Chris Pronger’s eyes rolled back as he lost consciousness and athletic trainers tried to remove his helmet. It was May 10, 1988, and Pronger, then 23 and a defenseman for the St. Louis Blues, had collapsed after he was struck in the chest by a slap shot from Dmitri Mironov of the Detroit Red Wings.
The impact stopped Pronger’s heart. He staggered and fell forward onto the ice, unconscious. He said he would never forget the looks on the other players’ faces when he opened his eyes 20 or 30 seconds later.
“Just the emotion of what was going on was pretty hard,” Pronger said. “When you see your teammates like that, and then obviously you have guys coming over from both teams as I’m getting carted off on a stretcher to the ambulance — it hits home for sure.”
Pronger watched a video of his injury after seeing replays of the 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsing with cardiac arrest during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night. The moment brought back both “good and bad memories,” Pronger said.
Doctors haven’t said what caused Hamlin’s heart to stop, but his collapse during a nationally televised game has drawn attention to the risk of cardiac arrest among young athletes and the need for the proper training and equipment to address it.
Sudden cardiac arrest occurs in about 1 or 2 of every 100,000 young athletes each year, according to the Sports Institute at UW Medicine in Washington, which researches ways to make sports participation safer. Outcomes for people that sustain a cardiac arrest typically depend on where it happens and the available medical tools.
In the cases of Pronger and Hamlin, all of the necessary emergency workers and equipment were on hand.
After taking a hard hit while tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, Hamlin stood up briefly and then collapsed backward. He was in cardiac arrest. Medical staff restarted Hamlin’s heart, then took him off the field in an ambulance. On Friday, the Bills said that Hamlin’s breathing tube was removed overnight and that he had been able to talk with his family, doctors and teammates.
Unlike Hamlin, Pronger did not need his heart restarted and felt back to normal as he left the ice on a stretcher with his hands folded across his chest — so much so that “if it was up to me, I would’ve skated out of there,” Pronger said. It was Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinal, and he wanted to keep playing.
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After being released from the hospital and having tests at the Blues facility, Pronger peppered doctors with questions about his playing future, he said. He was a physical defenseman and wanted to know if he could still crush the occasional defender and take slap shots to his chest without fear of another potentially deadly injury. Could his heart stop again?
Doctors told Pronger it wasn’t likely. He had been unlucky: The puck had hit his chest at a vulnerable moment in his heart’s rhythm.
“She basically said that it’s incredibly remote, much like winning the lottery,” Pronger recalled. “It’s a freak incident that is hard to replicate because of the mitigating factors that need to take place in sequence.”
So two days later, Pronger was back on the ice in Game 3 of the series. He played 41 minutes and 35 seconds — the most of any non-goalie that night. Pronger played 13 more seasons in the N.H.L., winning a Stanley Cup championship in 2007, and earned a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015.
When he returned to play, he said, he had no worries about a potential re-injury but that his mother did the worrying for him.
“It affected my mom for quite a while,” Pronger said. “When potential tragedies like that happen, it leaves a mark for sure.”
There have been numerous cases of sudden cardiac arrest at the high levels of sport. Marc-Vivien Foé, a midfielder on Cameroon’s national soccer team, fatally collapsed in the 71st minute in a game against Colombia at the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2003. Medical staff tried to resuscitate Foé, who had a heart condition that led to cardiac arrest, for more than 30 minutes.
The former Blues Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester’s heart stopped during a game against the Anaheim Ducks in 2020. Bouwmeester, who collapsed on the Blues bench, was revived by medical staff, but he never returned to professional hockey, announcing his retirement 11 months later.
Christian Eriksen, a soccer midfielder playing for Denmark, went into cardiac arrest during a game at Euro 2020. A team doctor said that Eriksen “was gone” before lifesaving treatment on the field resuscitated him. Since then, Eriksen has continued to play professionally without an issue.
For many coaches and organizers who run youth programs, the costs of medical personnel and equipment mean they must be ready to serve as their teams’ medical staff.
Brian Gallagher, the founder of Active City, a nonprofit that offers organized youth sports such as soccer, basketball and volleyball in Hartford, Conn., said Hamlin’s injury underscored the importance of having properly trained coaches. Gallagher said Active City ran a free training session each year on how to handle life-threatening medical issues. Still, defibrillators, which can cost thousands of dollars, are typically available only at big events because of their cost.
Sarah Hoisl, who coaches West Hartford Fury Travel Softball in Connecticut, said she wanted to be ready to step in if one of her players suffered a significant injury. Hoisl is certified by the American Red Cross in CPR, first aid and concussion protocol, she said.
“I always want to make sure that the procedures I take as a coach are down pat so that when I go into fight-or-flight mode, I know that I am making the right moves because they have been done before they happen,” she said.
For some who have lost a relative to cardiac arrest, Hamlin’s collapse was a reminder of their loved one and the need for effective medical care and tools.
When Marcus Owens heard mentions of chest compressions and defibrillators while Hamlin was being revived, he was immediately reminded of a dreadful day 18 years ago.
In 2005, Owens received a phone call that his nephew, Danny Rumph, had passed out during a pickup basketball game in Philadelphia and was being rushed to a hospital. Rumph, a Philadelphia high school basketball star who played at Western Kentucky University and was back home visiting his family, died that day at age 21 from a heart condition that led to cardiac arrest.
“We know how they’re feeling — how helpless they’re feeling,” Owens said about Hamlin’s family, “because there’s nothing they can do because it’s in the doctors’ hands now. And you just have so many things going into your head. So many emotions going through you.”
Viola Owens, Rumph’s mother, said she wasn’t watching Hamlin’s game, but upon hearing the news, thought back to her son on the floor at the basketball gym as she screamed and pleaded for paramedics for what she said felt like “forever.”
“To see him lying there, lifeless and not able to do anything, for me, that’s why I’m glad I wasn’t watching the game to see him collapse like that,” Owens said of Hamlin.
Rumph died of a heart condition that causes sudden cardiac arrest. If there had been defibrillators in the gym, his life might have been saved, which inspired Owens and her brother Marcus to create the Daniel E. Rumph II Foundation. The charity aims to raise awareness for sudden cardiac arrest and provide screening for the condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, in hopes of preventing sudden cardiac arrest among young people.
The foundation has provided free electrocardiogram screenings for athletes ages 5 to 19. Organizers said 61 screenings conducted in partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on July 30 last year found 11 people with heart abnormalities.
The foundation’s flagship event is the Danny Rumph Classic, a basketball tournament in Philadelphia that began at the gym where Rumph died, which was renamed for him.
“I want to see something positive come out of this,” Marcus Owens said. “The N.F.L. is always going to have their processes in place,” but that infrastructure is not always in place for lower leagues, he said.
He added: “They should at least have these processes and these machines in place at every game that they’re playing, so that if anything ever did happen on their level, these kids will have a chance to survive as well.”