By Karrie Osborn
This article first appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Massage & Bodywork.
The body of the 84-year-old client on Robert Toporek’s table shows years of abuse. A once-fractured skull, uncountable broken ribs that healed with time and tape, and the remnants of 500 facial stitches have all left their mark. Yet, the client never complains; he would say these injuries—and the many more he endured over the course of his 32-year career—came part and parcel with his job.
The client is hockey legend Gordie Howe, otherwise known as Mr. Hockey. At his side is his son Mark, a hockey Hall of Famer in his own right who often speaks on his father’s behalf as age takes its toll. Helping put that body back together is Toporek, a Philadelphia bodyworker who has been Rolfing clients since 1975.
At the determined request of Mark, Gordie started coming to see Toporek for Rolfing sessions earlier this year. The father and son team made the nearly three-hour round-trip drive from New Jersey to Philadelphia every week, as Gordie progressed through his 10-session Rolfing protocol.
For those who don’t know hockey lore, it’s important to understand the brutality of the sport, especially in the early years of Gordie’s career. Equipment and protection were archaic compared to today’s gear, and the sport itself was, as it remains today, inherently vicious on the body. Lore would also tell us that Gordie has been the icon of the sport for more than six decades, and many today still crown him the best hockey player of all time. Gordie has been dealt more soft-tissue injuries than most therapists see in a lifetime of clients. Daily poundings and slams, or checks into the boards, as a professional hockey player took their toll. Learning to live with the pain by compensating for it certainly caused even more.
Gordie didn’t complain about the abuse his body took all those years while he was on the ice, and he doesn’t complain today about the aftermath of that abuse. Mark, however, knew that a visit with Toporek might ease his father’s pain and make life just a little easier on his 84-year-old hero.
Mark remembers the moment when he convinced his dad to start seeing Toporek. “My dad’s always resisted any type of hands-on work to help him. I don’t know why. I’ve tried for 2–3 years to get him to come.” But one day, some self-reflection helped do the convincing. “We were going to the drugstore to pick up his medicine,” Mark recalls. “They had one of those mirrors hanging where you could see yourself from 40 feet away. As we were walking down the aisle, I said to dad, ‘Look at yourself in the mirror.’ He probably tilted a good 5 degrees to the right from his hips. I told him I knew a guy who could fix that. I knew that Robert could help dad function a lot better.”
So, for 10 weeks this past summer, Mark brought his father to Toporek, who is a Certified Advanced Rolf practitioner. Each week, there was greater evidence that the visits were helping. From getting in and out of the car easier, to having less trouble pulling off his socks, Mark says his father really benefited from the work. “I just see him move so much easier now. He’s bending easier, and now he can sit down, lean over, and get his socks off and do whatever he has to do.” The truly telling sign, Mark says, is what happens when they leave their sessions with Toporek. “When we leave Robert’s, dad lasts five minutes and he’s out cold. I know how relaxing it is for him; it’s totally different than massage, but it releases a lot of stress in the body. I know what a difference it makes.”
On Gordie’s first visit, Toporek did what he does with all first-time clients: videotaped him in movement and shot photographs of his posture and verticality, or lack thereof. The process not only tracks the progression of the work for Toporek, but also shows clients the significant changes that happen in the body during the course of the 10-session Rolfing protocol. Admitting a little nervousness in working with this larger-than-life presence, Toporek says the two men shared a welcoming moment, then together set to work to correct a lifetime of physical punishment and injury inflicted on Gordie’s body.
“Mark wanted Gordie to come to me because his body is all bent out of shape,” Toporek says. “He believes I’m the one person who he trusts with his father’s body and that I can make a difference.” That’s because once upon a time, Toporek made a significant difference in Mark’s life as well.
“I can fix this guy’s back”
Toporek’s relationship with the Howes began in 1991 when he reached out to the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team and told them he could help one of their star players, Mark Howe. “I read in the newspaper about Mark hurting his back and the possibility it would end his career,” Toporek remembers. “No, I’m not a doctor, and yes, some people think I’m a little crazy, but having survived two years in Vietnam as a combat infantry paratrooper, I’ve learned to live life with a risk. I had been Rolfing for about eight or nine years and something made me say, ‘I can fix this guy’s back.’” The Flyers agreed to have Mark try Rolfing, Toporek says, “not because they thought I could really do anything, but because they had run out of options and the only other choice was for him to retire.”
Mark, who today serves as the head professional scout for the Detroit Red Wings, says he had back problems for years when he played professionally, and even suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in hockey history when he was impaled on the metal projection of an older-style net. Not until he had a CAT scan many years later did doctors finally find a herniated disk that had been causing the years of pain. He underwent a microdiscectomy, which helped tremendously, but the relief was short-lived. “Postsurgery, I was doing extremely well, and was within four to five days of playing.” Mark says he was back to skating and was pushing himself pretty hard. He had worked out with the team that particular day and felt great skating, but during his work in the weight room, something popped in his back. “All my muscles—everything—shortened up,” Mark recalls. “My body got so tight that no matter what treatment anybody did, no matter how many muscle relaxers I took, no matter how much stretching, nothing was working.”
Retirement was becoming a very real possibility, as no one could offer him relief. “I saw four orthopedic doctors and back specialists, and they all said it looks like it’s time to retire. I kept saying that was the wrong answer.” Even so, Mark’s career hung in the balance as he tried finding the right answer. “My core was as strong as you can get. I used anti-inflammatories, and did my share of epidurals, but it was such a short-term fix. God knows how many injections I had in my spine to ease the pain and keep going. When you’re 20, you can get away with it. But I was in my mid-30s, and a lot of things I did in my 20s were coming back to haunt me.”
When the Flyers made arrangements for Mark to see Toporek, the star defenseman knew he had nothing to lose. “I had exhausted all other efforts.” As it turned out, that visit would be career changing.
A Career Saved
Mark was already a massage convert and had been exposed to the nuances of bodywork years before, yet the effects from one Rolfing session were surprising. “Right from the very first session, things got progressively better,” Mark says. “He improved my flexibility by 8–10 inches and it lasted 4–5 days.” When debriefing with the Flyers’ training staff after his first session, Mark remembers his excitement. “We had been working for 2–3 months to get me more flexible. One hour with Robert had increased my flexibility by 50 percent. I said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve been able to stand erect since I hurt my back.’ The funny thing about it is that all he did was mess around with my feet and ankles, a little bit on my calves and my shoulders, and a little on my back. He worked on areas that had nothing to do with my low back for the most part. It was strange.”
Strange or not, by the second session with Toporek, Mark was standing straighter, feeling more flexible, and most importantly, living without pain. By his third session, Mark was back on the ice and singing Toporek’s praises to anyone who would listen. Their work together went on through that summer, and Mark was ready to play his 13th season of professional hockey that fall. In fact, he went on to play another two years with the Flyers, and three more with Detroit, before finally hanging up his skates at the age of 40. He credits Toporek for those last five years of his career.
Even after Mark completed the first 14 Rolfing sessions and was playing without pain, he knew he needed to keep Toporek as part of his therapeutic team. “It became very evident to me that I needed to come to Robert in order for me to play.” While he played in Philadelphia, Mark’s name showed up frequently on Toporek’s appointment book, and as he finished out his career in Detroit, Mark would fly Toporek in for Rolfing sessions every 4–6 weeks.
“The more work we did, the longer the effect would last. Maybe it’s not for everybody, but it sure was for me,” Mark says. “Rolfing can improve the quality of your life.”
A Rolfing Tradition
In 1972, after serving two tours in Vietnam and returning with a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Cross of Gallantry, and 19 years before he would cross paths with hockey royalty, Toporek found himself in the company of a different type of legend. “I was at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on a leadership development fellowship from the Ford Foundation at the time I first met Ida [Rolf],” he recalls. “I was sitting on the porch of my cabin at Esalen, overlooking the garden and the Pacific Ocean, and saw Ida walking along the path around the garden with a string of the most powerful men at Esalen trailing behind her. I had always wanted to study with a master, and I recognized Ida as one,” he says. It took a few years, a lot of work, and spoonfuls of persuasion on his part before Toporek became an Ida student, but he was insistent on pursuing his goal, even in the face of skepticism from some in her circle. A month after meeting his mentor-to-be, Toporek had his first Rolfing session. “It completely changed my experience of myself and my life,” he says. From there, his path was set.
Under Rolf’s tutelage, Toporek learned every element of each of the 14 sessions—the first 10 to address posture in the body and in your life, the next four to address posture in your body and in the world. These last four pieces of the recipe are considered the advanced Rolfing sessions and can make a significant difference in the client’s neurological system. “I can’t explain it,” Toporek says. “It just gets to a whole deeper level in the human being. This is your posture in the world.”
When it comes to the Rolfing recipe, Toporek says he learned from Rolf that it’s imperative to start at the beginning. “If you don’t start at the beginning, you’ll never get anybody to go forward, you’ll never get anybody to that core idea, you’ll never get that vertical line.” He says that he still holds true to the core ideas that Rolf taught him: “Ida said, ‘Follow the recipe, trust the recipe, and if you do the recipe well, you will produce outstanding results.’” Toporek remembers many students bringing different techniques and modalities to Rolf. “She was not against any of them, per se, she simply had a pure view of what she knew Rolfing could produce—a body better balanced and aligned in the field of gravity, such that gravity becomes the therapist … She said to work in a person’s body, not on their body. Use movement and let the movement create the work.” He says Rolf was clear that the work was not a cure-all, “however, if we gave people really great Rolfing sessions, it would produce unprecedented results in their feeling and function.”
Ten and Done?
With Gordie’s 10th session complete, this stoic man of few words tells Toporek he feels better and has liked coming to see him over the summer. But Mark knows that 10 sessions will not magically relieve all the traumas his father’s body has seen. “Lots of aches and pains, and a lot of trauma and anguish and stress have gone through that body,” Mark says. “To try and relieve that in 10 sessions would be absurd.” But on the way home, as with each of his Rolfing sessions, Gordie Howe—hockey royalty, enforcer, and a man who played his last professional shift at age 70—falls fast asleep in the car within minutes of pulling away. For today, 10 sessions is just fine for hockey’s legendary #9.
Karrie Osborn is the contributing editor for Massage & Bodywork. Contact her at email@example.com.