Jeff Parker, dead at 53, saw his hockey dreams turn to torment

His NHL career abruptly ended after sustaining two concussions in a span of about two weeks.

His NHL career abruptly ended after sustaining two concussions in a span of about two weeks.

No small crowd gathered inside St. Andrews Church in Mahtomedi on Friday. They’d all come to say farewell to Jeff Parker, the quintessential Minnesota hockey player, who died September 11 at age 53 from a rare lung disorder. 

Parker, a rugged forward with a warrior’s heart, starred at White Bear Lake’s Mariner High before winning an NCAA championship at Michigan State in 1986. 

Last summer, he was the main character in City Pages’ story about former NHLers dealing with the aftermath of brain injuries. 

Parker’s pro career spanned parts of five seasons. His playing days abruptly ended in 1991 after he sustained two concussions in a span of about two weeks. Since then, he suffered from memory loss, vertigo, headaches, light sensitivity, and mood swings. 

Parker was one of the plaintiffs in a federal concussion lawsuit against the NHL, alleging it had turned a blind eye to the dangers of head injuries. 

“Without a doubt, Jeff is a total CTE deal,” his older brother Scott told City Pages in 2016, referring to the neurodegenerative brain disease that can be caused by repeated concussions or head trauma. 

Jeff's brothers once found him wandering the streets of St. Paul. His longtime partner Melina Miller told the Star Tribune recently: "He could be the sweetest guy, and then there was a side that would pop up — really worried, angry.… It might last two hours. It might last two days.”   

The disease wasn’t mentioned during Parker’s service. But the thought of it was inescapable. It was a funeral without a body or even a closed casket. Parker’s brain has been donated to Boston University researchers to determine if he, like former Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard, suffered from CTE. A determination for the disease can only be done after death. 

Scott Parker eulogized Jeff’s love for the game without acknowledging its hand in his demise. 

“Hockey was the glue that kept us boys together,” said Scott, “in good times and bad.”

During the times that Jeff struggled, Scott's tonic was the memories of his brother tearing up the ice and volunteering as a coach for the Chippewa Falls High team, where Scott is the head coach. 

The three Parker brothers, who learned to play on backyard rinks in White Bear Lake, each became collegiate stars and won NCAA championships.

But last week it was all about the one who made it to the show, only to live out the remainder of his days paying a heavy price for its fleeting glory.

Pastor Kyle Jackson called it “an unfortunate and tragic end to his hockey career.”

It’s much bigger than that. Hockey has a head injury problem, for which it has no good answers. 

Pastor Jackson mildly acknowledged this when he said, “Jeff was making sure others won’t hurt like he was hurt.”