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Impact of concussions on sport a major issue

Even after a year away from the game, a former Junior hockey player is still plagued by the effects of multiple head injuries.

Even after a year away from the game, a former Junior hockey player is still plagued by the effects of multiple head injuries.

James Bannister, an Okotoks Junior A Oiler from 2006 to 2010, is all too familiar with the hazards of post-concussion syndrome. To this day, he still suffers from headaches, light sensitivity and memory loss.

By his own estimate, Bannister suffered between four and six concussions while toiling as a gritty forward for the Oilers. He now cautions current players against playing with any hint of head trauma.

“At the end of the day, its just hockey. You’re just chasing a black puck around on the ice. There’s more to life than hockey,” Bannister emphasized.

After resisting doctor’s recommendations to quit the sport in the fall of 2009, following yet another concussion, Bannister returned several months later for the Oilers’ playoff run.

Even after a long layoff, the effects of the numerous head injuries were still evident.

“I just didn’t feel like the same player,” Bannister recalled.

The 2009-2010 AJHL playoffs proved to be last stand for the Okotoks forward. He quit the sport following the Oilers’ semi-finals exit, but it was not the end of the effects of the game.

Bannister also suffered from bouts of depression in the aftermath of his concussions due to, as he explained, a “chemical imbalance” created by the injuries.

Bannister credited then Oilers coach Garry VanHereweghe for making sure his medical needs were put ahead of hockey during the course of his playing career.

However, he did stress players have to share in the responsibility concerning concussions.

One of those responsibilities is respect for the other players on the ice.

With concussion awareness on the rise, there is renewed focus on eliminating headshots and to ensure the safety of all participants.

Since Hockey Canada amended its rules in 2002-2003, insisting upon zero tolerance for checks to the head, the sporting world has focused more and more of its attention on the consequences of these injuries.

A startling study released by Dr. Paul Echlin in November 2010 brought the issue to the forefront with its assertion the concussion rate is far greater than initially thought — as much as seven times higher.

Echlin’s “Hockey Education Concussion Project” followed 67 Junior hockey players for the entire 2009-2010 hockey season. In 50 games the doctors observed directly, 21 players suffered concussions — including five repeat concussions.

As noted in James Christie’s Oct. 31 report, “Taking a new approach on hockey concussions,” in the Globe and Mail, the “Think First” organization (focused on preventing brain and spinal cord injury) estimated 20 per cent of hockey players under 18 years-old have suffered concussions.

Todd Jackson, Hockey Canada’s Senior Manager of Safety and Insurance, has made concussion awareness a priority.

He insisted his organization does not rest when it comes to educating personnel about the dangers of high hits and the precautions that should be enforced.

In addition, Hockey Canada now requires at least one member of every minor hockey team needs to be certified in a sanctioned safety program.

“Every team in the country, at the minor level, needs to have someone that’s taken the safety program,” Jackson explained.

This program includes a short module on concussions; including prevention and response techniques, as well as instruction on a responsible return to play.

Ultimately, this means the responsibility lies with the coaches, trainers and physicians to assess and determine the extent of a head injury and what protocol to follow.

Michael Bara, head coach of the Okotoks Bantam AAA Oilers takes this duty seriously employing a zero-tolerance rule when it comes to any hits to the head. Any player who may have suffered that type of injury must undergo a strict evaluation before returning to the ice.

“Any time a kid on our team has taken a big hit, we send our trainer immediately, even if the kid brushes it off,” Bara explained.

By leaving the evaluation to the trainer or doctor, as opposed to letting a player diagnose themselves, Bara said he knows he can prevent further injury to an athlete.

“I’ve always had the philosophy that… if that trainer says that’s enough, I’m never going to argue with the trainers. If they want to shut him down, that’s it,” he said. “We don’t allow them to come back until there’s clearance. We won’t even allow them to skate until a doctor says it’s okay.”

Rory Hennigan has been on both sides of this injury. The coach of the Okotoks Junior B Bisons suffered debilitating injuries as a player and willfully ignored them.

Now, as a coach, Hennigan can see trying to play through a head injury is not worth the potential long-term cost.

“If they go out and get hurt and they can’t work for the rest of their lives, well, what was the point?”

While the coaches seem to have a good grasp on the concussion issue, one significant hurdle remains. Communicating the dire consequences of playing with a head injury is often lost on the player themselves.

Driving that point home remains the great final frontier for head safety advocates, Jackson conceded.

“We’ve got to further educate players on the dangers of playing with a concussion,” he said.

According to a recent study, five out of 15 players who were told to not return to hockey did so anyway. Four of them subsequently suffered post-concussion symptoms for “two years or more.”

Player education and awareness remain a top priority for Hockey Canada.

“I think the education of players is going to be huge here as we move forward over the next couple of years. We’re going to have to look at ways of making sure kids are well aware of the injury and how to respond to it,” Jackson continued.

While Hockey Canada strives to emphasize this point at a national level, Okotoks coaches continue to make their players aware of the potential dangers.

Though they can prohibit injured players from hitting the ice, the athletes aren’t always receptive to concussion education.

“I’m able now that I’ve done it myself to stand back and go ‘It’s not worth it fellas’ but you try and tell that to one of these guys, it’s tough,” Hennigan explained.

Part of the solution, Bara added, is to instruct the younger players about avoiding head injuries in the first place. Though it is often easier said than done, the coach believes education can lead to a more cautioned approach on the ice.

“All we can do is try to teach our kids how to take a check,” Bara said, insisting the player should face forward, keep their hands down and have their head “on a swivel” to avoid a head shot.

With leagues at every level taking steps to reduce contact to the head, there is consensus on one issue — you can make the game safer but there is always a risk when one steps on the ice.

“Hockey’s still a contact sport, you’re never going to eliminate that problem completely,” concluded Okotoks Junior A Oiler coach James Poole.

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