No one talked about the day he walked onto the bus with tears in his eyes when he was told he was headed to the minors, a year before Erik Cole actually made the NHL and a moment none of his teammates who were there forgot. That was the moment the Cole legend began, really, 17 years ago almost to the week. The kid who cared too much. The kid who came back a year later and proved he belonged.
And no one talked about the night in Pittsburgh when Brooks Orpik ran him headfirst into the boards from behind, breaking two vertebrae in Cole’s neck and changing the direction of his career and, eventually, life. But everyone did talk about the repercussions from that incident, how it led to Cole’s retirement Wednesday night after two years out of the game, one spent arguing with doctors, the other spent fighting against the obvious conclusion.
So the next phase of Cole’s life, post-career, has already begun, long before he went through the silly but no less sentimental ritual of signing a contract with the Hurricanes to retire in that uniform. He’s merely the latest of a long list of former players to join the team in some capacity, but the first on the business side. As team president Don Waddell made clear, Cole’s new “ambassador” role is as much about schmoozing with sponsors, playing golf with the right people and sealing business deals as it is anything else. Cole’s lived here long enough at this point, he should know who to call.
His impact on the team was far bigger than the numbers – ninth in franchise history in points and games played, over two separate stints – because he was such an integral part of the two greatest teams to take the ice here, and a lesser part of the third. As a rookie in 2002, his speed was the missing ingredient that made the BBC Line click with Rod Brind’Amour and Bates Battaglia. And you really had to see him play in person in the fall of 2005 to appreciate what a dominant player he was before Orpik intervened.
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In a league that returned from the lockout focused on speed and freedom, Cole sliced through defenses like a samurai sword, cleaving them open with his powerful scampers down the right wing. One night in Buffalo, he drew two penalty shots in the same game. He was a wrecking ball, and he had no idea then he may have reached the absolute peak of his career.
It was another night in Buffalo a few months later, during the Eastern Conference finals, when Cole got the final news from his doctors that there would be no comeback, even if the Canes somehow advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. Cole never accepted that diagnosis. Even in the harsh glare of the Stanley Cup spotlight, the team was able to keep Cole’s secret flights from Edmonton to Denver for CT scans quiet, right up until he was on the ice for warmups in Game 6.
He was probably risking his life that night, at least to some very small degree, as he would for the rest of his career. (His best statistical full season actually came later on, in 2011-12, with Montreal.) Stingers. Nerve pain. What Orpik did to him never really went away, and still hasn’t.
“I can’t go downhill skiing or jump into a pool headfirst, but it’s nothing day to day,” Cole said Wednesday night, officially retired. “I’m still able to get out and golf and play with my kids and do all the things a father would want to do.”
Cole was never again able to deliver the dominance he reached in the first half of the 2005-06 season, but he fought through his neck issues to carve out a remarkable career, one the devastated kid on the bus could be proud of, 17 years later.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock