Hockey Injuries: What Price Glory?

Although Bryan Berard's eye injury was a horrific example of what can go wrong during a hockey game, it was not an anomaly. The number of serious injuries suffered by National Hockey League (NHL) players today is substantial. And as the average professional hockey player is physically larger and stronger, the injuries get more severe, and the human costs of playing hockey increase. But the costs are not just being borne by professional players. Fifty per cent of spinal fractures suffered by hockey players occur between the ages of 16 and 20.

Spinal-Cord Injuries
Probably the biggest fear every hockey player has is being hit from behind and flying head first into the boards. This can result in an injury to the spinal cord, which carries signals from the brain to the rest of the body. A spinal-cord injury can result in severe loss of movement and feeling, sometimes including total paralysis. A report released in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in March 2000 said that spinal-cord injuries have become a "catastrophic" part of hockey. The report determined that at least 243 spinal injuries, including six deaths, were suffered by young non-professional players since 1966. The authors of the report note that the true number of spinal injuries is likely higher because not all injuries are reported to sports medicine physicians and the Canadian Hockey Association, the two main sources for the research.

A spinal-cord injury is a life-altering event, and it can happen in an instant. The tragic injury of Travis Roy is a case in point. Roy got his first pair of skates at 20 months of age. At three he began skating and playing hockey with boys eight years old. He rotated through positions in each game and quickly developed into an excellent hockey player. As Roy moved up the hockey ladders his dream was to play Division I hockey-university-league hockey in the United States. Not the biggest guy in the game, Roy worked tirelessly, lifting weights, doing aerobic training, and logging countless hours on the ice. After graduating from high school, he was recruited to play for Boston University, on a full scholarship.

Travis Roy took to the ice to fulfill his dreams on the night of October 20, 1995. Eleven seconds into his first shift of the game, he lost his balance after throwing a check and fell head first into the end boards. He fell limply to the ice and lay there, motionless. When he did not jump back to his feet his parents knew something was terribly wrong. The one rule that Roy's father had drilled into his son since he was a little boy was "no lying down on the ice." One of Roy's roommates, defenceman Dan Ronan, was on the ice when the accident happened. "He was lying so still, I automatically thought he'd been [knocked out] because his chin was flat on the ice. That ice is cold. I was thinking, if he were conscious, he'd get his chin off the ice. But when I finally went over to him, I saw his eyes were wide open."

Roy's father, Lee, was the next one to reach the boy. Lee remembers thinking that he hoped his son had suffered a broken arm or a separated shoulder. Knowing that his son would need to see a friendly face, Lee approached, and said, "Hey, boy, let's get going. There's a hockey game to play." But when Lee got down beside him, his son said, "Dad, I'm in deep shit. I can't feel my arms or legs. My neck hurts." Lee recalls trying to think of something positive to say back to his son when Travis looked directly at him and said, "But Dad. I made it."

Roy's fourth cervical vertebra had been crushed when his helmet hit the boards. His spinal cord had been damaged by the impact and as a result today he has no movement or feeling below the neck. His parents were told that Roy's chances of recovery are slim and that they should be prepared for the possibility that Roy will remain a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. Travis Roy was 20 years of age at the time of his injury.

Eye Injuries
When 23-year-old Bryan Berard took a stick in the eye on March 11, 2000, his professional hockey career ended. Marian Hossa's stick fractured Berard's orbital bone, cut his cornea, and detached his retina. While Berard's injury is the latest high-profile eye injury to occur in the NHL, it is certainly not the only one. By the end of the 1998-1999 hockey season, a reported 1833 serious eye injuries had occurred since 1972. Of those, about 300 injuries resulted in an eye being blinded. None of the injured players were wearing a full face shield and only eight were wearing partial visors.

Doctors find eye injuries to be the most frustrating of hockey injuries because they are the most easily prevented. A full face shield would literally eliminate these types of injuries, but at least 85 per cent of NHL players will not wear visors because they believe it restricts their vision. This is ironic considering that every player coming up through junior hockey in Canada, Europe, or the U.S. college system must wear one.

Concussions are probably the most frequent injury suffered by hockey players, and the seriousness of such an injury is just starting to be understood. A concussion involves the actual bruising of the brain. In hockey, it occurs when the head is in motion and suddenly accelerates or decelerates quickly, usually as a result of an unanticipated blow to the head from a stick, elbow, or shoulder, or a collision with the boards. Although the skull stops, the brain, floating in spinal fluid, keeps going until it strikes the inside of the skull. Neurological damage and bleeding are often caused by the impact. Also, the delicate connections within the brain stretch and tear, and they may not heal properly. This can result in varying degrees of loss of neural functioning. As well, the effects of concussions are cumulative. That is, each subsequent concussion compounds the earlier damage suffered by the brain.

Concussions slow an individual's reaction time, affect vision, reduce the ability to concentrate, and often result in headaches and confusion. Repeated concussions can result in death or serious neurological impairment. In the 1997-1998 season, a total of 54 NHL players suffered 82 concussions, which resulted in 428 games being missed. A number of famous players were forced to retire early because of post-concussion syndrome, a condition that results from sustaining repeated concussions. Among the retirees are Pat Lafontaine, Jeff Beukeboom, Nick Kypreos, Dave Taylor, Jim Johnson, Michel Goulet, and Brett Lindros, who was only 20 years old at the time he had to call it quits