No backing down for Nathan Dempsey

Former defenceman hopes to stave off his latest foe: Parkinson’s disease

Robin Short
Published on February 12, 2014
Former St. John’s Maple Leaf Nathan Dempsey is in St. John’s this week to take part in AHL festivities. — Photo by Robin Short/The Telegram

For eight seasons, Nathan Dempsey represented the St. John’s Maple Leafs with pride, dignity and class, not to mention skill.

He was the face of the old American Hockey League franchise for those eight winters at Memorial Stadium and later Mile One Centre, a player Leafs fans looked to as their own, even though he was from Western Canada.

To them, Dempsey was more than a hockey player.

He was a friend, a hockey player to whom you’d like to introduce your daughter, or a buddy you’d like to have over to the shed for a few beers.

You hear it a lot in pro sports, the word “character.” Dempsey oozed character, and it’s that quality that’s helping him get through what is unquestionably the greatest challenge of his life.

Dempsey, five months shy of his 40th birthday, has Parkinson’s disease.

Looking at Dempsey — he’s in town as a guest of the St. John’s IceCaps for tonight’s Assante Wealth Management AHL All-Star Classic — he’s the picture of health.

He’s got the same boyish face, the same grin, although he may be a couple or five pounds over his playing weight (his Twitter profile reads, “Used to get paid to play, now I pay to play”). Yet he still looks like he could take a shift or three on the blueline if the IceCaps were in a pinch.

But there’s a tremor on the left side of his body. And it’s never going away.


Still, if anybody can cope with the hand that’s been dealt to him, it’s Dempsey. He’s quick to point out the Parkinson’s has not beaten him. He still plays hockey, coaches and works at Edmonton’s Vimy Ridge Hockey Academy, just outside his Spruce Grove, Alta., home.

And he will remind anyone who asks that there are others far worse off than him. Of course, we think of actor Michael J. Fox and the great Muhammad Ali, both of whom have Parkinson’s.

“I’ve always approached things that I live each and every day like it’s my last, and that’s the way I will continue to live my life,” Dempsey said this week.

So what scares Dempsey is not what the future holds for him, but rather for his wife, Trisha, and their two children, 14-year-old Rhett and 10-year-old Erica.

“I’m more worried for them than I am for me,” he said. “I think Trisha looks ahead to what will happen more so than I do. It will be harder on her than it will be on me.

“For me, whatever happens is going to happen, but I’m going to do my best to keep it grounded and at bay for as long as I can.

“But eventually, she’s going to be the one who is responsible for me, and I find that very difficult. That’s what I think about.”

Dempsey was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago at age 37, young for that particular affliction. He is the first person in his family tree to have Parkinson’s, as far as he can tell.

Strange as it may seem, Dempsey was almost relieved with the diagnosis. For years, he said, he had a tremor in his left hand, going all the way back to the 2003-04 hockey season when he played defence for the Los Angeles Kings.

He initially noticed the shaking after games and chalked it up to still being pumped with adrenaline, even after the skates were off.

But then the tremors started occurring when he was at rest. Doctors in Boston — he played the 2006-07 season in the Bruins organization — diagnosed it as an “essential tremor,” which, he said, “isn’t a big deal.”

“Then they thought it might have been a resting tremor, which is a resting essential tremor, which is a sister to Parkinson’s, but not quite Parkinson’s disease.

“I was continually meeting with neurologists and they didn’t quite know what to tell you. But I knew something was up. In the back of my mind, from doing my own research and knowing my own body, I knew it was going to come down at some point to being Parkinson’s disease.”

Dempsey closed out his career in 2007-08 in Switzerland and had surgery in Bern to repair a sore hip, an injury which pretty much finished his game.

It was around that time, he said, that Parkinson’s really started to develop.

“My wife and I had been dealing with this for up to eight years as far as not really knowing, but knowing something wasn’t quite right,” he said.

Then came the official news they were waiting to hear.

Today, Dempsey takes four different pills a day. He’s active, and pays careful attention to what he eats and drinks.

So far, it’s been a winning combination.

“I’m not a fan of meds, but the doctors got a real good grasp on a good combination for me,” he said. “And for me to battle this thing, to hold it off for as long as possible, it’s important to stay in good shape. So that’s something I take very seriously.”

The tough part, of course, is not knowing. Dempsey makes it his business to keep on top of developments in Parkinson’s disease research, and says some people are affected by it differently than others.

It’s why, he says, you see Michael J. Fox react differently than Ali. The tough part is trying to understand what goes on in the brain, which is still a challenge to doctors and scientists.

“They’re making great headway, but at this point in time, it’s still difficult for them to tell how long it will be (before there is more of an understanding).

“The thing they do know, however, is that diet and physical activity is something that can help keep it at bay.”

He even manages to find some humour in a dark situation. His kids remind him of his shaky left hand, which his daughter calls his “jazz” hand.

And the good thing — “the good thing, right?” he laughs — is that when diagnosed early on, he said, Parkinson’s has a tendency to progress more slowly.

“Luckily for me, I’m active,” he said. “I’m not letting it get the better of me. I’m not slowing down.

“Sure, things could be better, but they could be a lot worse, too.”