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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

It wasn't supposed to turn out like this

It is enough to make a grown man weep.
A father, with a concussed son and seemingly nowhere to turn, makes contact with a sports writer.
Names and numbers are exchanged.
A while later, the father writes that his son “is very slowly coming through the fog . . . due in large part to your blog and the contacts it generated.”
Now 22 years of age, the son last played a WHL game in 2012. It was his 20-year-old season. It wasn’t supposed to turn out the way it did.
Five weeks later, the father writes again. There are times when the sunshine is having a hard time cutting through the fog.
There was progress, they thought, when the son got a job this summer. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to hold it.
Why not?
On three separate occasions he returned to the family home in the middle of a shift. However, upon arriving at home, he had no recollection as to why he had left work.
“Upon contacting his employer(s) at the time,” Dad writes, “they all referred to him as having had a ‘meltdown.’ ”
The employers all were “very understanding” and promised that there would be a job for the son “once he gets well.”
The son, feeling “too embarrassed by his brain inury,” hasn’t gone back.
Still, he will forge ahead. He has to; after all, life goes on. Despite still suffering from occasional headaches and some memory loss, he has registered for university and plans to return next month.
“I would wish this upon no one,” the father writes. “And by that I don't mean his mother and me. I mean him.
“Life as a 22-year-old is supposed to be full of wonder and anticipation, of plans and of holding hands by a campfire with the girl of your dreams.
“The girl of his dreams has left him and he is a mere shell of his former confident, bigger-than-life, smiling, loving, laughing self.
“My heart breaks just a little more every time an ‘event’ occurs and his former presence becomes just a little more diminished.”
Meanwhile, another WHL player announced his retirement on Monday. Defenceman Tanner Muth, 20, of the Kootenay Ice is reported to have suffered three brain injuries last season. There won’t be a fourth as he has decided not to return for a fifth winter in the WHL.
At least four WHL players have ended their hockey careers in the last while due to post-concussion syndrome. One other player doesn’t appear to have made it official but he isn’t in training camp. Still another has left the game with what his team says is a neck injury, although he suffered a brain injury during a game in Kamloops early last season.
They fight depression. Some aren’t able to hold any job that is at all physically demanding. The headaches, the dizziness, the lightheadedness, the memory loss . . . it’s all too much.
The toll is mounting. The list of young men whose hockey careers — not just their WHL careers, but oftentimes their athletic careers — have been brought to a screeching halt by brain injuries grows ever longer.
Whatever it is that the WHL is doing to get brain injuries out of its game, it isn’t enough. The elbow pads still are too big and too hard. Ditto for shoulder pads. There are too many hits from behind. There are too many checks in which the head is targeted. There are too many fights where there shouldn’t be any.
In December 2007, former WHL forward Dean McAmmond, by then an NHLer, told the Toronto Star’s Randy Starkman:
“People say I have got concussion problems, but I don't have concussion problems. I have a problem with people giving me traumatic blows to the head, that's what I have a problem with.”
That, in a nutshell, is the problem that faces the WHL. Young men with a sense of invincibility don’t understand the consequences of striking another player in the head, be it helmeted or otherwise.
And don’t think for a moment that the issue of concussions in sport is going to go away. It isn’t. In fact, the spotlight on it is only going to get brighter.
On Oct. 8, a book titled League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for the Truth is to be published. It was written by brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who are investigative reporters for ESPN.
On Oct. 8 and 15, the PBS-TV public affairs series Frontline will carry a two-part documentary — League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.
Millions of viewers are expected to tune in. The NFL, the most-popular sporting league in all of North America, will come under fire.
There will be collateral damage and hockey, its season underway by that point, will get caught up in it as questions are asked.
Somewhere a father will watch and he will weep as he wonders what the future holds for his son.
No, it wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca, gdrinnan.blogspot.ca and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)

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