I think about Joffrey Lupul a lot, A) because I’m a bisexual human woman with eyes and B) because I feel like history is going to remember his tenure with the Leafs as a failure and I don’t think that’s fair.
We all now the story by now: the promising career waylaid by injury, a once-certain ascendance to the Leafs captaincy becoming increasingly unlikely, the eventual failing of his pre-season physical and subsequent banishment to that weird limbo somewhere between the disabled list and injured reserve.
When the Leafs acquired Lupul from Anaheim in 2011, he had just spent the year in bed. A freak on-ice accident in 2008 had left him with a spinal cord contusion. He had to have surgery, and then another surgery, and then had a near-fatal series of blood infections as a result of those surgeries going wrong. He spent months hooked to an IV, receiving round-the-clock care from the family members who flew from Alberta to Anaheim to be with him. He lost 40 pounds, was told he would never play again. And then, miraculously, he did.
He wasn’t the same player though, despite an All Star Game worthy season with the Leafs in 2012. He kept getting injured, kept needing “maintenance days,” had to sit on a special cushion in the locker room because it was too painful to sit on a hard bench. He was still the guy who talked to the press, who dealt with the refs, and who set up plays from the blue line, but as the seasons went by and his play worsened, it became obvious that he was in a lot of pain. In 2015, he tweeted about his struggles with an unspecified mental illness. He missed the back half of the 2015-2016 season after abdominal surgery, and then failed this year’s physical. After an emotional statement about hockey being “the only life [he’s] ever known,” he announced he wouldn’t start the 2016-2017 season.
I feel for him; life with chronic pain is a life of managing expectations. So much of your time is spent learning to adapt to a body that doesn’t do the things you need it to that there’s little time left over for reaching your potential. It’s terrifying once it takes hold, the growing awareness that this thing intends to stop you, intends to keep those things that you want to do away from you. Lupul’s situation is heartbreaking, but empathy is not a particularly valuable commodity in the hockey world and his predicament has made him something of a running joke.
He’s “soft,” he works out too much, he doesn’t work out enough, he spends to much time on his f***y hobbies like music and photography and not enough time getting stronger (I have no idea how these two things correlate but I’ve never pretended to understand hockey bro logic.) He’s selfish for taking maintenance days, he’s begging for attention when he posts on social media about the cryotherapy treatments he gets in a last-ditch effort to recover his ability to skate. As if the pain is his fault. As if he wants to feel this way. And as someone with a disability, it’s deeply frustrating to see him talked about like this.
Because here’s the truth about life with a chronic condition: despite every “If you believe, you can achieve” platitude, despite every well-meaning person encouraging you to say “differently-abled,” there are some things that you straight-up can’t do. And that should be enough, really: “I can’t do that because I have a disability” should be enough to make people leave you alone. But we live in a world where you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, where shooting for the moon will land you among the stars, where the only disability is a bad attitude. You can’t do the things you want to do because you’re not trying hard enough, and so you’ll be forced to try and try and try again until someone finally decides you’re properly useless. And then you get banished to whatever your equivalent of Injured Reserve is, never to be thought of again outside the context of “They really could have been something. What a shame.”
Chronic pain may have stopped Joffrey Lupul from living up to his potential as a hockey player but something feels cruel about talking about him in those terms. He did what all of us with disabilities do every day: tried to do the best he could with the limited tools he had available. He tried and tried and tried again until we decided he was properly useless. He did exactly what we asked of him, and doesn’t deserve our scorn for not being able to deliver anymore.
That said, his situation doesn’t warrant pity. Empathy, of course, but not pity. Because he’s not useless. He’s not a failure. If this is indeed a premature end to what could have been a stellar career then he’ll do what the rest of us with disabilities do: grieve what could have been, then say ‘fuck ’em,” and carry on.