Updated: Nov 21, 2020
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 in 2012. 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. 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.
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." But one day, some self-reflection helped do the convincing. "We were going to the drugstore to pick up his medicine," Mark recalls. "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."
So, for 10 weeks that summer, Mark brought his father to Toporek, who is a Certified Advanced Rolf practitioner. 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." "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. "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 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. "He improved my flexibility by 8-10 inches and it lasted 4-5 days," Mark says. 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. 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. 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. "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." For more information on Rolfing, and its creator, the late Ida Rolf, visit www.rolf.org. Karrie Osborn is a senior editor for Massage Bodywork. This article is excerpted from her article "Rolfing a Legend" from Massage and Bodywork, Nov/Dec 2012.