On the shelves behind the changing benches in the Carolina Hurricanes’ locker room, you’ll find plenty of hockey tape, a repair kit or two, maybe an energy drink or some concoction that looks like a mix between a mudslide and a smoothie. On Brett Pesce's shelf, though, there’s another always-present object.
It’s an albuterol inhaler.
The Hurricanes defenseman suffers from asthma, a condition that causes his airways to constrict. It sometimes leads to excess mucus, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Albuterol helps to counteract the condition, but asthma can be difficult to manage no matter the circumstances.
And when those circumstances include a career as a professional hockey player, needing to be in top physical condition every night and requiring peak cardiovascular and respiratory shape, it requires a delicate balancing act.
Pesce, though, is used to it. He was diagnosed with asthma in elementary school, and even in midget and junior hockey, he says, he would play through asthma attacks that occurred on the ice. And as if it wasn’t enough of a problem to begin with, the cold, dry air that is prevalent at every hockey rink makes it even worse.
“Not so good for my sport,” he laughs.
Pesce can laugh about it now, because after 20 years of playing hockey while dealing with his condition, knowing how to manage it is second nature to him. “It’s controlled. I’m on a few medications, so I just feel normal.”
Although Pesce is ready if anything were to happen that would impact his breathing during a game, he attempts to minimize the risk as much as possible, including by modifying his diet. “I don’t eat cheese or dairy. I’ve found that it could affect your asthma, so I stay away from dairy.”
Pesce is unsure of how many other NHLers also deal with asthma, although he is the only player on the Hurricanes who has the condition. And similar to other chronic conditions, the albuterol that he uses to manage his asthma needs to itself be managed, lest Pesce face league discipline for unauthorized use of a performance-enhancing drug. It’s straightforward enough, but requires a player to be on top of things in the preseason to avoid a situation like Vegas’ Nate Schmidt was thrust into.
For Pesce, the process is simple. “You just have to sign a paper,” he explains. “You go right to the trainers, and it’s a pretty simple process. But you definitely have to sign that sheet, or else you’re in trouble.”
Occasionally asthma gives some clues that an attack may be forthcoming. Pesce has dealt with it for long enough that he can make as few accommodations as necessary to his full-speed game, knowing that there’s a line he can’t cross without triggering an attack.
On some occasions, when his body tells him that it can handle more than he’s giving it, he’ll take advantage of the situation. “If I go a few games, and I notice I don’t breathe as hard, maybe the games are a little easier, I’ll try to get a little extra workout in,” he says. “I get out of shape that much faster — faster than everybody else, unfortunately.
“I do have to do a little extra before coming into training camp,” he acknowledges, quickly laughing while adding “so I don’t die out there.”
But even with all the prep work, occasionally Pesce gets caught. Once, while playing college hockey for New Hampshire, during a road game in Colorado he suffered an attack while on the ice. He says he didn’t have to go into the locker room, but it required about six minutes of game time for him to recuperate and catch his breath again.
And similar to players in other sports - longtime Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, a carrier of a sickle cell anemia trait who was deactivated for road games against the Denver Broncos, comes to mind - Pesce says that the high altitude of Denver makes games against the Avalanche even more challenging.
“Absolutely. Not as much in Vegas and Arizona, but in Colorado 100%. I definitely feel like I can’t catch my breath as well and it takes that much more effort to get back to normal.”
Fortunately, with Raleigh only situated a few hundred feet above sea level, that’s rarely an issue here. Pesce may not be signing with the Avalanche as a free agent anytime soon, but he manages his condition as best he can, controlling his expending of energy as much as possible while always keeping in mind that his locker has that extra accessory for him to use whenever he needs it.