Pilar Hoping to Return to Lineup

March 9, 2007

by Mike Ulmer
March 9, 2007

(TORONTO) -- Karel Pilar is a 29-year-old hockey player and the rub about that is you don’t stop being a hockey player just because you’re hurt.

Playing hockey is not a job. It’s work all right, but it’s a dodge too, a suspended adolescence that brings riches, a sense of belonging, adulation and at the centre of it, the chance to play hockey.

Hockey isn’t like any other game. If you played it, you know that fact as a truth no less immutable than gravity.

When he played for the Leafs from 2001-2004, Pilar was constantly entranced by the ever-changing geometry of the game. On the ice he was absolutely unpredictable. The rhythms he was tapping into were oblivious to many of his teammates. Most times it worked, sometimes it didn’t but in the chaos of the game, Pilar was like a kid constantly toying with a kaleidoscope. That’s why he missed the game so prodigiously after a heart ailment derailed his career in 2004. That’s what he’s doing at the Ricoh Coliseum, skating and working and any day now practicing with the Marlies and hoping for an eventual return to the Leafs.

It has been nearly four years after his last NHL game.

 “I realize this is my last shot,” he said taking a seat in the stands after a workout session. “If I have a lot more problems, then no team is going to be willing to take a chance on me.”

Pilar, (pronounced Pilash) disappeared from the Leafs radar at precisely the moment he was ready to take a regular spot on the blue line. He played 50 Leafs game in 2003-3004 even scored a playoff goal and spent the lockout year playing in the Czech Republic.

“I felt I had a real good chance to make the team and then about two or three weeks before training camp it just hit me,” Pilar said. “I didn’t know what had happened. I went from being in top condition to zero condition. I couldn’t walk up the stairs without getting dizzy.”

Czech doctors had no answers. The Leafs brought Pilar to a specialist in Montreal where it was discovered he had a rare viral infection that had attacked his heart. Beta blockers would bring the number of heartbeats down, but there was nothing to do but wait for the virus to pass.

Denied the game, Pilar listed.

“You’re not able to do any living at all,” he said. “It’s tough, you know with a broken bone it will heal and you can do all the things you would ordinarily do, go out with friends, go to dinner with your girlfriend. With this heart condition, I couldn’t do any of those things.

“I tried to read some stuff. I started learning about English and Economics. I was taking economics in college before hockey. I was thinking I might not play hockey again, but at least I can have a full life.”

Pilar lost his ability to visualize a comeback. “I felt like if you can’t walk up a flight of stairs, you’re not going to be a pro athlete. When I saw guys skating, guys on television, I thought, you know I used to be able to do that. Now I couldn’t go up stairs. I felt like I was losing my mind and losing my life.”

“There are cognitive and emotional consequences of being injured,” said Paul Dennis, the Maple Leafs Development coach. “One of the most significant ones is a disruption to the pursuit of their goals: being a functioning, contributing member of a cohesive team whose intentions are clear, such as wining a championship. This causes a great deal of stress for an athlete.  They may question their self-worth and self-confidence.  From an emotional perspective, this often leads to frustration, then anger, in some cases, depression.

“I was depressed, I don’t have any trouble saying that,” said Pilar.

“My girlfriend (Marketa) and I, we had some hard times. I wasn’t the happiest guy in the world.”

But after a few months, Pilar could walk out of his apartment. He worked his way up to a mile a day. Then two. Doctors were divided whether he should attempt to play again.

“I worked my way back until I was ready to try to come back in December of 2005 but I pushed myself too hard,” he said. “I was exhausted.” He had managed six games the Czech league, but he had nothing left.

That’s it. He waited the balance of last season, the summer and most of this season before casting his lot again.

 Pilar said his heart is sound. “I’m completely normal,” he said. “The doctors said it was one of the best hearts they had ever seen. This time, I’m physically ready”

The Leafs are clearly pulling for him. “This guy played 90 games in the NHL. He was a good player and now he’s rehabbing,” said Leafs’ assistant GM Mike Penny. “Age doesn’t have anything to do with it. We wouldn’t have brought him back if we didn’t think he could help us.”

Reconnected to the life that sustains him, Karel Pilar nodded toward the empty Ricoh Coliseum.

 “I missed everything, I missed this. I missed the game. The situation on the ice changes so much every single moment.

“It’s such a good thing not having all that time to sit and think.”

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