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With Sydeny Crosby’s concussions came a swarm of media coverage about concussions in hockey and the immediate and long-term damage. What often goes unreported are the thousands of concussions suffered by minor hockey players each year and the effect on their ability to get recruited.
Don Gilmor recently wrote about Nicholas Eustace of the GTHL’s Mississauga Rebles, a promising young hockey player who had his sights set on an NCAA scholarship:
Nicholas Eustace got his first concussion playing for the Minor Midget Mississauga Rebels in September 2011, at the beginning of the season. He got an elbow to the head, then later in the game another player fell on him when Nicholas was down, banging his head against the ice. Nicholas was out for six months, returning only for the quarter-finals in February. The team won the OHL Cup, beating the vaunted Marlboros. Fifteen players from the team were drafted by the OHL, but Nicholas was undrafted because he’d been out all season.
Nicholas returned the following year to play Midget with the North York Rangers, with the hope of attracting a scholarship offer as well. “I knew I wouldn’t make the NHL,” he says. “But I wanted to get an NCAA scholarship.” Instead, he suffered a second concussion last autumn. “I can’t really pick out a specific hit,” he says. “I just had a huge headache after a game with the Marlies, but I didn’t say anything for three weeks.”
Some point to a lack of education given to coaches, trainers, parents and players in the past to detect concussions.
Others point to the false sense of security provided by protective gear. While the helmet protects the head from skull fractures it has little impact in protecting against concussions. Perhaps even more important is the change in elbow and shoulder pads from cushions to armour.
Thankfully concussion education is spreading throughout minor, junior and pro hockey leagues with players and parents becoming aware of the possible implications of hiding a concussion or avoiding a proper diagnosis.
Take the case of JHR Member Max Taylor who suffered repeated concussions, over a two year period while playing in the ECHL and the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. The concussions led Taylor to retire after not being able to recover from them symptoms. He spent months in a dark bedroom in Toronto feeling queasy just to get up for a light walk down the street.
Taylor was featured in MacLeans Magazine recently along side Eric Lindros where Cathy Gulli wrote:
Max Taylor also felt imprisoned after he received four concussions over two years while playing centre in the AHL starting in 2008. “It was a huge roller-coaster ride. I was really depressed and even suicidal. It freaked me out,” he says. “It just didn’t seem like my life was going to get any better.” The physical symptoms were so bad that Taylor, 27, took to sleeping 12 hours straight just to avoid feeling the pain. Where he used to run a mile in six minutes, he now got dizzy walking down the street to the nearest stop sign. He’d avoid sports news because it reminded him that his NHL chances were slipping away. “There were days that I would lose my mind.”
Like when he learned that the Toronto Maple Leafs, his favourite team since childhood, were looking for a centre. Taylor was invited to the training camp, but couldn’t attend because he was still experiencing concussion symptoms. He became delirious. “I did a mini-circuit in my bedroom—push-ups, body squats and sit-ups,” repeating one mantra: “Just do whatever it takes to stay in shape so that when I’m ready, I’ll be ready.” Instead, the frantic workout set him back. “I ended up throwing up and feeling dizzy for the rest of the day, and having to lay on the couch with a cold pack on my head.”
In Taylor’s case, its believed he suffered multiple concussions in a single game, which begs questions about the ability of doctors and trainers to detect concussions even at the professional level, and look out for a players best interest. The consensus seems to be that unless your a superstar, you are disposable. Concussion or not, its time to get back on the ice.
At the professional level team doctors are in place to help with the diagnosis, but come under competing pressures. On the one hand team doctors, paid by the teams, are under pressure to clear players to play, while on the other hand they have an obligation to the players to protect their best (longterm) interest.
At the minor and junior levels its important for players to take account of their own interest. Its up to players and their parents to decide when (or if) they should be back on the ice; regardless of what coaches and trainers say.
Without the proper education to coaches, trainers and parents, players risk returning to the game too early and finding themselves in the same situation as Nicholas Eustace or Max Talyor.
Boston University Neurosurgeons recently conducted a study to find if there was a link between athletes who have participated in contact sports and reported concussions throughout their careers, and long term brain impairment that could be the cause of early death or suicide. The study worked on donated brains of athletes from a number of different sports such as NFL, NHL, and high school football. During their study they examined the brain of former enforcer’s Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert (Detriot Red Wings), who died at the age of 45.
The study conducted found that both Fleming’s and Probert’s brain showed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerate form of Dementia that is caused by repeated blunt trauma to the brain [read punches to the face in Probert’s case]. CTE has strong connections to Addiction, Depression, Anxiety, Stress, Sleep problems, suicidal thoughts and impulse control.
Its no coincidence that during 2011, three NHL enforcers died tragically after careers fighting their way thought the NHL and minor leagues suffering serious head trauma throughout. Derek Boogaard died from a combination of too many painkillers and alcohol (linked with depressions). Rick Rypien, was found dead in his home in Alberta, an apparent suicide, and Wade Belak was found dead in a Toronto hotel room. An interview conducted in 2011 with Wade Belak’s mother confirmed that her son had been suffering with depression in the months leading up to his death.
In Nicholas Eustace’s case, as a player preparing for an NCAA scholarship, there was pressure to be on the ice and producing in his critical years when NCAA, OHL and even NHL scouts were watching. In Taylor’s case, he was inches from his dream of playing in the NHL. He couldn’t risk being out of the line-up at age 27 and miss the opportunity to make the big leagues. In both cases, they returned to soon.
For both minor hockey and professional players the incentive, in pursuit of the dream, is to get back on the ice as soon as possible at the risk further injury. While doctors, trainers and coaches may be in a position to help detect concussions, players and parents need to take their own measures to protect their future.
The current treatment for concussion is simply known as the “rest and wait” approach. As former NHL Jeff Beukeboom notes:
The most important thing is to be honest with yourself …You’re the only one who knows how it feels.
In Crosby’s case the team, doctors and trainers didn’t hesitate to look out for his longer-term interest by hitting the sidelines for almost a complete season. Recruits and their parents shouldn’t hesitate to take the same precautions.