Hockey isn’t like other sports.
I don’t mean that it’s better or worse. But it’s structured differently, and we raise our kids immersed in it in a way that football and basketball and soccer don’t. Billeting, juniors, and hockey culture as a whole demand all of you. If you want to “make it” in the professional and national level, there is no “off season.” Kids play on multiple teams; they billet away from their families, the team becoming their entire support system; and NCAA hockey doesn’t have quite the same pull that NCAA basketball and college football do. To “make it” in the NHL, you have to essentially have a professional mindset from the first day they put you in skates.
Nathan Horton grew up in that world. He played minor hockey with Daniel Paille (who he’d later play with again, in Boston); he went second overall in the 2001 OHL draft; his profile, at age 16, by Hockey’s Future opened with the line, “Players like the Oshawa Generals Nathan Horton don’t come around all the time.” Like any good player, hockey was everything.
Nathan Horton hasn’t played hockey since April 8.
“I can’t stand up like a normal person; I can’t bend over,” Horton told Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch. “I can’t run. I can’t play with my kids. To get in and out of the car, I’m like a 75-year-old man … so slow and stiff. I can’t sleep at night. I try to lay down and my back seizes up and I can’t move, so sleeping is out. I’m like a zombie in the daytime.”
A little over a year ago, Horton walked away from a contract with top dogs Boston Bruins to help Columbus build something. He talked about his affection for the city, for the atmosphere; he wanted to be a part of what he saw Columbus doing. From the get-go, Horton has been that kind of player, on any team he’s been on: the guy you can trust on the ice, the guy who gets it done. Exactly the type of player you want on a team that’s looking to grow up.
He played 35 games on that dream, before a slew of injuries derailed it. Horton, who’s fought back through two concussions and injuries in his shoulder, knees, legs, and hands, tried to fight through this, too.
“I couldn’t get my socks on,” Horton told Portzline. “I could barely tie my skates. But I’ve played through stuff my whole career. I kept going.”
When you’re raised to do one thing, to excel at it beyond all else, the idea of giving it up must be impossible. But the surgery required to fix the issue would keep Horton off the roster for the rest of his life. Said Horton, “I don’t want to have surgery, because of what that means. I don’t want to live with this pain, but I don’t want to make that decision. It’s hard for me to say that, at 29 years old, I’m done. I mean, really? Done at 29?”
Obviously, though it would be a shame for a player like Horton to be taken out of the game forever, his health comes first. It has to. Fans and rivals alike have taken to Twitter to express support for the Blue Jackets forward. As defenseman Jack Johnson told the Columbus Dispatch last month, “We’re not giving up hope. We’re not giving up on him at all.”