Robitaille, an Ontario native, signed an NHL contract and left home to play junior hockey at 14. According to Esson's "reasons for judgment," he soon began suffering attacks of anxiety and depression, which continued after he made the NHL, with the Rangers, in 1970. In September 1976 Robitaille, now with the Canucks, was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment but rejoined Vancouver early in the 1976-77 season. He promptly suffered a flare-up of an old shoulder injury, but the Canuck management, maintaining that it was "all in his head," insisted that he play or be suspended.
Robitaille played but complained increasingly of neck pains. Esson says that during a road trip that began on Jan. 1, 1977, Robitaille suffered "symptoms of spinal cord disorder" but was given only "cursory" examinations by New York and Atlanta team doctors and was pointedly ignored by Canuck doctors after suffering further injuries in a game in Vancouver on Jan. 12. Throughout, the Canucks treated him as a "persistent complainer with mental problems," Esson wrote in his judgment.
On Jan. 19, 1977 Robitaille took a hard check from Pittsburgh's Dennis Owchar. Esson recounts that the player was "dragged from the ice in a clumsy and reckless manner," which may have aggravated his injury, and that in the locker room a Canuck doctor, Michael Piper, told Robitaille, "Go home to bed and have a shot of Courvoisier." Robitaille wound up in the hospital the next day, and his problem eventually was diagnosed as a cervical cord contusion. Even then, Vancouver General Manager Phil Maloney called him a "con artist," while Piper warned that he would be traded unless he "got it together again."
Robitaille never played another game. Testimony was elicited that Robitaille, who is now 31, suffers from a permanent spinal cord injury that causes numbness and involuntary jerking of his arms and legs and impairs his sex life, his ability to drive a car and his prospects for holding on to his $12,000-a-year job as a machinery salesman. Esson awarded Robitaille $435,000 but reduced the award by 20%—to $348,000—on the grounds that Robitaille was guilty of contributory negligence because he might have sought out a private doctor or simply refused to play. But the judge also noted that pro athletes are generally discouraged from consulting doctors on their own and are under pressure to conform to "the ethic of not being a complainer." He further concluded that team doctors usually resolve doubts in favor of keeping players in the lineup and that the health of players tends to be subordinated to "the team's interests" when those two factors are in conflict. Had "reasonable attention" been paid to Robitaille's well-being, Esson said, the player might have been spared the injury that has left him permanently disabled.
COUNTDOWN TO A DEBACLE
Norway's Grete Waitz arrived at San Francisco's Cow Palace Friday night primed for a new conquest. As she carefully plotted it, she would run the 3,000 meters in the Runner's World Indoor Classic in 8:48, thereby obliterating Jan Merrill's world indoor mark of 8:57.6. And sure enough, she covered the first mile just as she had planned, in a swift 4:42.1, and she remained almost perfectly on pace thereafter. So Waitz was distraught and confused when, upon hitting the tape ahead of her eight rivals, Merrill among them, she saw the infield clock flashing a disappointing 9:15.
What evidently happened was that with three laps of the 160-yard track remaining, the lap counter neglected to flip his numbered cards, thus mistakenly indicating there were still four laps to go. As a result, Waitz wound up running an extra 160 yards. Two stopwatches caught her at 8:50.8 and 8:51, respectively, for the 3,000, but it was unclear whether a world record would be sanctioned. In any case, Waitz was unhappy. Reason: because she had been misled by the lap counter's error, she had saved her sprint for the superfluous extra lap. "If I can run 8:51 without a kick, I could run 8:48 with one," she said tearfully. "I care less about official acceptance [of the record] than about being denied the opportunity to do my best."