Ex-players promote education into concussions in hockey

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EDMONTON – Whenever Keith Primeau is having a bad day, and the former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers still has several, his head repeatedly drops to his shoulder as if he is suffering from a tic.

Ron Ellis, who wore the Toronto Maple Leafs jersey for more than 1,000 games, stutters when his lingering post-concussion symptoms flare up, which is why Kerry Goulet, the director of stopconcussions.com, considers himself one of the lucky ones. He’s not certain his increasing irritability and forgetfulness is linked to his playing past.

The stopconcussions.com organization, the injured-brain child of Goulet and Primeau, was officially launched a month ago in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame and the initiative continues to expand. It brought Goulet to Edmonton, where he was passionately preaching the merits of the program.

Goulet, too, suffered from a head injury during his hockey career, most of which was spent in Germany, and he is now determined to speed up the education process.

“We know what we’re talking about. We lived it. I lived it at 28,” said Goulet. “I don’t remember the particulars. I just know I woke up in a hospital with five German doctors yakking and screaming.

“Two years later, I was hospitalized because I was depressed, but I went back and played and didn’t know I was living (through post-concussion struggles) until I met Ron Ellis. He suffered three concussions and went into clinical depression.”

Five years ago, Primeau, who sustained damage to his brain stem during his playing career, and Goulet, ganged up to launch “Play It Cool.” The program was aimed at reducing the risk of spinal cord injuries by teaching players and parents the principles of playing safer, better hockey.

When NHL superstar Sidney Crosby was knocked out of the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup with a concussion, the two former players shifted their focus.

“Nobody was taking concussions that seriously until the Crosby incident. We said, ‘OK, let’s take what we’ve learned and package it.’ ”

The intent now is to educate coaches, parents, players, administrators, physicians, trainers and officials on the cause, effects and consequences of concussions and neurotrauma injuries.

The two want to ensure there is quicker method of detection and, while they are obviously close to the sport of hockey, the program does encompass all sports and day-to-day activities.

Goulet cited the tragic death of actress Natasha Richardson as an example of why early detection is so crucial. Richardson, the late wife of actor Liam Neeson, fell during a ski lesson at Mont Tremblant Ski Resort in Quebec in 2009. Because she initially showed no visible signs of injury, she did not receive any immediate medical care, but was later rushed to hospital with complaints of a headache.

“One of the facts that came out of Ontario recently estimated that 25 per cent of all junior hockey players have suffered a concussion in an average four-year career,” said Goulet. “Those are crazy numbers.”

The stopconcussions.com organizers have culled information from sources like the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as Boston University, where researchers are studying brain disease in athletes in an attempt to address the “concussion crisis” in sports.

It has been determined that several athletes, all of whom died much too young, had the neurodegenerative disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which has been linked to repeated brain trauma. That list includes former NFL player Dave Duerson and NHL enforcer Bob Probert.

In May, the family of 28-year-old Derek Boogaard, best remembered for his days with the Minnesota Wild, donated their son’s brain to the university.

“Bob Probert died at the age of 44. He had some drug and alcohol problems, but how did he become an alcoholic, how did he become a drug addict? Was it because it masked the pain?” asked Goulet. “If you’ve had a concussion, then you understand the pain of the migraines and the sensitivity to light, the fog you walk around in. You start looking for things to get you through the day.”

Injuries require rest, Goulet continued, but a brain is not a knee. A brain can’t be shut down.

“Your life changes completely. You don’t like to read. You don’t like to write. You’re not supposed to look at a video screen or text on your telephone. You’re supposed to shut down and become a zombie in darkness. Well, we all know that’s impossible.

“How do you stop your brain from functioning?”

There is an online support forum called Head Ache for family members and loved ones, and there is a free i-Phone application available that lists signs and symptoms as well as a Google map that directs parents to the nearest medical care facility.

On July 1, literature for the concussion prevention program will be available at United Cycle.

“We need to prepared our kids. We need to prepared ourselves,” said Goulet. “There is no pill, no band-aid … and we all want it to go away quickly. It’s not going away. Education is the only way we’re going to reduce, not eliminate, the incidences of concussions.”

The NHL is wrestling with the issue of concussions, too. This past season, protocol was introduced that mandates a player who is hit in the head must be checked by a doctor before he returns to the game. More still needs to be done.

“The NHL has not yet got a handle on how to deal with this, so how can you ask NHL players to support any protocol right now? It’s going to take time,” Goulet said. “I don’t want NHL players standing up here making statements because they still have to go to work every day.

“Let’s worry about those three-, four-, five-, six-year-olds joining the game today.

“Everybody is demanding rapid change, but what’s important is that we do the right thing. Because the (NHL) has to be reactive, they are not in a position to be proactive. We are. We can be.”