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On hockey’s problem (and my problem) with concussions, hypocrisy and excuses

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Quitting hockey isn’t easy when it’s your decision, and then it’s too late.

Ottawa Senators v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game One Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Nearly a decade ago, when I suffered my fifth concussion before my 13th birthday and left my school in an ambulance for the second time in as many years, I couldn’t control my eyes. When I regained my consciousness, they rolled to the back of my head, revealing only white to my distressed mom at the hospital.

By the time I was off the backboard, out of the neck brace, in a bed, in control of my brain (as much as one could be while severely concussed) and lucid enough for my first discussion with a physician, the one of the first things he asked was “how many is this?”

When he heard the answer, one of the first conclusions he came to was that my time playing contact sports was over.

But months later, when the major post-concussion syndrome symptoms had subsided and all that remained were visits with a neurologist, regular blackouts (like the kind you get when you stand up too quickly but prolonged for minutes at a time and out of the blue), and a lifelong hand tremor, I was back on the ice.

I was feeling fine on most days, I had quit lacrosse (which I’d told myself and others was the more contact-heavy sport anyways) for good, and I wanted to take up recreational house league hockey to get back playing. It was non-contact, I’d tell my parents and doctors. I was fine, I’d say, when they would check in on me after games or at appointments.

I believed, or at the very least talked myself into believing, that the head trauma was behind me and I could move on. In high school, I continued playing house league hockey and coached the varsity team in order to stay on the ice. In university, I played eight seasons of intramural hockey over four years, men’s league in each of my summers, and ball hockey on the side.

At the end of each season, when my long-time partner, or parents, or two brothers would tell me that season should be my last, I would either dismiss them or promise that it would be.

Or I’d tell them it had been ‘X number of years’ and I was in the clear.

But here’s the thing about head trauma: You’re never in the clear. Your brain never fully heals. I’m damaged goods.

So when I suffered my sixth concussion while playing intramural hockey in my third year of university, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I pretended I was, and talked myself into returning a few weeks later to close out the season and play in the playoffs once I started to feel ‘better’.

Last summer, while playing in another summer men’s league with my two brothers (something the three of us have always wanted to do but have never been able to due to an age gap), I took a hip to the helmet while trying to squeeze through a seam in the dying seconds of a game, bringing back that familiar grogginess and disorientation. This time, when my brothers insisted I go to the hospital, I refused. “What are they going to tell me that I don’t already know?” was among my excuses. “I’ll be fine in the morning.”

As far as we’ve come in studying and diagnosing concussions, doctors are still extraordinarily reliant on the things we (those who suffer head trauma) say about how and what we’re feeling. It’s not the same as breaking a bone, or tearing a muscle. It’s not as easily measured. That makes it easy for me, and everyone else who plays this twisted, exciting sport, to dismiss the signs and the medical advice and just play.

It also makes me a hypocrite. My brother often reminds me that every time I advocate for caution, for new procedures and testing, for independent physicians who ought to take control completely out of the potentially concussed player’s hands in deciding on a return, I’m a hypocrite. If I continue to play despite knowing better, my stances on health in hockey and the duty the league owes to its players (alumni included) are hypocritical.

My answer has always been: “Well, I’m not playing contact anymore, nor am I playing against the biggest, fastest players on the planet.” But it’s bullshit. And I know it’s bullshit.

I also don’t have the added pressures of playing hockey for my livelihood, or the Stanley Cup within my reach, or millions of fans who count on me. I’m not Sidney Crosby or Clarke MacArthur. And while I worry about their health while watching them play, I also understand why they do it.

They shouldn’t be playing hockey. I shouldn’t be playing hockey. I know this. Deep down, they know it too.

When my brother recommended I write this essay, he hoped it would finish with my announcing I’d be quitting hockey.

On Tuesday, I begin a new season of men’s league hockey in Toronto. On Tuesday, Clarke MacArthur and Sidney Crosby are scheduled to play an elimination game for a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup final.

We’ve each got excuses. We’re also making the wrong decision.