Former Griffins goaltender Jordan Pearce is back in Grand Rapids, training to become an orthopaedic surgeon.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Jordan Pearce spent four full seasons in the Red Wings organization, chasing his dream of becoming an NHL goaltender before deciding the time had finally come to pursue a different calling. He was ready to swap his jersey for scrubs.
Today, Pearce has aspirations of becoming an orthopaedic surgeon, and this time the odds of reaching his goal are excellent. He is in his first year in the Spectrum Health/Michigan State University Orthopaedic Surgery Residency program, one of the best in the nation.
Pearce, who graduated from Wake Forest School of Medicine last May, is one of only five residents in the Class of 2023, having been selected out of 600 candidates from the best medical schools in the country.
“I am very proud of our residency program,” said Dr. Karl Roberts, senior partner of West Michigan Orthopaedics and director of the Spectrum Health program. “We may not have the academic prestige of other programs like Harvard, The Mayo Clinic or Duke, but our residents consistently test among the highest in the country. In addition, we have phenomenal state of the art hospital facilities in Grand Rapids, highly qualified physician faculty, and some of the most qualified orthopaedic residents in the nation."
Indeed, Spectrum Health orthopaedic residents have scored in the top tenth percentile among all programs in the national Orthopaedic In-Training Examination the past five years, and their pass rate for their orthopaedic boards has been 100 percent. In the last two years, the residency placed in the top three in the nation among over 160 programs.
The five-year program at Spectrum Health focuses on the development of strong clinical and surgical skills in young doctors like Pearce while fostering an experience that enhances their ability to provide compassionate patient care, so that they become assets to their community and profession.
“It’s the equivalent of being selected to play for the Red Wings based on what you did in college, but you don’t know how to skate,” Dr. Roberts said. “A medical degree doesn’t teach one to operate as a surgeon, so our residency program is designed to teach you all of the necessary skills to excel in the operating room, as well as teaching the fundamental knowledge required to understand musculoskeletal problems and disease.”
Pearce made the decision to enter medical school following the 2012-13 season, essentially going out on the top after serving as the third goalie behind Petr Mrazek and Tom McCollum during the Griffins’ first successful Calder Cup run.
At the time, Pearce ranked among the Griffins’ all-time Top 10 goaltending leaders in games played, minutes, saves and shootout wins. He also ranked fourth in all-time wins and third in career shutouts for the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye.
Pearce, who had just completed his second contract with the Red Wings, said he had been contemplating his exit from hockey for some time.
“I started to think about how long I wanted to play in the minors,” he said. “I had about 10 games where I was backup in Detroit, but the writing was on the wall that I was unlikely to ever become a full-time NHL starter,” he said. “You never know – I might have developed – but I was excited that I had another career option.”
Pearce had been a pre-med student at the University of Notre Dame, where he had been recruited to play hockey after spending a season with the Lincoln Stars in the USHL. He had previously spent two years in the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Having gotten married a year out of college, Pearce talked with his wife Melissa about the possibility of playing in Europe.
“My wife and I were starting to think about kids and we talked about going to Europe to play, but knowing the long route required to enter medicine, we felt it was time to move on,” he said. “There’s never a great time to hang up your skates – I loved playing and I still love the game – but my decision was made easier by the fact that I was excited about taking the next step in my career.
“It was a bittersweet moment, giving up one dream but pursuing the next. It helped ease the transition because I was ending it on my terms.”
Pearce’s mix of athletic and academic ambitions can be traced back to growing up in Anchorage, Alaska.
As the middle child of David and Brenda Pearce, his love of hockey was accompanied by an appreciation for hunting, fishing and just being outdoors in the Last Frontier. His family roots trace back to the Klondike Gold Rush, when his great-great grandfather came to the state prospecting for the shiny metal.
“Later, my grandpa came up to Alaska from Washington in the 1930s and 40s,” he said. “He did a little gold mining, but he established an upholstery shop there, so my dad was born and raised there. My mom’s dad was an architect for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and he got a job offer to come to the state after the 1964 Alaska earthquake.”
At a young age, Pearce played street hockey with his older brother and neighborhood friends. “I was always the youngest, so they would let me play as long as I was the goalie,” he said. “I was always stuck in the net because none of the older kids wanted to play there.”
His parents stressed the importance of education. “In my family, school was always first,” said Pearce, who also has a younger sister. “We always had to make sure that our homework was done before we could go outside and play.
“I never envisioned myself as a doctor, but I was always fascinated by the sciences and biology. One of my favorite things when we were fishing or hunting was cutting up the fish or pulling the organs out of the caribou or moose. To me, it was fascinating to see their internal workings.”
Pearce took a human anatomy course during his senior year of high school in Lincoln, Neb., while he was playing in the USHL. It opened his eyes to the possibility of a career in medicine. “I’m not sure that it was an ‘aha’ moment, but I found that I really enjoyed the course and started thinking about someday pursuing a career as a physician.”
At Notre Dame, he double-majored in anthropology and pre-med. He chose to play in South Bend for the Fighting Irish because he felt the school offered him a great opportunity to excel both in the classroom and on the ice.
“When I visited the school, I saw that the guys on the team were all great hockey players, but they all had aspirations outside of hockey,” Pearce said. “At some other schools, it seemed like guys were only there to play hockey and that was it.”
Notre Dame also offered him an opportunity to become a difference-maker in what was an up-and-coming program guided by head coach Jeff Jackson, who came to the school at the same time as Pearce.
“They really sold me on the idea of coming to Notre Dame to help establish a tradition of excellence for the program,” he said. “Other schools recruiting me already had great hockey programs, so this was a chance to change the program’s direction at Notre Dame.”
He sat behind All-American goalie David Brown his first two seasons but became the starter his junior year when the Irish reached the 2008 Frozen Four, finishing as NCAA runner-up to national champion Boston College. He went 30-6-3 with a 1.68 goals against average and a .931 save percentage during his senior season, when the Irish were ranked No. 1 most of the year.
“Every year we got better and better,” he said. “Everyone was so dedicated to the idea of this team. Whether it was our first-liners scoring goals or our fourth-liners blocking shots and killing penalties, everyone was a valuable member of the team.
“The same is true in medicine. The surgeon might get a lot of the limelight but it takes everyone involved – nurses, assistants, residents and other attendants. You’re only as good as the whole.”
A two-time Academic All-American, Pearce was recognized as Notre Dame Hockey’s Most Valuable Player, Notre Dame Student-Athlete of the Year and CCHA Goaltender of the Year in addition to making the Dean’s List.
When he wasn’t studying or playing hockey, he volunteered at the local emergency room and shadowed physicians.
“The more I was exposed to the field of medicine, the more I was attracted to it,” Pearce said. “Getting the opportunity to be in a real-life environment allowed me to see whether it was something I would enjoy apart from the textbooks.”
He applied to medical school and was accepted but put his plans on hold when he received the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play professional hockey. “It was a tough decision, but it was my chance to pursue my childhood dream,” he said. “Medical school would still be there when the time was right.”
In 2009, he signed a two-year contract with the Red Wings. He alternated playing between the pipes for the Griffins and Walleye for the next four seasons. His best season was 2010-11 when he went 20-15-5 for the Griffins with a 2.89 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.
Looking back on his hockey career, Pearce says he has no regrets.
“My goal was always to play college hockey, so signing a pro contract, playing in Grand Rapids and getting time up in Detroit were all icing on the cake,” he said. “It’s very exciting to walk into an NHL locker room and see your name on a jersey. It was a dream beyond what I ever imagined for myself.”
He admits that he was beginning to tire of shuttling from one league to the next.
“As a goalie in the system, with all the ups and downs, there are times when you’re afraid to buy green bananas because you’re never sure if you’re going to be around long enough to eat them,” he said. “Hockey is an exciting profession and there are things I miss, but it was a good time to transition out of the sport.”
Pearce moved back to Grand Rapids this summer with his family, which now includes son James, 5, and daughter Ryann, 2. “Having played here, we already knew the city, so it was one of our top choices,” he said. “Adjusting to life as a resident has been busy.”
Dr. Roberts said life can be extremely hectic for a first-year intern like Pearce. Besides orthopaedic rotations in the program’s four hospitals, a resident’s schedule includes monthly anatomy dissections, journal club reviews of current literature, faculty lectures and surgical skills labs.
“I could put Jordan in a room for five years with all the textbooks and he would eventually know everything about orthopaedic surgery because he’s a smart guy,” Dr. Roberts said. “But surgical training comes from assisting in the operating room, so he will perform thousands of surgeries under direct supervision before his five years are out so he can be confident that he is ready to practice.”
The high-pressured world of professional hockey helped prepare Pearce for the demands of the medical field.
“Like hockey, medicine requires that you always perform at the highest level,” he said. “You have to develop your individual skills while also working together as a team. It’s a very high-stakes field. There’s zero room for error in surgery, so it’s all about preparation and making plans to minimize the risks. In hockey, you can lose a game, but in medicine, you cannot lose a life.”
Pearce said having a family helps keep everything in perspective as he puts in long hours. Residents can work up to 80 hours a week. Not only do the kids offer a much-needed respite from the stress of his training, but they have helped increase his level of empathy.
“Now when I see moms and dads in the ED (emergency department) with their kids after a fall from a trampoline, I have a sense of how they’re feeling,” he said. “It might be the third fracture I’ve seen that night, but to those parents, it’s the biggest event of the year. Becoming a parent has allowed me to see things from their perspective and understand the emotions they’re experiencing.”
Although the decision is years away, Pearce thinks he may eventually return to Alaska to practice. He returns to his home state about twice a year to visit his parents, which also affords him the chance to use his pilot’s license to fish or hunt in the wilderness.
“I would like to raise my kids in the lifestyle available in Alaska,” he said. “I want to teach them how to hunt and fish like I did as a boy.”
Maybe they’ll become doctors themselves. Or hockey players.