Jamie Petrie opens up about brawls, booze and the biggest fight of his life

It's just past noon and Jamie Petrie is sitting in a booth at the back of a Stratford restaurant drinking his fourth cup of black coffee. His wavy brown hair is slicked back and he's wearing glasses.

Former Stratford Culliton Jamie Petrie likely has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, otherwise known as CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. (Beacon Herald)

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It’s just past noon and Jamie Petrie is sitting in a booth at the back of a Stratford restaurant drinking his fourth cup of black coffee. His wavy brown hair is slicked back and he’s wearing glasses.

Petrie is sweating, his body tingles, he’s itchy, and he’s nauseous. It’s not noticeable, but he’s learned to hide it well. His vision is blurry and he admits he shouldn’t have been behind the wheel today. If not for this commitment, he would likely be curled up in bed. But there’s something Petrie, a former hockey star in the city, needs to say. He likely has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, otherwise known as CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head.

“I didn’t drink whiskey a lot when I was in my heyday, but when I did do it that’s how I feel,” he says. “It’s not a good feeling because I didn’t like whiskey. I just did it to be cool.”

After years of indicators, the 46-year-old went to a doctor almost 16 months ago and was told it’s probable he has the progressive condition for which there is currently no cure. Memory loss, aggression, depression and anxiety are among the symptoms associated with CTE, but it can’t be confirmed until suspected patients are dead and their brains are harvested for research. CTE has been known to affect boxers for decades, but only recently has the medical community started to understand the effects of repeated brain trauma on athletes who play other contact sports.

Several former NHL enforcers have died before 46 and were found to have CTE.

Petrie wants to share his story in the hopes others don’t follow the same plight.

“I’m sick of looking in the mirror and have been for many years,” he says.

Petrie was five when he got into his first fight.

He had just started kindergarten and came home in tears after two boys picked on him during the walk home from school. Petrie’s dad was home early that day and asked what happened.

“You get back outside and fight them and you take care of it,” Bernie Petrie told his son.

Jamie Petrie did what he was told and got the better of the boys who bullied him.

“From that moment on … I knew I had the backing of my father, and knew that if someone hit me anywhere or whatever I had the OK (to hit back),” he says. “Problem is that sets a whole lot of stuff into play.”

Petrie was 15 when he got into his first hockey fight.

He was a full-time player with the Stratford Cullitons and it was early in the 1985-86 season. It was more of a wrestling match than a slugfest, and Petrie had to skate the length of the Stratford Arena ice on his way to the dressing room.

“Seeing the crowd go kookoo gives you a rush you can’t believe,” he says. “At 15 I couldn’t skate through the team. I wasn’t going to score 30, 40 goals, and that was probably the start of hitting adversity because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do because it was a good league.”

Petrie figures he fought five or six times the first 10 games as a rookie. He was young and entitled and took his aggression out on opposing players.

That season he finished with nine goals, 20 assists and 149 penalty minutes in 36 games and helped the Cullitons win their third Sutherland Cup.

“When you start to get a bit of a name you have to act it and act it everywhere,” he says.

Petrie thought he was on a path to the NHL. Instead, that road was littered with booze and girls.

During his five-year junior career, which included stops in London and St. Marys in the Western Junior B League, Petrie says he was drinking or drunk 75 per cent of the games.

“Some teammates knew,” he says. “Some coaches knew. Some didn’t.”

Andre Prevost was Petrie’s teammate and drinking buddy with the Lincolns and Cullitons from 1988-90.

“He was able to hide it enough that he was able to play,” Prevost, 47, says from his Kapuskasing home. “He was puking. He said he was nervous about the game but he was hammered. He was fun to have around but sometimes he could kind of go overboard to feel that power of being loved there.”

From the age of 16 to 21, Petrie threw up three times a day and experienced dizziness, though not to the degree he does today.

“Was that CTE then? I don’t know if it was CTE. They (doctors) do believe I started way back then, but it was alcoholism, it was depression, it was anxiety, it was a bunch of things.”

Petrie expected to get drafted to the Ontario Hockey League as an underage player but all 15 teams passed. He returned to the Cullitons in 1986 and had seven goals, 16 assists and 131 penalty minutes in 31 games.

Sudbury took Petrie with the 46th overall pick in the 1987 OHL draft – five spots ahead of future NHLer Keith Primeau, whose own career was cut short due to concussions. Primeau now suffers many of the same symptoms as Petrie and has also vowed to donate his brain to science.

Petrie didn’t last long with the Wolves. Training camp hazing incidents drove him to spear and fight a player during an intersquad game. That only brought Petrie reluctant respect.

So, too, did getting in a pair of exhibition game fights with heavyweights from Sault Ste. Marie and North Bay. One of them was future NHL tough guy Troy Crowder. Petrie needed five stitches to close a wound, and his head hurt after the bout.

The 17-year-old never had to buy a beer for the rest of his time with the team, which ended in mid-October without playing a regular season game.

After returning to Stratford, Petrie played 14 games before he was benched for drinking a case of beer on the team bus ride home from Michigan State University following a collegiate hockey game against Bowling Green, which had several Cullitons alumni. He was eventually traded to London.

Petrie’s best season was 1989-90 back in Stratford. He had 31 goals and 69 points in 36 regular season games. He also racked up 326 penalty minutes.

When the Cullitons made it to the Sutherland Cup semifinal, their bus stopped a few blocks short of the Chatham arena so players could stretch their legs prior to a game. Petrie used that time to visit a nearby bar and take the edge off with a couple beers.

Petrie nearly missed a home game in the same series because he was drunk at the restaurant where he worked. He arrived at the arena during warm-ups and vomited on his way to the shower before contributing to a win.

Former Cullitons head coach Denis Flanagan called Petrie a “tenacious” player who wasn’t afraid to mix it up, but Flanagan says he didn’t know of Petrie’s love for libations. The team would have gotten him help if it had known, Flanagan added.

“I can’t recall ever seeing Jamie like that at the arena. I think something like that would have stood out and we wouldn’t have let a player play like that if we had known he was in that condition.”

Petrie takes responsibility for his behaviour over the years. He’s mostly concerned about what his parents will think now that light has been cast on his secret shadows.

“Everything in my life I did was half-assed,” he says. “I lived the persona that I had to fight, and it was only Junior B. I thought I had to be the wheel in the room, on the ice, at the party. I was a jackass.”

Petrie was 40 when he started fighting back.

After numerous drunken incidents, including some that happened in public and eventually cost him his 15-year marriage, Petrie reached out to a friend for help.

The pair spoke March 20, 2011. Eight days later Petrie quit drinking.

“I’m very proud of it, and there’s not a lot of proud in my life,” Petrie admits. “I didn’t do it because a doctor told me. I didn’t do it for a girl. I didn’t do it for my parents. I did it for me, and I believe that’s the only time you can do it.”

The self-loathing was so deep that Petrie was having a recurring dream in which his present self found his past self and punched him until his head fell off. That scenario played out in his sleep hundreds of times and only stopped last year.

“I am ashamed and disgusted of that guy,” he says quietly.

Getting sober only fixed part of Petrie’s problems. Something still wasn’t right in his head. Dizzy spells forced Petrie off the road from his sales job at Slush Puppy, and he’s now on long-term disability.

He once had to leave his daughter’s baseball game in the third inning because he couldn’t stand up. When he coached the Tavistock Braves from 2014-16, Petrie lost his balance and fell off the bench multiple times. Players, coaches and trainers assumed he had slipped or was clumsy.

Sleep lasted 12 or more hours some days. Other days he barely slept.

For nearly seven months, Petrie spent countless hours sitting on a black chair in his living room wrapped in a Looney Tunes blanket watching Netflix with the lights off. He gained 65 pounds.

In August 2015, Petrie met with Dr. Peter Scheuring, a Conestogo-based specialist in chiropractic neurology who has worked with several professional athletes with brain injuries, including Sidney Crosby.

Dr. Scheuring ran some tests, which included measuring Petrie’s inner ear and central motor functions using infrared goggles to trace eye movements in a process known as VNG. If there are issues with eye movements, it becomes hard to do things such as read or follow a puck.

The test normally takes 10-15 minutes to complete.

Petrie stopped after five minutes, which is typical of someone who has recently suffered a concussion, but his symptoms are chronic.

“I’ve seen severe cases before and his was just more severe,” Dr. Scheuring says.

The neurologist figures Petrie has suffered “innumerable concussions” from his 100-150 fights on and off the ice.

“If you don’t heal it properly, then it’s like scar tissue where you’re training the wrong pathway, and if you train the wrong pathway when they get a second concussion, then after awhile with repeated concussions you get a bad wiring schematic,” Dr. Scheuring says. “It’s a big jumble and that’s when multiple concussions are bad.”

Petrie has tried several methods to stabilize his condition.

He’s taken pills to combat anxiety, dizziness, and reduce brain swelling. He’s followed an anti-inflammatory diet that includes more vegetables, lean meat, fish and brown rice, and fewer carbohydrates and sugar. He’s consumed a ketogenic diet that is high in fat and protein, which helps eat the abnormal tau proteins that are built up from repeated head trauma and kill brain cells.

Petrie also started going to the gym. He fell in the shower the first time and needs to stay close to walls and machines to maintain balance. After losing almost 30 pounds, Petrie fell and hurt his knees and gained back the weight. He’s since returned and wants to drop 65 pounds.

“Seeing as we’re having trouble improving the symptoms, we’re seeing what activities we can do without him having his symptoms exacerbated … so we can get him living a normal lifestyle,” says Dr. Scheuring, who checks in with Petrie every few weeks. “The rehabilitation of concussions is improving by leaps and bounds, rapidly. Hopefully one day we’ll get to the point where we can work on improving his condition on CTE.”

This summer, Petrie had a moment of reflection during an overdue family trip at a cottage in Kincardine. He thought about the small pleasures in life, like playing catch or video games with his three kids, or Scrabble with his dad.

“I don’t want my past to define me. I want my present and my future to define who I am,” he says. “I know eventually I’m not going to remember everybody’s name.

“Am I scared? Yeah, I’m scared s—less, because overall I think I’m weak.”


Petrie is reaching out to others experiencing problems with alcohol or depression. He can be reached at 519-998-3435 (cell) or jamiepetrie81@gmail.com. To contact Alcoholics Anonymous, call 1-800-706-9833 or visit centralwest3district4aa.org