He decided he was feeling well enough to stop taking prednisone, the drug that had reduced the swelling, but one that can have harmful side effects such as cataracts and softening of the bones. Then, on the eve of training camp that fall, he had a relapse. "It was like someone punctured me with a needle and sucked all the energy right out of my body," he says. "That's how it feels. Your major muscles swell up, your whole body feels stiff and sore and tired. You have virtually no range of motion. Nobody has any use for a goaltender who can't move."
Another two months of rest and rehabilitation were followed by another stint in the minors. By February, when the team's starter, Glen Healy, went down with an injury, Fitzpatrick was ready to step in. He started 12 of the Islanders' last 14 games, finishing the '91-92 season with an 11-13-5 record and a 3.20 goals-against average. The Professional Hockey Writers' Association awarded him the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to the sport.
Fitzpatrick was flattered by the honor, but he seemed most pleased by the league's decision to include him on this season's All-Star ballot. He has had his fill of expressions of sympathy, however well intended. "People are always asking me 'How do you feel?' " he says. "Every single day, for the last three years. Wherever I go. At the rink, at the mall, at home, it's always 'How do you feel?' I'm looking forward to the day people just ask me 'How's it going?' Anything but 'How do you feel?' "
So, Mark, how do you feel? "Fine," he says. "I have my good weeks, my bad weeks and my so-so weeks."
According to his doctor, Fitzpatrick is way ahead of the curve. "I've seen that this can be a horrible disease, most disabling," says Dr. Lee Kaufman, director of clinical rheumatology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who has treated more than 60 EMS patients. "For the amount of disease he had in his system, Mark is making an amazing recovery. He'll probably continue to have some problem with it, but I'm not so pessimistic to say that he'll never be back to what he was. He has so much motivation."
Fitzpatrick now takes weekly doses of prednisone and methotrexate, a drug that is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. He undergoes blood tests regularly. To build his muscle mass, he lifts weights. To keep his muscles as limber as possible, he has a stretching routine that he follows before practices and games. Afterward he slips into a body-numbing ice bath for 20 minutes, climbing out just before he turns into a 6' 2", 190-pound block of ice.
The Islanders admire his effort, though they know there's no guarantee that Fitzpatrick will ever reach his enormous potential. "He had this bounce, this fluidity that you don't often find in a big man," says former general manager Bill Torrey, who acquired Fitzpatrick and two other players from the Los Angeles Kings in February '89 for goalie Kelly Hrudey. "That's what I always loved about him, and that's what's been affected. At times he has it. At other times he doesn't. But Fitzie is still young. If he can lick this, he's going to have a great career. A talent like this doesn't come along very often."
"The talent is still there," says Billy Smith, the former Islander goalie who now serves as the team's goaltending instructor. "I don't think he's lost all that much. It's just a matter of how he feels when he comes out to play. When Mark feels good, he looks as good or better than he ever has. On the days he's stiff, he looks like an average goaltender."
Average isn't good enough for Fitzpatrick, who thought he was on the verge of greatness three years ago. "I was just starting to bloom," he says. "I was on the road to becoming one of the top young goaltenders in the league. Then I got hit by the illness, and the road's a lot harder now."
On his best days Fitzpatrick says he might feel 90% as sharp as he did before he contracted EMS. On his worst, maybe 70%. Or less. "I'll use whatever I have to the best of my ability," he says. "Instead of relying on my hand-eye coordination, now I try and come out and challenge the shooter a little more. I'll try and block off more of an angle so I'm not forced to use my reflexes as much.