VANCOUVER -- Maybe there is a connection, but Peter Douris isn't certain. Life has been harder lately, more complex, but somehow, even in ways he can't explain, hockey is a little easier.
"In comparison, hockey's pretty simple," the Boston Bruins' second-year right wing said. "My priorities in the last five months have certainly been shuffled around a little bit, and now hockey . . . it just seems, well, it's still a job -- but that's all it really is, a job. It's not life and death."
Douris's perspective changed May 9. Ellen Douris was born that day with holoprosencephaly, a condition her father describes as an abnormality in brain development. Doctors at Boston's Children's Hospital told Douris and his wife, Gail, that 1 in 13,000 babies suffers from the condition, and many don't live more than a several days. Very few, said Douris, reach the age of 1.
"But she's been doing pretty well," said Douris, sitting in Pacific Coliseum Monday, preparing with the Bruins to face the Vancouver Canucks Wednesday night. "We have no real prognosis, though. At first, we thought she'd be a vegetable, and now there's no telling really what's going to happen. She's a fighter, and right now she's fighting to thrive."
To be realistic, though, Douris said, that was Ellen's condition as of Monday afternoon. He has learned to speak about his only child in certain time frames. Ellen was doing okay Monday. What Tuesday brings, and what Wednesday offers, are not within her grasp, or her parents' grasp. Not much has been from the day she was born.
"When it happened, I was all caught up with hockey," Douris said. Ellen was born the day the Bruins knocked the Washington Capitals out of the playoffs to enter the Stanley Cup finals. "And when hockey was over, I had this feeling of disappointment that we'd lost, and at the same time I had to go home and face this other loss.
"Really, that's what it's like -- you mourn the loss of the baby you expected. That's hard at first, let me tell you. You expect the baby is going to be healthy, to the point where it's almost bad luck or taboo to talk about the chance of not having a normal baby. I mean, no one talks about that in birth classes, or anything. . . . And all of a sudden, here's our baby with a tube down her throat for food -- things we never dreamed possible.
"From the very beginning, there we were, thinking, 'She could live . . . or she could die tomorrow.' And it's still that way."
All of which makes Douris's quick start this season all the more remarkable. Not only has he made the team, which was hardly a given considering his mediocre rookie year (11 points in 36 games), but he has been what Coach Mike Milbury called the "biggest surprise." His skating looks faster, his confidence higher, and he has three goals in six games.
"He's improved his game a lot," said Milbury. "He's scoring, he's checking well -- he's got to play."
One irony, Douris said, is that he probably did less work this past summer than in other years. For one thing, the Bruins played until late in May, delaying any summer conditioning until perhaps July. And then there was Ellen.
"The thing is, you learn that you have to forget what you were expecting," he said. "After a while, you learn to say, 'Okay, she's not what I expected, she's different, that's all; and that's okay.' And, who knows, maybe all of that is somehow related now. I'm 24 years old, and we've got this little baby, and you have to think about these life-and-death issues. You know, things like, do you keep her alive if something were to happen? When she first got home, I thought a lot, 'Well, if God decides to take her, maybe that's the best thing.' "
Ellen Douris, a few days over 5 months old, reacts to being held, her father said. He can tell she recognizes her mother. She can move her eyes and sometimes flashes a smile. For the most part, Ellen can eat and also suck on a bottle without much help. But it is uncertain how much her brain has developed, or will.
"You live day-to-day, and you know the end could come any day," he said. "But you know, you face it . . . it teaches you more to live for today. I know that sounds like the cliche of cliches. But sometimes that's why things are cliches. It's day-to-day . . . take care of things."