Memoir: I was on the verge of making it big in hockey, and then a concussion ended it all

Memoir: I was on the verge of making it big in hockey, and then a concussion ended it all

Memoir: Last Shot

Hockey was my life from age five. By the time I was 12, I practised a couple of hours a day and played up to three games a week. The rest of the time, my best friend, Jake, and I shot pucks in his basement, where his dad later built us a mini-rink with regulation nets and Plexiglas boards.

Like every other hockey kid in Toronto, I dreamed of making the NHL. At 15, I was attending St. Michael’s College School and playing right wing for the Mississauga Rebels, one of the top AAA teams in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. The 2011–2012 season was my minor midget year, the time when American prep schools and universities begin scouting. I spotted coaches from the University of Michigan and Yale in the stands, and made it my mission to get an NCAA scholarship.

During the first game of the season, I chased the puck into the corner, one stride ahead of an opposing defenceman. Just as I felt the weight of the puck on my stick, he cross-checked me, slamming my head into the glass. My brain whiplashed back and forth, banging into the inner wall of my skull and damaging the tissue. I blacked out for just a second, then dragged myself up and skated to the bench. When I sat down, bright sparks drifted across my field of vision. I wanted to keep playing. My coach refused.

The next day, my mom took me to a sports clinic, where a doctor diagnosed me with a concussion. She said that if I suffered another one, she would recommend I stay off the ice permanently. She told me to avoid physical activity and to let the injury repair itself. I was out of school for two months and went part-time for three more. At home, I sat in the dark. I couldn’t watch TV or look at a computer, because the light hurt my eyes. I suffered excruciating headaches. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that I could play soon. Just one more week, I’d tell myself. In all, it took nearly six months before I was back on the ice. Our team won the OHL Cup that March.

I spent the summer getting back into game condition and was invited to an NCAA prospects camp in Niagara Falls. By fall, I was in peak physical condition and had become one of the top players on my team. American scouts started paying attention: I received interest from the Gunnery, a top prep school in Connecticut, as well as Providence College in Rhode Island, Canisius College in Buffalo and Penn State, whose scouts approached my dad and gave him their business cards.

Halfway through one of the first games of the midget season, nearly a year to the day after my first injury, it happened again. This time, I was the instigator—I came careening around the net and checked a guy, and our helmets collided. I told myself it was no big deal, but that night, my head throbbed, as if someone were jackhammering the inside of my skull. Over the next three weeks, the headaches got worse. I developed other symptoms, too: my neck ached, and I was constantly dizzy. I knew I had another concussion, but I told no one, not even my mom. I couldn’t bear the thought of being off the ice forever.

At school, I pretended everything was fine. I downed extra-strength Advil every day. I’d come home from school and try to sleep off the pain. What I didn’t know was that repeated brain trauma is thought to cause dementia and cognitive impairment later in life. Concussions have become an epidemic in junior hockey: an estimated 36,000 players in Ontario suffer them each year, though most go unreported.

I kept up the act until mid-October, when I got hit hard again. I looked in the stands and saw my mom looking down at me, waving at me to come off the ice, but I ignored her. That night, she knocked on my door. We talked, and I broke down in tears and confessed that I’d been concealing symptoms for weeks. She hauled me to a sports doctor, who confirmed what I already knew.

I’d never play hockey again. Hearing it out loud was devastating. Hockey had been my past, present and future. Now I had no idea how to spend my time and no clue what to do with the rest of my life. My mom, worried that I was depressed, tried to get me to talk to a therapist, but I refused.

Thankfully, St. Mike’s has a specialized education program for students recovering from sports injuries, which enabled me to finish Grade 11. For the next year, I watched as my teammates received NCAA scholarships and were drafted into the OHL and NHL. By January, my symptoms had lifted, but on doctor’s orders, I couldn’t even join a recreational team. On the bad days, I was crushed. On the good days, I looked for ways to cope: I began power lifting at a gym near my house, and I helped coach a team in the GTHL.

This fall, I started my first year at Western. I’m planning to major in kinesiology, so I can pursue a career in sports medicine. I also finally got the okay from my doctor to join a non-contact intramural hockey team. I played my first game last week and couldn’t believe how rusty I was—I could barely keep up. I didn’t mind. I was energized by the teasing, the competitive spirit, the camaraderie. Finally, I’m part of a team again.

Nicholas Eustace is in first year at the University of Western Ontario.

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