Toby Petersen remembers the day he found out he had type 1 diabetes. Around him, his health care team was talking about a medical plan; his parents were asking questions. Everyone was talking about something called “diabetes,” and how it might change his life. But from the start, Petersen made his one priority clear: even as a boy, he cut through the adult voices and announced his intention:
There was no way he was going to let it make him miss hockey practice.
No surprise then, that the young boy in the hospital bed not only went on to make that practice, but to play eight seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL) – the last four with the Dallas Stars1 – all with type 1 diabetes on board. “I think every nurse in that hospital knew I was a hockey player,” he said recently after wrapping up a practice session for Dallas’ minor league affiliate, the Texas Stars. The team is part of the American Hockey League (AHL)2, the development league for the NHL, where Petersen is playing during the NHL lockout. “I can honestly tell you it was all I could think of at that moment.”
For Petersen, life working toward a career as a pro center has involved not just building on-ice skill and power, but figuring out how to make it all work while living with type 1 diabetes – something that is no small feat, especially since hockey is an adrenaline-raising sport using spurts of energy.
“It’s kind of an ongoing experiment,” Petersen said of his diabetes hockey plan. His secret? “Check, and check often.” Who would have guessed that the secret to playing hard-nosed defense and playing hockey while living with diabetes would turn out to be the same? On game days, Petersen begins many hours before start time. Glucose checks come regularly up to game time, and he is looking not only to stay in the right range, but also to make sure he is trending the right way. Read more about the signs of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia.
While many people marvel at his ability to compete at the highest level, Petersen says it’s been easier for him, because games and practices now almost always happen at the same time each day, rather than after school one day and in the morning the next.
“When you know when something is going to happen and you know what your day leading up to it will look like, you can plan much better,” he said. “You can settle into a routine once you find one that works.” For Peterson, that involves a pregame nap (something many hockey players do) and eating the same game day meal.
Petersen, a father of three, salutes his parents not only for getting him to practices and games early on, but also for helping figure out his health needs on a less-than-predictable schedule.
“It was hard for them, for sure,” he said. “But they never let me consider anything other than making it work.”
His parents also did something amazing for him, he said, when they showed him at a young age the story of Bobby Clarke, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at fifteen, but went on to become a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Philadelphia Flyers and member of the NHL Hall of Fame. In him, Petersen saw hope and a goal to aspire to.
Today, Clarke is an executive for the Flyers and still maintains the same outlook he had as a player. “You’re a hockey player, and you have diabetes – not a diabetic hockey player,” he said. “Don’t let it be an excuse. Because it has no affect on how I played the game.”
To this day, Petersen says, that mantra fuels him.
All of which leads to this story:
Three years ago, a boy from Plymouth, MA, named Jeffrey D’Angelo was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. His parents were asking questions, his health care team was making a plan, and all Jeffrey could think about was this:
“I don’t want to miss hockey practice.”
He and his parents went online and searched “diabetes and hockey,” and came across Petersen’s story. “I knew right then I was going to be able to do this,” said D’Angelo, who is preparing to play for his high school hockey team next year. “Toby Petersen is my role model. If he can do it, I can do it.”
From Clarke to Petersen to a young player with a dream. The beat goes on, one finger prick, one practice, and one goal at a time.
Moira McCarthy is an acclaimed writer, author, and public speaker who has shared her story – and lessons – on raising a child living with type 1 diabetes in the media, through books, and on her popular blog, despitediabetes.com. McCarthy has appeared on CNN Live, Good Morning America, and Fox News. She was recently recognized as the JDRF International Volunteer of the Year. Her six books include the top-selling Everything Parent’s Guide to Juvenile Diabetes and the upcoming Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Survival Guide For Parents. McCarthy is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
1 NHL and Dallas Stars are registered trademarks of the National Hockey League.
2 AHL and Texas Stars are registered trademarks of the American Hockey League.
© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience