July 15, 2011

Going to the head of the class

Two young hockey players learning to play safely at new school

Debbie Evans has more than one thing in common with NHL superstar Sidney Crosby.

Just like the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar, Evans’ extended family resides in Nova Scotia, but she can also relate to Crosby on another issue — concussions.

The Squamish resident and local business owner suffered two concussions playing women’s hockey last year and discovered just how potentially dangerous brain injuries can be.

“I had just started playing in the women’s league and hadn’t played for years,” she said. “I had the puck with my head down and someone was skating really fast and banged right into me. I fell flat back and smashed my head onto the ice.”

As most people who receive a concussion know, once you get one, it makes you much more susceptible to another. Weeks later, Evans got rocked again.

“For my second one, someone was skating out of control and I was just coming onto the ice from the bench,” she said. “She lost control and ran me down.”

The two incidents stunned Evans, which is why she signed up her sons Logan, 9, and Oliver Neufeld, 11, for Acres Hockey School. Based in Parksville, the school has recently teamed up with the Brain Navigators organization to provide players with guidance on concussions and how to prevent them in hockey.

Colleen Butler, the founder of Brain Navigators, knows the ugliness of living with brain trauma after injuries she suffered in a car accident.

“’Two weeks and you’ll be fine,’” she was told by doctors. “Little did I know what was in store for me. Having survived this journey, I vowed that my struggle should not be repeated by others. Education is vital to understanding that head injury recuperation time can be minimized with practical tools, mentally and physically.”

Evans herself suffered serious symptoms from her two concussions.

“I couldn’t sit in front of computers and focus on anything,” she said. “I had to take a few days off of work and brightness really bothered me. I had headaches and your whole head feels really tender and sensitive to things. I’d often feel nauseous and dizzy at times.”

After her second concussion, Evans was told by her doctor to stop playing hockey to avoid further damage.

“He told me, ‘Debbie, if you scramble your brains, you’re done,’” she said. “He basically told me to not play hockey and find something else to do to get into shape. My doctor said sometimes these types of injuries just aren’t reversible and it really scared me.”

Evans said she’s seen a startling amount of violence already in both of her boys’ early hockey careers.

“With Logan, there’s no hitting yet but he’s quite a good hockey player and they go after him a lot,” she said. “It’s pretty uncomfortable to see that. He gets tripped and shoved into the boards and I remember one time he got tripped so bad he went flying into the boards head first.”

“Oliver and his team were just introduced to hitting this year and it seemed like it took a while for them to get used to it. It seemed like it was intimidating for them at first but they got used to it. But it’s a little bit scary as a parent to watch.”

She said she hopes enrolling her boys in the Acres Hockey School will help them develop more awareness and encourage others to play the game in a safe manner.

“Just having that spidey sense to be able to recognize and be aware of hitting should make a big difference,” she said. “If they’re prepared enough to get hit and are able to deal with being hit or more aware of what’s happening on the ice, then there’s less a chance of them to get hurt.”

The Acres Hockey School features all of the regular on-ice training that other camps offer but the concussion workshops aim to better educate and prepare the players.

The workshops will be led by Butler and address topics such as identifying a concussion, tools on how to recover from a concussion, and exercises to enhance the brain, neck and spine.

“I think they’re excited to go,” she said of her two sons. “They could go to any hockey camp but with this one they’re going to have a new knowledge of head injuries and concussions and how serious they are. They want to learn how to hit, not to viciously try to hurt people.”

Evans said she hopes the workshops will make her sons more responsible players and make them want to share what they learned with teammates.

“If people ask them about concussions, they’re going to be knowledgeable about it and hitting and what kind of repercussions they bring,” she said. “Hopefully they can pass along that knowledge to their teammates when they come back in September.

“I’d like them to learn how to hit properly to get the effect you need and hopefully they learn that you don’t need to hit someone in the head to take them out. It can be done cleanly.”

For more information on the Acres Hockey School, visit www.acreshockey.com.