Indeed, a full recovery by Kluzak would be the greatest comeback by an NHL defenseman since the early 1970s, when Montreal great Serge Savard returned after shattering his left leg twice in three years and skated into the Hall of Fame. If Kluzak succeeds, he will have a lot of people to thank, including himself.
"My first problem was that I couldn't cope with the pressure of being picked Number 1," says the 6'4", 210-pounder, who was drafted as an 18-year-old, ahead of the more celebrated Brian Bellows, now a right wing with Minnesota. The young Kluzak, from Climax, Saskatchewan, was not a standout on defense so the Bruins tried him out in other positions, including left wing. Then, just as the gangly youngster seemed to be finding his NHL legs in the 1984-85 preseason, came the check. As in boom, an open-ice blindsider by New Jersey's Dave Lewis in the final exhibition game. Though as Kluzak says, "It wasn't malicious," it did send him cartwheeling into the air. When he landed on his skates again, it was almost 1986.
"It was the terrible triad," says Kluzak. "I tore the anterior cruciate ligament, the medial collateral ligament and the meniscus cartilage." Triple crown. Knee puree. Goodbye 1984-85.
After surgery and rehab, Kluzak returned the following season to score a career-high 39 points, with eight goals, playing well enough to support Bruins G.M. Harry Sinden's assertion that "Gordie can be an All-Star or near All-Star in the NHL." But not on one leg. A slap shot off his left knee by Montreal's Larry Robinson in the Bruins' final game of the '86 playoffs precipitated new complications of old problems.
"I tried to skate that summer, but I was in tremendous pain," says Kluzak. In August 1986, Bruins physician Bert Zarins performed an arthroscopic procedure to remove pieces of cartilage from behind Kluzak's left kneecap. The pain continued. In December, Zarins and Buffalo-based Bruins medical coordinator Richard Weiss took out more cartilage. Still the pain persisted. Goodbye 1986-87. Hello friend and sports psychologist Jim Stoll.
Stoll is director of Counseling and Health Services at Salem (Mass.) State College, where Kluzak has completed three semesters toward a bachelor's degree in political science. The men had been friends for several years, and Kluzak had helped Stoll counsel student-athletes. Though Kluzak says he didn't seek help in the stereotypical lie-on-the-couch format, he did "draw on my friendship with Jim to help me cope with the fears I had about maybe not playing again."
It was a struggle. "My whole self-esteem was tied up in my worth as a hockey player," says Kluzak. "I thought if I couldn't play hockey, I was nothing. It was getting to a point where I didn't even want to go out and meet people."
"We talked about Gordie generalizing his self-esteem," says Stoll. "He had a lot of negative thoughts to edit out."
"The way I see it now, I can take the same qualities that helped me succeed in hockey—perseverance, discipline, aggressiveness—and apply them in other fields. I see myself as more than a hockey player," says Kluzak.
Meanwhile, the no-pain-no-gain athletic ethic led Kluzak to take Weiss's advice and leave Boston for Buffalo, where he worked out with the NFL Bills under the supervision of that team's training staff. "Knee injuries are sort of a way of life in football," explains Kluzak.