Nfld. & Labrador

Former NHLer wants to show Parkinson's not 'just an old person disease'

While he doesn't play professionally anymore, Nathan Dempsey says he's not letting his Parkinson's disease diagnosis keep him off the ice.

Nathan Dempsey says he won't let diagnosis keep him off the ice

Nathan Dempsey, left, plays for the Chicago Blackhawks on March 7, 2003. (Brian Kersey/The Associated Press)

Nathan Dempsey has played hockey for decades, including years with the St. John's Maple Leafs in the AHL back in the 1990s, before moving on to play with Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston.

While he doesn't play professionally anymore, Dempsey said he's not letting his Parkinson's disease diagnosis keep him off the ice.

"I'm on the ice every day," Dempsey said from his office at Vimy Ridge Sports Academy in Edmonton, where he teaches kids at hockey camps.

It just felt as though I wasn't able to do the things I was regularly able to do, not really knowing why.- Nathan Dempsey

Dempsey was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2010, after he retired from professional hockey.

"Obviously it's different than playing. Obviously I'm not playing competitively anymore so that kind of helps, but when I'm on the ice with the kids it doesn't affect anything I do," he told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

"And I love being on the ice with the kids and teaching them hockey development."

Dempsey played for the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise with the St. John's Maple Leafs for years. (Nathan Dempsey/Twitter)

But it was around 2005, when he was still playing professionally, that Dempsey noticed something wasn't right — he had a tremor in his left hand.

"It happened in L.A. It was mostly after games the tremor would be more significant," he said.

"We kind of thought that maybe it was just the adrenalin after the game — you start to get a little bit of a shake — but after a while it started to be a little bit more prevalent and more often, so when I was in Boston I went and saw a neurologist."

Not an age thing

With a physician, Dempsey went through various medications to try to narrow down what the problem was.

Around that time, he also underwent surgery for his hip, making it a particularly tough time of adjustment.

"It just felt as though I wasn't able to do the things I was regularly able to do, not really knowing why," he said.

Dempsey loads sticks into a waiting taxi following a Toronto Maple Leafs team meeting at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto May 29, 2002. (Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press)

"But my body, I felt like it was age, to be honest with you. I was not an old guy, but 34, I thought maybe it was one of those things where it was age."

In an effort to minimize his symptoms, since Parkinson's is an incurable disease, Dempsey opted for deep brain stimulation surgery, which connects electrodes placed on the side of the brain and connected with a pacemaker-like instrument to send electrical pulses, which synthesize the effects of dopamine.

"I'm able to do a lot more things than I was before," Dempsey said.

'Continue to raise awareness'

But that didn't mean he was ready to talk about it, at least at first.

"As I got more and more and it started to affect me more and more, I thought, well this is kind of silly.… It's not a big deal to affect a lot of the things that I do, but it's still important that people recognize, and I want to bring awareness to the disease," he said.

"The biggest thing is letting people know it's not just an old person disease."

While there's no definitive evidence to suggest it, Dempsey said he believes his sports injuries and his Parkinson's may be related.

A New York Times article from 2018 cites a new study in which researchers identified an association between the two.

"Now, there's no firm scientific evidence that that is the case, but I believe that it had something to do with the amount of brain trauma that I incurred while I was playing, for sure."

But whatever the cause, Dempsey said, he'll keep working to keep Parkinson's in the limelight. But he won't let it take over.

"Just continue to raise awareness on the disease, obviously continue to work," he said. "I don't want it to affect my life until it absolutely has to, so I'm going to continue to stay in good shape, continue to work."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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