"Before, I would hang back in the net and know that I was quick enough to make the save. Now I try to adjust around the illness, because some things aren't the same as they once were."
When he began his comeback, appreciative Islander fans would greet Fitzpatrick with cheers every time he skated onto the ice and go easy on him when he didn't play well. Now when he blows a shot, he almost relishes the boos. "If I make a mistake oul there, I don't expect people to feel sorry for me," he says. "I expect a lot from myself, and I expect the fans to expect a lot from me as well."
Medical authorities began monitoring EMS only shortly before Fitzpatrick's condition was diagnosed, so there's no track record to predict the long-term effects of the disease. The most severe cases have resulted in death; other patients have suffered skin disorders, neuromuscular problems, fatigue and memory impairment.
Dr. Kaufman says Fitzpatrick's condition has never been life-threatening, and it's unlikely that any recurrence will be worse than what he has been through already. A few people appear to have recovered completely. But Fitzpatrick still has symptoms; at times his skin takes on an odd sheen. Touch his forearm, and you can feel hard pockets of swollen tissue.
In late October, Fitzpatrick was invited to speak before an international gathering of doctors who are trying to find new methods to treat EMS and similar diseases, such as toxic oil syndrome, an ailment that killed more than 600 people in Spain in 1981 after they had ingested tainted cooking oil. "In some ways Fitzie is like a guinea pig," says Islander trainer Ed Tyburski. "I mean, we know a lot less about this than AIDS and cancer."
"It's made me a lot stronger, I guess," Fitzpatrick says. "A stronger-willed person. Before I got the illness, I always thought that I could eat what I want and drink what I want, and it wouldn't affect me—I'd just work it off at practice. I used to really enjoy the things that were going on off the ice. To call me a partier might be a little bit strong, a little, but I did like to go out and have a good time after the games. Now I'm forced to take better care of myself. I can't drink alcohol, and I know it's vital that I get a lot of rest."
That's because the symptoms can sometimes be brought on by stress and fatigue. "Of course, that's exactly what this game is all about," he says. "Lots of pressure, so there's stress, and there's obviously a lot of exertion." Says defenseman Gary Nylund, Fitzpatrick's friend and teammate, "It's a catch-22. Just by playing, he's doing the exact opposite of what might help him beat the thing once and for all. You can't take a day off here. It's a tough sport, and every year it's getting tougher. The players coming in arc better, faster, stronger."
Fitzpatrick tries to compensate for the stress by living quietly in a rented house in Westbury, a village not far from Nassau Coliseum but light-years away from the buzz of Manhattan. And he maintains deep roots—not to mention his beloved 26-fool deepwater fishing boat—back in Kitimat. "I don't take anything for granted anymore," he says. "I appreciate waking up in the morning and being able to go for a walk or play golf or drive my car to practice. As bad as this has been, there are a lot of people in this world who don't get a second chance to do what they love."
The finest hockey player ever to come out of Kitimat, Fitzpatrick helped win the Memorial Cup—Canada's national junior championship—two years in a row with a team from Medicine Hat, Alberta. Drafted in the second round in 1987, he joined the Kings in '88. He was 19.
"Here's the best thing that ever happened to me," he says, beaming. "I'd been living in a hotel in L.A., and one day Wayne Gretzky comes up to me and says, 'Hey, kid, bring your bags to the rink tonight. You're coming to live with me.'