Concussions impact junior hockey ranks

JASON HILLS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:59 AM ET

EDMONTON - Dr. Michael Czarnota doesn't like to be the bearer of bad news.

It's one thing to tell someone they've got a bump or bruise, but imagine having to tell a young promising hockey player that their dreams of being a pro hockey player are over because of a severe concussion.

"The hardest thing to do is to sit down with the player and tell them it's over," said Czarnota, who is the consulting neuropsychologist for the Western Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League.

"Everyone understands it's a long shot to play pro hockey, but for some of these kids, sadly, it's their dream just to finish the year."

Czarnota knows he can't eliminate the devastation of concussions on his own but he's trying. He's seen many scary incidents involving junior hockey players over the past decade in his role in junior hockey.

Concussions aren't new to the game. But when arguably the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, hasn't played in over eight months and with the tragic deaths of NHL enforcers Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak this summer, it's sent shockwaves through the hockey world at every level.

Czarnota believes these types of incidents have elevated the awareness of concussions.

"It has forced changes at the NHL level and it will trickle down to other leagues. Hockey Canada made their rule changes. There is no such thing as a legal hit to the head," said Czarnota.

"To think about how much has changed and adopted and implemented has been quite impressive."

Czarnota has spent countless hours travelling across the nation monitoring players with concussion symptoms and he's seen players handle the issues in many different ways.

"I remember one player was having so much trouble controlling his anger and rage, his family was truly frightened for his and their own safety," said Czarnota.

"We want to avoid those situations. My goal is to get the concussions diagnosed properly. These players need to be monitored so, if we get some early signs, that we can get the interventions they need."

There were over 100 documented concussions in the WHL last season. But led by commissioner Ron Robison, the league is taking a stand, implementing a seven-point plan to limit head trauma in the WHL.

Stiffer suspensions and changes to equipment with softer shoulder pads are two of the big factors this season.

"It goes beyond soft-cap shoulder pads, we're going to look at re-examining the equipment overall," said Robison.

"We have to look at overall safety of the player versus the appropriate size of the equipment.

"We realize we have a problem and we need to correct it. It's our job to give these young players the safest environment possible."

Czarnota said the coaches' voices are becoming louder and clearer in the dressing room, but sadly, there are still players out there who try to mask the results in order to get back early. But Czarnota feels the battle against concussions is moving forward.

"Most junior hockey players have that dream to play professional hockey and if I were to tell these kids who've suffered severe concussions. I'll give you two years of pro hockey, but it will take 10 years off your lifespan,' most of these kids will ask me, Where do I sign?' " said Czarnota.

"They're willing to take that chance because they believe that medical science will catch up, and it's a tough talk to have with these kids."

Czarnota worries about what the future may hold for some players down the road.

"I haven't worked with these guys long enough to see the true impact yet, but I have to be honest, it's something I worry about," said Czarnota.

"I'm almost obsessed to do everything I can to make it least likely to occur as possible. But I would be deluding myself in feeling I can keep that from happening completely, but we're going to do everything we can to try and eliminate these terrible head injuries."

jason.hills@sunmedia.ca


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