Diabetes doesn’t slow Stars’ Petersen - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Diabetes doesn’t slow Stars’ Petersen

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Posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 9:55 pm | Updated: 2:12 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

DALLAS — Dallas Stars forward Toby Petersen is a 30-year-old journeyman. Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke, 59, doesn't know Petersen but feels a kinship to him.

Both have diabetes. An estimated 23 million Americans have the potentially body-ravaging disease, but only a handful have combated it while playing the punishing sport of professional hockey.

Medical advances have made managing diabetes easier than when Clarke starred for Philadelphia from 1969 to 1984. But the disease requires constant monitoring, as evidenced by the insulin pump that Petersen wears everywhere, even during games.

"There has been a stigma attached to those with diabetes, but I think that's slowly fading away," said Petersen, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 5. "Guys are proving they can play at a high level."

Last March, Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler was diagnosed with Type 1, formerly known as juvenile diabetes. He had a Pro Bowl season in 2008.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Adam Morrison has played basketball with Type 1 diabetes since the eighth grade. Florida Panthers defenseman Nick Boynton was diagnosed with Type 1 in 1999 but has had a solid eight-year NHL career.

And last March, the Stars quietly made history of sorts when they called up two diabetic players, Petersen and B.J. Crombeen, from minor league affiliate Iowa. Both started this season in Dallas, but Crombeen now plays for St. Louis.

"What's impressive is how in control they are of their situation," said Stars associate athletic trainer Craig Lowry, who worked with Petersen and Crombeen last season in Des Moines. "The responsibility they show is a testament to who they are and how they take care of themselves."

Most pro athletes are naturally disciplined. But for diabetics, regimented balancing of blood-sugar levels, food intake and physical exertion is a life-and-death matter. A Type 1 diabetic's pancreas does not produce insulin, the hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into everyday energy.

On game days, Petersen tests his blood-sugar level eight to 10 times, including between periods. His fingertips are calloused from the thousands of times he has pricked them to draw blood. One drop on a test strip determines his blood-sugar level.

If the reading is low, he eats food or drinks a high-calorie beverage. If his sugar level is high, the test strip helps him gauge how much insulin to inject through his pump.

Pumps were introduced in the 1960s, but most diabetics used syringes until the late 1990s, when pumps became smaller and more advanced. Dallas golfers Kelli Kuehne and Scott Verplank were among the first pro athletes to use them during competition.

But hockey, with its flying bodies, sticks, pucks and violent collisions? Crombeen and Boynton do not wear a pump during games, but Petersen has done so since 2003. During games and practices, he tucks it under a belt, between his waist and stomach, with no protective padding.

"I want to keep it as small and light as possible," he said. "I don't want my hands brushing against it when I'm taking faceoffs or anything like that."

Last season in Iowa, the pump took a direct hit from a puck, separating its plastic injection tube.

"He knew it right away, and I could see it," Lowry recalled. "So from that point on, I carried extra needles. I always carry an extra test kit, too."

In 1969, many NHL executives considered 20-year-old Bobby Clarke to be the most talented junior player in Canada, but he slid to the second round of the draft.

"The assumption by people who knew nothing about diabetes was that I wasn't going to be strong enough to play in the league," said Clarke, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 13 or 14.

The concerns seemed well founded when he suffered a diabetic seizure at his first training camp with the Flyers. He had neglected to eat breakfast.

So Clarke and Flyers trainer Frank Lewis devised a plan. "I had three or four mouthfuls of Coke before every game," Clarke laughed. "And half a Coke between periods."

In those days, the only way Clarke could check his blood-sugar level was through a urine test, which was far less precise and timely than today's blood tests. Clarke said Lewis always kept a Coke and candy bars in his pockets.

"I'm sure I went through most of my career with my blood sugars fairly high," Clarke said.

Tough, skilled and irascible, Clarke captained Philadelphia's notorious Broad Street Bullies to the 1974 and '75 Stanley Cups. He won three Hart Trophies as league MVP and scored 1,210 career points.

Until his 1984 retirement, he said, he was aware of only one other pro athlete with diabetes, pitcher Bill Gullickson, whose 12-year major league career began in 1979 in Montreal.

"When I turned pro, I said 'I'm a hockey player with diabetes; I'm not a (expletive) diabetic hockey player,'" Clarke said. "If I played poorly, it was because I played poorly. If I played good, it was because I played good. Diabetes had nothing to do with it."

After serving 23 years as a general manager for Philadelphia, Minnesota and Florida, Clarke now is the Flyers' senior vice president. A trailblazer on the ice, he remains a testament that the body can withstand both hockey and diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, Type 1 patients have increased risk for heart disease, blindness, nerve damage and kidney damage.

"My doctor has told me I'm a freak," he said. "I think working out all of my life has something to do with it. I don't have one sign of any diabetic problems, not my eyes, not my kidneys, nothing."

Shortly after Toby Petersen's 5th birthday in October 1983, his parents, Gary and Randine Petersen of Bloomington, Minn., saw a dramatic drop in his energy. As a nurse whose younger sister had diabetes, Randine knew the symptoms all too well.

"It's shattering for a parent," said Randine, an emergency department nurse at Minneapolis' Hennepin County Medical Center. "You're devastated by, what's it going to mean for your child in everyday life? And it's also devastating because you know what it means for long-term possibilities.

"What we promised Toby was, 'You can do anything you want; we will figure out a way to make it work,'" Randine said.

And it so happened that, along with his aunt, Toby had two nearby pro-athlete examples from which to learn, emulate and draw inspiration.

Minnesota quarterback Wade Wilson, now a Cowboys assistant coach, was diagnosed with diabetes in 1985 yet played 11 more seasons.

And from 1990 to 1992, the Minnesota North Stars' general manager was none other than Bobby Clarke.

"He's revered around the league," Petersen said. "It's good to have an example like that who went through similar trials and tribulations."

Petersen said that during his years in the NHL, he has seen Clarke "in hallways and stuff," but never met him. Clarke said he follows the careers of Petersen, Boynton and Crombeen from afar.

"These guys are the same as I was," Clarke said. "They've got diabetes, and it's not going to change. That's what life gave them."

Petersen was drafted by Pittsburgh, but after playing for the Penguins in 2001-02 he spent most of the next four seasons at the minor league level.

But after his call-up last season, he played a significant role in the Stars' conference finals run. He has played in most games this season, and his role has expanded with center Brad Richards out with a broken wrist.

"He's a very good utility player," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "To have that role, you have to be a smart player."

The diabetes?

"Not one day has it been a practice issue or any issue at all," Tippett said.

Petersen said his teammates are used to seeing him poke his fingers. He said they keep an eye on him and that "when I start acting goofy, they make sure to ask 'Toby, you need some food?'"

Petersen said the pump helps him perform his best. He said it also helps normalize his home life, a good thing because he and wife Alexa have 2-year-old Bjorn and 4-month-old Elliott.

"A couple of years ago, I didn't know if I would have this opportunity again," said Petersen, who before the season signed a two-year, $1.1 million contract. "Being given this chance is really special. I'm trying to make the most of it every day."

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