Brian Propp is proud to say he never lost a tooth during his 15 seasons in the NHL. But during a frightening episode in the middle of the night on Sept. 3, 2015, he not only lost two teeth — he also lost his ability to speak.
At 57, the Philadelphia Flyers Hall of Famer, who had 1,004 career points, found himself on the bedroom floor of a vacation house, the victim of a massive stroke. Propp was vacationing with his wife and two children in Annapolis, Maryland, and had trouble falling asleep because of an excruciating headache. The next thing he knew, paramedics were trying to lift him off the floor.
“It just hit me at 1:30 in the morning,” he recalled. “I just fell out of bed and lost a couple of teeth. Thankfully, my family was there and called 911 right away and we got into the hospital.”
Propp said he hadn’t been feeling well the previous 10 days and realized that when he couldn’t speak, he had just suffered a stroke.
“I knew, but the [ambulance] driver thought I was drunk,” he said. “I couldn’t talk, but my wife, Kris, knew right away what was going on.”
Six years after retiring from in 1994 as the NHL’s all-time leading playoff scorer among left wingers (148 points in 160 games), Propp was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in the left side of his heart. In 2009, while he was working as a Flyers radio color analyst, he underwent a cardiac ablation and was placed on blood thinners.
Propp believes a blood clot developed in his heart and eventually led to his stroke, which resulted in limited use of the right side of his body. Five days after his stroke, Propp was transferred to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, where he spent five weeks in intense speech, occupational and physical therapy.
“I couldn’t talk at all at the start,” Propp said. “I couldn’t say any words. It was tough. It’s been good for me to get better. I still have aphasia and I go once a week for speech therapy. I still struggle with [remembering] days of the week and numbers. And I still have a little problem with my right hand and fingers and arm, and that might stay there. Other than that, I’m lucky both my feet and my left side work well.”
Like many of his former teammates, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said he was shocked to learn that Propp, who is still near his playing weight of 195 pounds, had suffered a stroke.
“Any time you have that happen to a person who’s Proppy’s age and in the good shape he’s in, it stuns us all,” Hextall said. “We were worried about Proppy. It was sobering for a lot of us.”
Propp returned to the ice for a morning hockey league six months after his stroke, saying it was good for him to work up a sweat and be around friends who served as an emotional support group. An avid golfer, he also returned to play in a few charity tournaments, even though he found it difficult to grip a golf club.
“The thing I remember thinking is how courageous he was,” said Flyers radio play-by-play voice Tim Saunders. “Even when he didn’t have full use of his hand, he was still showing up at golf tournaments and trying to play, even though he couldn’t really swing. Good for him, because I’m not sure I’d have the courage to do that.”
“What really impressed me,” said former teammate and Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Howe, “is when we did a VIP function and he was signing everything left handed. That’s Brian. He’s got a great attitude about it, and hopefully he continues to get better.”
Propp, whose 1,004 points in 1,016 games rank 84th on the NHL’s all-time list — one behind Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin (1,005 points in 883 games) — now serves as an ambassador for the Flyers and consults with other stroke victims.
“He looks 100 percent better than when I first saw him after his stroke,” former Flyers goaltender Neil Little said. “Just to see him on the ice, skating around and being coordinated enough to handle the puck — that, in my mind, is a miracle.”
Propp said nothing lifted his spirits more than taking the ice on Saturday night in an alumni game between former Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins in front of nearly 20,000 fans inside the Wells Fargo Center.
“It was fun,” Propp said. “People who have had strokes really supported me.”