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|The Kelowna Rockets' bench features coaches Dan Lambert (left), Ryan Huska and Ryan Cuthbert. (Photo by Doyle Potenteau, DubNation)|
They don’t come any tougher than Ryan Cuthbert.
He was everything you would want in a hockey player. He was 5-foot-10 and about 190 pounds. And he was one of those players who performed as though each shift might be his last time on skates.
And then one night it was.
A native of Swift Current, Cuthbert had played five seasons with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. He finished with 164 points and 397 penalty minutes in 319 regular-season games. He was bigger and better than that, though, because there isn’t a statistical category for ‘heart.’
But now he was into his third season as a pro. No, he hadn’t been drafted. Yes, he was continuing to chase the dream. And now here he was with the ECHL’s Charlotte Checkers and he just knew that he was close to the next rung on the ladder -- the AHL.
But, geez, the headaches. The damn headaches wouldn’t go away. The nausea . . . the anxiety . . . the headaches . . .
But this was it. He was 23 years of age. What would he do if he couldn’t play hockey? And the AHL was right there, wasn‘t it?
So, of course, he played. Well, he tried to play.
“I think my biggest problem was I tried to play with it a bit,” Cuthbert says. “They tell you now, if you’re not feeling right, don’t go in. I tried to play probably another three games and I got so violently ill the one night that was kind of the end of it.
“I had been nauseous before and I knew I wasn’t right but I kind of figured I was on the verge . . . that was probably the last year I was going to get a crack at making the AHL climb.
“I tried to do it and it didn’t work out.”
“I was 23 when I got the last one,” he says. “I was basically done at the age of 24.”
“That was super hard. That was the year I thought maybe I was going to get a crack at staying up at least in the AHL. And then you never know what happens from there. . . you’re only one step down.
“That was tough for me to swallow.”
Unless you have been there, it is impossible to fathom the pressure on a player in this situation. In his early 20s, he has known nothing but the rhythms of hockey for years and years. He has been involved in countless violent collisions and now he realizes it might be coming to an end.
“That’s the scary part for anybody,” Cuthbert says. “Everybody’s career is going to come to an end, but when you’re kind of forced into it . . . you want to get as many opinions as possible. I probably saw five or six specialists before it was all said and done.”
And the specialists say your body -- your brain -- is telling you that it’s had enough. But what about those days when you don’t feel too bad?
“Even when I had kind of hung them up I wanted to get some plans together but I hadn’t decided that that was going to be it,” he says. “As the winter dragged on . . . it was like, it’s not coming around, I’m not going to be right. The pressure is huge.
“But you do have days where you feel good and you’re, ‘Sheesh, I could do anything right now.’ And then you try something and the next day . . . for me, I’d be a writeoff. I couldn’t get out of bed sometimes. If I had ridden the bike for 15 minutes . . . for two days I was big-time headaches and sleepy.”
For his entire career, Cuthbert only knew one way to play. And his way wasn’t conducive to avoiding contact.
“No,” he says, with a smile and a shrug. “I had to play one way and if it wasn’t going to be that way it wasn’t going to be any way.”
He knows his problems “probably” started in junior. But, he adds, “I didn’t have any major problems there.
“When I got them in junior . . . I never got forced into playing when I didn’t need to. It was the ones in pro that started to linger. One would be a week. The next one would be two or three weeks. I got one the year before I retired that was probably three months.
“The last one . . . I kind of shot myself in the foot. Who knows? If I would have taken the time I needed . . .”
In this first two years in the pro game -- 125 games with Charlotte, 25 with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack -- he says he took “four pretty good shots.”
And then came what he calls “the bad one.”
It was at the start of his third season with Charlotte.
“The bad one . . . I just couldn’t get over it,” he says. “I just couldn’t shake it.”
He goes on to describe the next few months of his life . . .
“It dragged on for months and months. The headaches were real bad. About every four months I would notice a change, maybe the headaches were going away a little more. For a good 18 months probably, I had real bad post-concussion syndrome . . . it would get better but I still had it bad.
“I got headaches all the time. For that 18 months that I struggled with post-concussion syndrome, my headaches were every day all the time for the first while.”
Think about that. A headache. Every day. All the time. Every day. All the time. Twenty-four hours a day . . . 144 hours a week . . . for months. All the time.
“Four months later, I’d be OK,” he said. “Then every couple of days I’d get a bad one. Then every three or four days.”
Then he adds: “I don’t deal with headaches any more but there’s other stuff.”
“A lot of this stuff I don‘t notice at times but I’ll catch myself after. Short-term memory stuff. Your moods are different. You deal with anxiety sometimes. It just depends . . . every case is different.
“Some of the stuff you don’t see until after. You deal with depression. Obviously, that’s part of giving up hockey and stuff, too, but I think concussions can play a lot of tricks on your mind, too.”
When he finally realized that his playing career was over, Cuthbert didn’t know what he was going to do. All he had known was hockey from a player’s perspective. And now that had been taken away from him.
But one person -- Bruce Hamilton, the Rockets’ president and general manager -- wasn’t about to let him wander the wilderness without a goal.
“He has been so good to me since everything happened,” Cuthbert says of Hamilton. “He wanted to make sure I was looked after right from the get-go.”
After Cuthbert got the last report from the last specialist, Hamilton called him into his office.
“What’s your plan here, kid?” Hamilton said. “What do you want to do?”
Well . . .
“I tried the school thing for about a semester,” Cuthbert says with a kid’s grin, “and that wasn’t it.”
So . . . he did some work with the Okanagan Rockets, a Kelowna-based team that plays in the B.C. major midget league.
In hindsight, Cuthbert says, “That was the year I was still having a real tough time.”
So much was going on in his life that he sometimes didn’t know which way was up. He was, as he says, “going through a total life change.”
Still, he stuck with it. And now, at 28, he is an assistant coach with the Rockets. He spent two years coaching from upstairs. He listened. He watched video. He did anything that was asked of him. Last season, he moved behind the bench, alongside head coach Ryan Huska and fellow assistant Dan Lambert.
“It’s been awesome,” Cuthbert says. “I owe a lot to him. Without this, who knows what I’d be doing. I’m sure I’d be OK, but I’m doing something I love.”
And, yes, he has the bug. The coaching bug has bitten him, as it has so many others before him.
Asked if he wants a coaching career, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,“ he says. “I want to give it a try. Every coach wants to be a head coach. It’s something I want to try and see if it’s right for me. Right now it’s looking that way.
“I’m loving what I’m doing.”
Over the last couple of seasons Cuthbert has found himself working with a young man who finds himself in the same boat in which Cuthbert travelled so many miles.
Kyle St. Denis, a 20-year-old forward, has missed a lot of time over the last two Kelowna seasons with concussions. The Rockets placed him on the long-term injury list last week. His situation will be re-evaluated at Christmas but it is doubtful that he will play hockey again.
“I can kind of talk to him and give him the sense that nobody is ever going to be mad at you for not playing,” Cuthbert says.
His message to St. Denis, for the most part, has been: “If you don’t feel right, you don’t feel right. The last thing you want to have is to go through life . . . if he gets one more maybe it’s a real bad one . . . and I think he’s gone through enough over the last year or two. You don’t want to do it. It’s not fun.”
A concussion, Cuthbert says, isn’t like any other injury. The only similarity is that “you don’t feel right.”
“But when it’s dealing with your brain,” he says, “there are so many things that you can’t control. It’s really tough to get through day-to-day when you’re dealing with things like that.”
Cuthbert’s page at hockeydb.com shows that in his last season as a professional hockey player (2005-06), he had nine points in nine games with Charlotte.
That is the last line of his career. If you didn’t know, you would wonder what happened to a young guy in a season in which he was averaging a point per game.
What it doesn’t show, what it can’t show, is the pain and suffering that resulted in the end. It also doesn’t show how far he has come since those days when he fought nausea and headahces and couldn’t find the strength to get out of bed.
Things are different now. Things are looking up for Cuthbert.
St. Denis and others who have suffered, and continue to suffer, through this kind of injury could do a lot worse than look to Cuthbert for inspiration and for help.