CTE and Head Trauma: My Experience as a Player.

Hockey is Dangerous. It always has been and it always will be, especially for a smaller guy like I am. Smaller players have to play with a bit more grit and nasty in their game at the amateur level, most youth hockey players as you get older and move up the ranks are bigger guys who know how to throw their weight around and for a smaller guy like me that can be a tough thing to play against. I played the game with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I was a guy who knew how to get under an opponents skin, if I had to compare myself to an NHL player it would probably be Brenden Gallagher. I was a decent skill guy who usually put up around 20-25 or so points on a 40 game schedule, but it was in front of the net and in the corners where I earned my ice time. I loved getting under the goalies skin and usually the worst I would have is bruises all over the back of my legs and my arms which was fine with me in fact I wore them with pride as battle scars. But that all changed during a High School game in San Jose.

I can’t remember the exact date, or month, or even the year although logic would place it sometime in 2014 or 2015 during my junior year of High School. I had just moved to California from Iowa, after taking a season off hockey I was eager to get back in the swing of things. I don’t remember a ton about the hockey in California other than the program I was in wasn’t nearly as good as the one I grew up with in Michigan, but there is on game I remember vividly. I was doing my usual net front duties in the second period when all of a sudden I get suckered in the back of the head with the goaltender’s blocker, knocking me down to the ice, and dizzying me. I remember feeling lost, not lost in the sense of losing conciseness or forgetting where I was but lost in the sense of “did he just punch me?” Had I not seen the referees arm up while I was on the ice I might have returned the favor but my cooler head prevailed and we ended up scoring on the resulting powerplay. After a few minutes on the bench and some water I felt fine and finished the game. After the game I didn’t shake the goalies hand, the only time in my life I ever did that.

That night back at home I started to get my warning signs I was getting a complex migraine, tunnel vision, seeing spots, numbness in my hands, and lightheadedness. I’ve never been a stranger to complex migraine unfortunately, but they were usually triggered by nerves or anxiety or stress for me, this one seemed to strike out of nowhere. That night I remember being about as sick as I had ever been in my life vomiting and dry heaving through the night meanwhile my head was pounding so intensely I couldn’t open my eyes. Somehow I got to sleep that night only to wake up in the same condition as when I fell asleep. Usually sleep makes my migraine go away so I knew this was serious. I told my parents and the scheduled a CT scan for me the next day. I woke up the next day for my test with the same migraine I had for two consecutive days, after the test I was officially diagnosed with my 3rd concussion and was told to shut it down for the rest of the hockey season. My migraine mercifully went away the following day thanks to some drugs prescribed to me by the doctor.

Although I mentioned this was my 3rd concussion this one was by far the most severe, I felt lingering effects of it months later. That game was the last time I skated in California before moving to Maryland where I currently live. Around June of 2017 I decided I wanted to try and get on the ice again, I went to a stick and puck session and just took it easy, not even thinking of my previous concussion I just wanted to get my legs back under me. After that first time back on the ice in 2 years I felt great, so I decided to go again the following week, that’s when things started to get bad. The following week after I got off the ice I started to have my migraine warning signs once again and sure enough the headache followed. I was curious to see if the headache was a one off occurrence so I went again the following week and once again I endured another day bedridden with a migraine. Any rational person is saying “well just stop playing hockey,” but for me that wasn’t an option. I did take a small break from playing but not before a local men’s league team asked me to fill in for the remainder of the season. I decided it was worth the headache risk for me to be able to play. I tried taking excedrin before my first game and at last I didn’t get a migraine once I got off the ice. I kept using excedrin the rest of the season and it worked wonders for my migraine prevention.

Excedrin before ice time is something I still have to do to this day to avoid headaches once I get off the ice. This episode really opened my eyes towards the dangers of head trauma. We all know of possible health issues such as dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life but even now I am 20 years old and living with these health concerns and it will likely be something I have to deal with for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I have CTE or not and it likely won’t be discovered until I pass away at least given the current technology and research if I do. But if I don’t have CTE I can only imagine what those who do are going through given the weeks of my life I’ve spent laying in bed unable to open my eyes with a throbbing headache. Removing concussions from hockey is impossible, it simply wont happen. However, efforts need to be made to make our game safer and do a better job of treating concussions once the occur, especially at the professional level where teams have the money and resources to do so. I sound like a broken record when I say this because literally every piece of media and research talking about head injuries in hockey says this. Still however the NHL refuses to listen and tells players it’s their fault when they get concussions.

All youth hockey players dream of playing in the NHL and I was no exception. Now however, I look back and wonder if my body could even handle it with all of the head injuries I sustained and all the side effects I still experience five years after my last concussion. I never played the game at a high level and the amount of trauma my brain has sustained playing low level hockey appears to be enough to have permanent side effects. The game is now evolving so that the smaller skill players are gaining an advantage over the large lumbering physical presence which bodes well for concussions but the fact still remains, head injuries are a serious issue and one that the NHL needs to take seriously.

Article by: Ben Lloyd (@lloyd_ben7)

Cover Photo from: WBUR.org

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