Before returning to Slovakia he called Berard, who assured Hossa that he was going to be fine and told him he needed to get the accident out of his mind and to get on with his career. Hossa spent the summer trying to forget. He hung out with friends, swam in a lake and played tennis nearly every day. No traveling. No interviews.
That self-devised remedy seems to have worked. In 64 games through Sunday, he had 26 goals and 35 assists, second in both categories on the Eastern Conference-leading Senators. He was +22 and had played in the All-Star Game. "He's like Steve Yzerman or Sergei Fedorov, excellent at both ends of the ice," Ottawa coach Jacques Martin says of Hossa. "He doesn't cheat, so I can play him in the last minute of the game."
Still, the accident is never far from his mind. It pops up at unexpected times, hitting him like a blow to the gut. He was changing TV channels earlier this season when a replay of the accident flashed across the screen. "I try not to think about it," Hossa says, his body tensing visibly when the subject of Berard's injury is broached. "It's done, and there's nothing I can do. It was an awful thing to have happened, but talking about it is not going to help me focus on the game."
Hossa is eager to redeem himself in the playoffs, to prove that his miserable showing last spring was an aberration. "I'm pretty happy with my season so far, but in the playoffs everybody starts over," he says. "It's another challenge. You have to be a little meaner than in the regular season. Meaner and tougher mentally."
"To be honest, I'm happy he's having a good year," Berard says of Hossa. "He should put it behind him."
For Berard, however, that hasn't been possible: No amount of willpower can bring back eyesight. In the months following the first round of surgeries, he struggled with routine undertakings because his depth perception was impaired. He sometimes missed his glass when pouring water into it. (He still has to concentrate hard on that task.) How was he going to knock down bouncing pucks? Find and clear a rebound? Defend himself against a blind-side forechecker?
Through the Christmas holidays, Berard told friends and family he hoped to be back with the Maple Leafs by the end of February. Last summer he began working out at a gym, and in November he started skating a few times a week with the Providence College team. He was shooting on goalies, playing three-on-three games, getting used to wearing a face shield. "Passing, stick-handling, taking passes I'm fine," Berard said in December. "It's in the corners that it's tough, battling with a guy one-on-one. That's where I need my vision to improve."
A little-known NHL bylaw states that players must have a minimum of 20/400 vision in each eye, and Berard's damaged eye fell well short of that standard. (The vision in his right eye is so poor that it cannot be measured.) Things became bleaker for him in January when Chang discovered that scar tissue had formed over the injured eye, further limiting the player's vision. Berard underwent a sixth operation last month to remove that tissue. While the procedure was successful, the reality of his situation finally hit Berard, and on Feb. 26 he announced his retirement. "Four doctors have stated pretty clearly that my eyesight is not going to get better," Berard said. "I'm not going to see 20/400."
He spoke without bitterness. What could have been a sad story about a young star's career nipped in the bud has become a lesson in human resilience. The people who know Berard best—parents, siblings, teammates, doctors, friends—believe that he will live a fulfilled and productive life. "I've never heard him be angry, not for one minute," his mother says. "Until you're hit with adversity, you never know how you'll react. He's so strong. Bryan's going to be O.K. no matter what."
Soon Berard will receive a tax-free payment of $6 million in disability-insurance coverage. Tom Laidlaw, Berard's agent, has offered him a job working in his Greenwich, Conn., office, representing and recruiting young players. Berard would also like to coach part time. " USA Hockey has talked to me about working with some of their select teams," he says. "It hasn't really hit me that my playing career is over. I guess it will when the guys are working out this summer, and it's time to go back to camp."