Lessons of the heart

by Elizabeth Casey || AHL On The Beat Archive

pilar2_200.jpgIn order to skate their way into the American Hockey League, players must have work ethic, discipline and skill. They must have support, and they must have heart.

Chicago Wolves defenseman Karel Pilar knows this well. He learned that lesson in spades during the 2002-03 season, when one of those nearly gave out on him.

A young up-and-comer on the Toronto Maple Leafs blue line, the then-25-year-old Pilar noticed things weren’t right one day.

“We were in Vancouver,” he recalls. “I started to feel sick. I was getting dizzy on the ice but I tried to get through it.”

He sat out for a time, hoping it would pass, but the only thing that became clear was that he couldn’t skate through the fog. The symptoms didn’t go away.

The team sent him to a doctor when they returned to Toronto, and then flew him to Montreal for a second opinion. He was eventually diagnosed with viral myopathy, which is an infection that causes the heart to stiffen and constricts blood flow, which is why the defenseman had been getting dizzy.

“It was a tough time,” says Pilar. “It took a while to find out what it was, because (viral myopathy) doesn’t show up on an EKG. You have to do special tests to diagnose it. I didn’t know what was wrong and at times I couldn’t walk up stairs because I’d get so dizzy.”

The sudden transition from a well-conditioned professional athlete to someone coping with dizzy spells when doing the most simple tasks was understandably unnerving to Pilar, who saw his second professional season abbreviated to just 17 National Hockey League games.

“I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to play again,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know if I could get back to normal life. I worried if I couldn’t play hockey and I had to work, would I even be able to do that? It was a very tough time in those first few months. Very tough.”

Pilar says he relied on family to help him through the ordeal and, after a while, he began to improve – both physically and mentally.

“I began to feel better after the first few months, but more than anything I started to believe that I could get back to normal life. It sounds cliché I know, but the main thing that helped was when I started to believe.”

The defenseman slowly began to work out again, and Toronto stuck by their former second-round draft pick, signing him to a contract for the 2003-04 season.

Pilar responded with his two most prolific years in professional hockey. After beginning the season with the AHL’s St. John’s Maple Leafs, he went on to notch a career-high 17 assists and 19 points in 50 NHL games with Toronto.

pilar_200.jpgDuring the NHL lockout in 2004-05, he returned to his native Czech Republic and netted a career-best 13 goals and 28 points in 52 games with Sparta Praha, but while training that summer, the triumphant return to Toronto he was envisioning was eclipsed by more bouts of dizziness.

Pilar relapsed.

“Toronto was very good to me. They flew me to the doctor in Montreal and he told me that occasionally it happens twice,” he recounts.

Rather than be crushed by feelings of helplessness or defeat, Pilar drew from the mental toughness and spirit he had learned during his first fight with the illness.

“It was a lot easier the second time because I had been through it before. The doctor gave me confidence that I would make a full recovery; that it would have no effect on my heart in the future. My family helped me again but this time I really believed that I would get better.”

And get better he did. Despite missing nearly the entire 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, Pilar kept training and kept believing. He returned to his North American hockey roots and joined the Toronto Marlies for the final 10 games of 2007.

A full recovery and an offseason found him signing onto a fresh start with the Atlanta Thrashers organization, leaving the comfort of the Toronto franchise that had drafted him and stood by him throughout his hardest times.

“I had only experienced one system in Toronto,” said Pilar. “When I came to Chicago, I realized there are a lot of people doing good work here too and this is a great organization. Chicago is a great American city with good fans.”

The transition over the last few years has not been seamless, Pilar admits.

“I wasn’t playing for a year and a half, which is hard, and coming back to America after playing in Europe you notice the ice is smaller. You have less time and you have to chip it in more, which is hard for me to do, but I think I have been getting better and I hope to be at my best for playoffs.”

Accustomed as he is to overcoming obstacles, his mind is already focused on the next one at hand: the pursuit of the Calder Cup. Hard work, perseverance and the fine line between sink and swim are some things the 30-year-old defenseman knows a little about. He also knows the recipe for success.

“You have to believe you will do it,” he says.

“It all comes back to heart.”