RALEIGH — Brian Pothier spent most of 2008 wondering if his hockey career was over.
A two-hour session with a Raleigh optometrist helped save it, he said, but that's getting a little ahead of the story.
Pothier and Matt Cullen were on the ice Thursday night at the RBC Center. Pothier now plays for the Carolina Hurricanes and Cullen for the Ottawa Senators, the result of recent trades, but that Pothier has been able to see his way back into the NHL, back into hockey, has a lot to do with Cullen.
Late in 2008, Pothier feared the worst. Then with the Washington Capitals, the defenseman had been slammed into the boards by Boston Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic, jerking his head and neck and causing a concussion in a game early that year.
As weeks and then months passed, Pothier wasn't able to recover from persistent headaches, fatigue and disorientation. He paraded from doctor to doctor, underwent nearly every medical test, and nothing helped. "They were wild symptoms, not the typical concussion stuff," he said. "We saw every specialist you can think of ... anything and everything. Johns Hopkins, Colorado, we went everywhere.
"I had no idea what was going on. At that point, it had been 11 months and I didn't know what was going to happen."
And then he heard about Cullen.
Cullen, playing for the Hurricanes, was knocked unconscious on a blindside hit by Colton Orr of the New York Rangers in a Dec. 26, 2007 game. He experienced recurring vision problems that kept him off the ice, robbing him of games and causing the same career anxiety.
But among the doctors Cullen consulted was Susan Durham, an optometrist with offices in Cary and Raleigh, and the forward soon was back on the ice.
"It's a pretty scary thing, but it was one of those things where your vision gets changed just a little bit and everything is fine again," Cullen said Thursday. "Things were a little blurry, but it was something as simple as adjusting your contacts and going through some exercises for your eyes."
Caps trainer Greg Smith had worked with Cullen when the two were with the Anaheim Ducks, and Smith told Pothier about Cullen's work with Durham.
"We'd seen everybody else," Pothier said. "Why not? Couldn't hurt."
While in Raleigh for a game in early December, Pothier spent two hours with Durham. But as quickly as he could slip into a pair of glasses and go to a computer screen for tests, he realized he might have found an answer.
"I put the glasses on and it changed the game for me," he said. "Everything had been gray and vague and pixel-ly and blurry. She put a pair of glasses on me, and it just tightened right up.
"It gave my eyes a chance to rest. Pretty much the next day I was starting to get on the bike and a few days later on the ice."
It turned out that a previously undiagnosed astigmatism, an abnormal curve of the cornea that causes out-of-focus vision - and not the concussion - was causing his ongoing symptoms. Not that Pothier was back in the lineup that fast. Visual therapy sessions - coordination drills, computer programs - continued with Dr. Paul Harris in Baltimore. Pothier finally was able to rejoin the Caps in March 2009 after a conditioning stint in the American Hockey League.
Durham said Pothier, 32, suffered from a "mismatch" from the input he was getting from his vestibular system, which governs balance and movement, and his vision. In short, his brain was unable to quickly process what his eyes were seeing, which caused a loss of balance and a lack of coordination.
"Brian said he couldn't push his kids on a swing, that it would make him sick, that he couldn't get on a treadmill," Durham said. "Bottom line: He needed vision therapy to fix the mismatch.
"I'm so happy for him. He was having issues with his career, with his passion for the game, and it was affecting his family life. He wasn't able to be a dad with his boys. He needed help to get his normal state back."
Earlier this season, Pothier gave Durham an autographed Caps jersey to hang in her office. Then, on Wednesday, Durham said she got a call from her husband.
"He said, 'Guess who just got traded to the Hurricanes?' " she said.
Pothier came to the Canes in the deal that sent defenseman Joe Corvo to the Caps. On Thursday, he and Cullen - traded to Ottawa on Feb. 12 - were on the ice and Durham in the RBC Center stands as the Canes won 4-1. Cullen scored a goal and Pothier played well in his first game with his new team.
"I'm getting to the point where I won't have to ever wear glasses again," Pothier said. "Right now, I'm close."
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