipeg and Phoenix, where he scored his first goal in his debut. “It may have not been as long as I had hoped for,” he said, “but it is something no one can ever take away from me.”
This story was from a recent issue of The Hockey News Magazine. Click to Subscribe.