EDMONTON - Jesse Pearson, Jesse Wallin and Ryan Cuthbert never played against each other during their hockey careers, but all three Western Hockey League coaches share one common bond.
They had their dreams of long NHL careers crushed with the worst word and hottest topic in hockey circles these days — concussions.
To this day, all three still feel the lingering effects of their multiple concussions in their career. Between them all, they’ve sustained roughly 20 concussions over a combined 20 years of playing the game.
Headaches, nausea, memory loss and depression — all three WHL grads know what NHL stars like Sidney Crosby are going through. They’ve lived it.
“It’s been life-changing,” said Pearson, who’s in his first year as an assistant coach with the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“I don’t wish this upon my worst enemy. Depression is the worst thing I’ve ever had to go through in my life. It’s terrible.”
Pearson had his pro hockey dream cut short last December after being on the receiving end of a punch from one of the toughest players in the WHL last season, Curt Gogol.
A tough guy during his junior career, he worries about what the future may hold after seeing the tragic deaths of NHL enforcers Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak this summer.
“It’s always on the back of my mind, but I don’t like to think about the future. I can’t change the past, I just have to take things day-by-day,” said Pearson, who had 14 career fights in just 56 games and missed the entire 2009/10 season with a concussion and a shattered jaw.
For Wallin, who played his entire junior career with the Red Deer Rebels and is now the head coach and GM of the Rebels, his career ended from a “Todd Bertuzzi” type of attack while playing the Calgary Flames organization in 2004, after trying to get back to the NHL after playing 49 NHL games with the Detroit Red Wings.
It took him several years to get rid of the constant symptoms, but he admits he has to monitor his health on a day-to-day basis otherwise those symptoms return.
For Wallin, he needs to be extremely careful because his father suffered from mental illness, a disease that saw his dad take his own life just prior to Wallin starting his junior career.
“It’s in my fabric and in my blood, and I saw what depression did to my father,” said Wallin.
“I have to be careful, and I went through bouts of depression after I was forced into retirement.
“My last concussion was in October of 2004, and my first child was born that February, and sadly there were parts of her first year of her life I don’t remember. I had to get my wife to remind me.
“It got real bad. I would lash out at my wife for pretty much nothing. Thankfully she works with people with mental illness and she understood. I remember my breaking point, when we got into an argument and I stormed off into the garage and took a hockey stick and destroyed my whole garage.
“That’s when I got the help.”
He has turned himself into one of the best young coaches in junior hockey and what once was a bright hockey career on the ice has shifted, and is shining bright behind the bench.
For Cuthbert, he led the Kelowna Rockets to a Memorial Cup in 2003.
His work ethic was through the roof. He was tough as nails and fearless. He wasn’t an enforcer or the resident tough guy, but he had 44 fights over his junior and pro career.
He was never drafted, but was climbing through the ranks of the New York Rangers organization.
Cuthbert had three concussions in three years of pro hockey and eight total in his career. His last was as a member of the ECHL’s Charlotts Checkers.
He dealt with the daily headaches, and depression set in with the realization that his dreams of playing in the Big Apple were finished.
Now an assistant coach with the Rockets, he’s had to adjust to life behind the bench and he’s still dealing with issues from that last concussion in 2006.
“I’m on anxiety medication, and anxiety is something I deal with every day,” said Cuthbert.
“I can get wound up for no reason. With concussions, you know you shouldn’t be wound up, but your body and your mind tells you otherwise and it gets to you.
“It’s something I’ve tried to work through. I stick with my routine and make sure when I get up in the morning there’s a plan. It’s something I got to continue to battle through.”
Concussions have ended many players careers, but thankfully for these three young coaches, being able to stay in the game has helped them fill that void.
“I think with any person with a brain injury, once they’re ready to get back to a normal life, it can be tough and you can start to slide into a hole,” said Cuthbert.
“Your emotions are all over the map, you can get stuck in a depression, but for guys like myself and others who’ve dealt with this trauma, coaching gives you a new lease on life.”