By Michael Sharp
Press & Sun-Bulletin
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. – The first time Binghamton Senators right wing Cory Pecker doubted he’d ever be flying around the American Hockey League ice was when he heard the word “disease.”
That was before 45 pounds fought their way off his frame. Before he was airlifted home to Montreal, and his diet was reduced to popsicles and broth. Before he learned, eight years ago, that a plate of mashed potatoes can be heaven.
The second time came last month. Pecker had just come back down to the ECHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners after a three-game tryout stint with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage. That night, he called his parents wondering if, at age 24, it was time to start worrying about something other than power plays and plus-minus ratings.
“I just didn’t have it,” he said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to go back and play in that league when I thought that I could definitely play in this league. That was tough.”
But Pecker didn’t walk away. Not in December. Not in 1998, when he returned to finish his first season of juniors despite missing four months and undergoing two major stomach operations to battle Crohn’s Disease, a chronic disorder that causes inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.
The payoff for his perseverance is now playing on this team, this season, this spot on the first line and stats like this: Before Cory Pecker signed a 25-game professional tryout agreement on Dec. 15, the Senators were 7-15-2-1. Since then, they’ve gone 10-4-0-1.
“The guy has a knack for scoring goals,” Pecker’s linemate Steve Martins said. “And he’s scored some big ones for us this year. And it’s a pleasure to play with him. He seems to find his way, and he’s making the most of the opportunity given to him.”
There are several reasons the Binghamton Senators — now at the midpoint of their season — have played their way back into the playoff hunt after a slow start. Defenseman Brad Norton’s arrival. Improvements in goaltending and penalty killing. A favorable run of home dates over the past month. A suddenly potent offense.
The easy-going Pecker, an avid golfer whose teammates like to razz him about his mop-top of curly brown hair, is certainly another reason. He has brought a scoring spark, recording eight goals, eight assists and a plus-7 rating through 14 games. And with forwards Brandon Bochenski and Patrick Eaves playing in Ottawa, he has also provided some much-needed depth up front.
After starting on a tryout agreement — the call from Senators coach Dave Cameron came less than two weeks after he was released by San Antonio — Pecker signed an AHL contract Jan. 4, ensuring that this is now a season, not a stint, in Binghamton.
“I knew based on his ability that if he came and took advantage of the opportunity and competed, that he’d have a real good opportunity here,” Cameron said. “And he’s done that. So that’s a credit to him.”
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the fourth-year pro spent 14 games in Binghamton two years ago. He had three goals, five assists and a minus-5 rating over that stretch.
“Obviously he’s improved a lot,” Senators forward Charlie Stephens said. “That time he came (two years ago), I think it was myself, Cory and Grant Potulny on a line. And we did well. But no where near the pace he’s at right now. He’s scoring, and making plays, and we’re really lucky to have him right now.”
Unlike a lot of professional hockey players, Pecker didn’t grow up on the ice. Although, yes, his father did place a plastic hockey stick in his hands when he was less than a year old.
The Peckers were a family of skiers and spent most winter weekends in the Laurentian Mountains, some 45 miles northwest of Montreal. It was only when Cory, then almost 12, convinced them to stay home one time and let him try hockey, that they traded the slopes for the stands of the local rink.
“I remember the first day getting to the arena,” Pecker said. “The kids that were there had been playing for five years already. And me and my dad put down my equipment and sort of both looked at each other like, ‘What do we do?’ ”
“I think we got friends tying on his first skates,” remembered his father, Murray Pecker, who nevertheless said Cory’s knack for scoring goals seemed to come naturally.
“Even though he couldn’t skate,” Murray Pecker said, “he knew where the net was.”
The young wing went on to play his first two seasons of juniors under Cameron with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario) Greyhounds. It was one weekend during that first season, in 1997, that he came down with sharp stomach pains and a high fever. He went to the hospital, was checked out for appendicitis and then eventually was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America estimates affects 500,000 Americans.
“I think once you hear that word disease, you always fear the worst,” he said. “It really hit me hard right there.”
Pecker missed the next four months of the season. He had emergency surgery in Sault Ste. Marie, suffered complications, and was flown home to Montreal, where he spent six weeks in the hospital.
Friends brought different flavors of popsicles every few days. His weight dropped significantly. He longed to get back out onto the ice. After his story ran in a Montreal newspaper, he received a visit from Canadiens left wing Shayne Corson, who has battled colitis, a similar inflammatory bowel disease.”I think he helped me the most,” Pecker said. “Because he had it growing up, and in junior. And I didn’t know what it was at all. I didn’t honestly know if I was going to die from it or what it was. Until I learned about it, and realized that he had it, (former NHLer) Kevin Dineen has it. So I was like, ‘If those guys did it, then I can, too.’ ”
Pecker returned to finish the season with the Greyhounds. He brought his weight up to 190, gaining back 50 pounds as he made up for lost time at the dinner table— “I was in heaven,” he said of the plate of mashed potatoes that marked his first real meal. Regular blood tests every six months over the next six years were always encouraging, and, knocking on the wooden seat of his locker stall in the Arena, he said he hasn’t had trouble with Crohn’s since.
“I remember the first time getting back on the ice. Just getting out there with my skates and just skating around,” said Pecker, who continues to take medicine for Crohn’s daily.”I think I’d only gained back about 10 pounds at that time. But you don’t realize how lucky you are just getting up every day, coming to the rink, playing hockey, doing something you love. Because it all could be taken from you. And I remember sitting in the hospital, six weeks, just hoping that I could get back on the ice.”
Once back, Pecker has had a solid start to his career, spending the majority of the past three seasons in the AHL with Cincinnati, Binghamton and Manitoba. He turned in his best year statistically as a rookie with Cincinnati during the 2002-2003 season, when he had 20 goals and 13 assists in 77 games— numbers that he has a shot to surpass in far fewer games this season.
“He’s very passionate (about hockey),” Murray Pecker said. “And he’s had some setbacks that he’s overcome himself. And it means a lot to him. He really has the great desire to succeed and to keep going, hopefully even to the next level.”
And so here Pecker sits in an American Hockey League dressing room in January. The doubt-filled Phoenix nights behind him. A bag of ice on his upper leg his primary medical concern.
Game time in less than 48 hours.
“I remember when I left the hospital, saying to myself, ‘You’ve got to take each day at a time and you’ve got to enjoy life,’ ” Pecker said. “And right now I’m playing hockey, and I’m enjoying being here, and things are good. But I think I know that things can change really quick.”