My Head Hurts #SameHere

When we think of playing hockey, we think of the fun, and joy the game brings us. We think of the stories from the locker room, and big plays. What most don’t talk about are the injuries, more specially the lingering effects from those injuries. Some might talk of their bad knees, a broken nose or missing teeth, but what even fewer talk about are the lingering effects from head injuries – sometimes because they don’t realize they’re from that hit or fall.

Over the course of my playing career I have been diagnosed with two concussions playing hockey, one my freshman year of college, the other my sophomore year. Unofficially I’ve had in my estimation five.

Let me walk you through the five.

The first happened my junior year of high school in a spring league practice. My teammate was carrying the puck around the circle, and was supposed to drive the net for a close shot. As he got closer I went down, with my paddle down to seal off the bottom half of the net. He lost his edge, and his knees went right into the side of my head. I remember going down like a bag of bricks to the ice, and everything going black for a minute. In those days we just called it getting our bell rung. Today we know that to be a concussion.

My second concussion playing hockey came in, I think, my second college start. It was a JV game with an 11:00 a.m. faceoff against a junior B team. I was never very good playing the puck, but I do remember coming out to play a loose puck. I banked the pass off the boards to hit my player on transition at the center face-off dot. Next thing I remember is hearing the whistle, and picking myself up off the ice. My teammates tell me the opposing player rushed me with his elbows high, making contact with my head. They say I was parallel to the ice, facing down. My head hit the ice first.

Because we had possession of the puck, it as a delayed penalty, and play continued. I’m told I laid on the ice motionless for close to 30 seconds. When the whistle blew, the team trainer was about to come out, but seeing me get up stayed on the bench. Today they would have at least checked me out. I remember holding onto the crossbar to make a few more saves over the last few minutes of the game, about seven of them I’m told, to get the W. I didn’t allow any goals. That I remember. After games we always had a box of fruit in the locker room. I remember I was halfway through eating an apple when I remembered I didn’t like apples, so I walked down to the trainer’s office. A quick evaluation wasn’t necessary to know I had a concussion.

This concussion was a bad one. I was out of things for a few days. This was our last game before the Christmas break, so when home on break I saw my family doctor. He examined me, and sent me for an MRI. He said I had a pretty good concussion, and needed to stay off the ice until I was headache free. At the time I had had a headache for close to two weeks.

After that concussion I transitioned from a traditional goalie mask to a Dominik Hasek style Cooper SK2000 helmet with Cooper HM50 cage. I loved that helmet as it was light, had great visibility, and added range of motion when looking down. It may have also lead to concussion number three. At practice my sophomore year one of my teammates wound up for a slap shot from just inside the blue line and hit me square on the Cooper logo on the forehead. Right after that shot, the coach blew the whistle for us to assemble at the bench to see what the next drill would be. I heard what he was saying, but it wasn’t making sense to me. After the players went to their corners I stayed there. My coach asked what was wrong, so I told him I didn’t feel right. He looked at my helmet to notice a crack on the Cooper logo. He told me to go see the trainer who evaluated me, and determined I had another concussion. Had it not been for the concussion the year before they would have just said I had my bell rung.

After that shot my parents and coaches insisted I go back to wearing a traditional goalie mask again. I did, but as I look back at it the mask was too big, and didn’t fit properly. I wore this mask from 2001-last winter.

Number four came over a decade later while playing beer league hockey. A player was crashing the net again on a breakaway with a back checker coming down on him. I went for a poke check, and the player tried to avoid a collision by jumping over me. In doing so his legs hit my head. Like that first concussion I went down momentarily, was a little dazed, but got back up. The ref came up to see if I was ok. I said I was, but he didn’t think so. He was ready to call the game, but I didn’t want to do that to my teammates. I had double vision for most of the remainder of the game, and experience some severe nasal drip, which I later read was a side effect of a concussion.

The last concussion came the next season. I made a stop, and was down in the butterfly position. The rebound was sitting right in front of me when the opposing player rushed for it, but didn’t stop. He unintentional ran right over me ringing my bell. I say unintentionally as he was playing the puck and just couldn’t stop. He was also very concerned about me after the collisions, and kept apologizing.

It was after that second concussion in college that I started noticing headaches. Nothing too serious, but I noticed them. It was several years later that I started getting migraines though. I didn’t think much of the migraines though as my family has a history of them. My mom and aunt had gotten them for years, and had prescription medication for them, and now my daughter gets them occasionally. I talked to my doctor, and got some medication for myself.

When I look back at it, it was about the time I started getting migraines that I started getting more irritable. In my younger days I was unflappable. Nothing bothered me, and you’d have to practically cut off a toe for me to get upset with you. I thought my irritably stemmed from having two toddlers running around. Doing some research over the last few years though, and reading/watching a lot of what Daniel Carcillo has been sharing, I know my changes are most likely due to my two diagnosed, and three undiagnosed concussions.

I’ve started tracking my migraines to see what sparks them. Turns out changes in atmospheric pressure, being in the sun and being in crowds trigger headaches. Sometimes I know I’ll be in the sun, at large events, or watch the weather report and I can proactively take lower dosed medication to prevent a headache from impacting my day.

When it comes to my irritability I’ve realized much of it stems from anxiety. I’m not an overly anxious person, but when it sets in I’m very irritable. As I’ve learned about possible long-term effects of concussions I’ve discovered this probably is a byproduct of my concussions. Unfortunately It has taken me a few years to come to this realization, but now that I have I’m getting better at noticing my anxiety setting in so I can vocalize it to those around me in a calm way, as well as remove myself from situations that are hastening my irritably.

While the NHL won’t admit it has a head injury problem, other sports are, and some hockey players, most notably Carcillo, are. It’s because of this increased awareness I’ve been able to research symptoms, short term and long-term side effects and learn ways to maintain what some call my mental health, but I call myself. I’m noticing I’m my old self more these days.

If you or your kid play hockey, or any sport do not take blows to the head lightly. Each person is different, and some people are more susceptible to brain injuries than others. Make sure helmets fit properly, and are not out of date, and don’t be afraid to talk about what you are going through.

If we’ve learned one thing from Robin Lehner this year, it is that being open and honest can help us heal. When he revealed his new Blackhawks mask with the #SameHere hashtag on it, it was a reminder that others may be experiencing the same struggles, and we’re not alone. It’s ok to show vulnerability, in fact doing so shows strength.

One thing I’ve done is keep these struggles to myself. I haven’t opened up to those around me that I think these effects may be due to past head injuries. I think in part because if I do they might want me to hang up the pads – a plea I’d completely understand from them.

The other thing you need to do is find natural ways to ease the side effects. I’ve found that regular exercise had left me feeling better than I have in a long time. I’m benefiting from the obvious effects of exercise like more energy and stamina, but I’m also noticing fewer headaches – until this last week when the weather has been crazy. I predict an early fall/winter based on my headaches.

Bottom line, if you’ve had concussions and are still experiencing the effects of them – even years later like me – you are not alone. You also don’t have to suffer. Talk to those around you about it, and be honest with your doctor so they can help you get right.

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