Playing heads-up hockey

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

Craig Heisinger has dealt with dozens of players who've suffered concussions over the years, from his days as an equipment manager in the NHL to his current gig as GM of the Manitoba Moose.

So when his own son suffered a concussion, he thought he was well prepared to handle it.

Turned out he wasn't.

"The emotions and things that go through your mind are totally different as a parent than as a professional equipment manager," Heisinger said. "I would have never considered letting a professional player play. I would've never even thought about it."

But his teenaged son, Jake, that was a different story. Particularly when the kid was trying to crack the lineup of the provincial AAA Midget Winnipeg Wild, earlier this fall.

"I knew he shouldn't play," Heisinger said. "And I was considering letting him play, because I knew how bad he wanted to make the team. And that's a very poor decision, to even consider it."

In the end, Heisinger put his foot down, and more than one father-son scrap ensued.

This coming Saturday, Heisinger and his son will tell their stories at the second annual Hockey Canada Concussion Seminar, here in Winnipeg.

The seminar will feature all kinds of expert speakers from across Canada, including internationally-known doctors who've treated and studied head injuries.

The personal stories, like the Heisingers', will bring it home for the approximately 300 people expected to sign up.

"It'll be sort of like a living room conversation, where both sides are mad at each other," Heisinger said. "Well, he was more mad at me for the idiot I am, because I won't let him play."

It was actually Jake's second concussion in less than a year. The first happened in the playoffs last spring, creating another common, yet potentially dangerous, dynamic.

"He's 15 years old and they're in the midst of the playoffs," Heisinger said. "There's pressures to play, both from yourself and your teammates and coaches."

Especially when you look just fine, on the surface.

"We had other guys injured, too," Jake recalled. "So I felt pressure to get back in there. There were other guys with broken legs, broken arms, suspended. You think you can get back in because it's just a concussion. But you can't."

If there's a single message organizers hope to deliver with the seminar, that's it.

Gone are -- or at least should be -- the macho days of coaches dismissing head injuries and sending their players right back out there.

"The newer individuals in sport are much more cognizant of the fact concussions are serious and need to be dealt with as such," Dr. Ed Pilat, who's co-chairing the event, said. "Some of the older individuals are still of the mindset, 'Suck it up and go and play,' unfortunately."

It's a choice that could end someone's career.

Take Calgary's Jason Smith, one of the speakers in Saturday's seminar.

A former Flames draft pick, Smith's dream of making the NHL was cut short by three concussions in a six-month period. Today, he's an orthopaedic surgeon in Toronto.

Jake Heisinger admits he probably would have kept playing through his symptoms, had it been up to him -- despite the nausea and dizziness he was feeling for days after being hit, the first time into the boards, the second by an elbow to his head.

"Now I'm happy I ended up listening to the doctors and my dad," Jake said. "It'll be good to share my experience, so people don't make a mistake and play. It's probably worth it to sit out the six games or whatever, than to sit out the next 10 years or your career."


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