PITTSBURGH—Sometimes Clarke MacArthur is scared. How could he not be?
When he first came back after spending most of two years in concussion limbo, those first few games, he would spend a day before like he was a fighter: He would worry about tomorrow night, about what might happen. And then in the opening round of the playoffs he thought, it’s the Bruins, you’re going to get hit harder than you think. He got through that, too, and scored the series-winning goal. Best feeling ever.
“It’s just being in the moment, and when things align, and it goes right, man, it’s so hard to describe the feeling you get,” says MacArthur, whose Ottawa Senators are tied 1-1 in the Eastern Conference final with the Pittsburgh Penguins. “It’s ecstasy that you can’t get anywhere else. Scoring in OT, scoring the game-winner, I always say it’s got to be like a 6/49 lottery knocking on your door and saying you’ve won $50 million. I mean, that’s probably as close as you can get to it.”
He is playing the lottery, though. The former Sabres, Thrashers and Leafs winger had suffered four concussions in 18 months before being ruled out for this season in January. Somehow, he was cleared with four games to go. Concussions can beget more concussions and worse stuff down the road, maybe. He knows there is risk to this. He’s not stupid.
“It’s always in the back of my mind a little bit,” says MacArthur, 32. “The more games I’m in and the more hits I take and give, it starts to feel safer. But you still know. I know that hit — you see every night on the highlights, someone takes a headshot, so you just hope your ball doesn’t get picked.”
It was a long exile for MacArthur. A lot of people told him to walk away — family, doctors, friends. A lot. “It was exhausting,” he says now.
The pair of concussions to start the 2015-16 season were scary: He passed a baseline test after the first one but was still playing in a deep fog until his second concussion, four games into the season. He missed the rest of the year, and it was awful. Headaches that burned. Fatigue, depression. He constantly felt like he was falling. He had two young kids: then-three-year-old daughter Emery, and infant son Gus. He couldn’t be a parent. It was a half-life.
“I had a lot of issues with my left eye — like, above my eye I had this nerve damage that ended up clearing up, but my eyes would get tired after a couple hours, and I would get headaches, and two screaming kids, and a lot going on at that age,” MacArthur says. “It sped the headaches up — like, five hours a day. And I needed a nap, and reset, and I’d feel good for another hour and then it would start to come on again.”