ST. LOUIS — Andy McDonald likes to get down on the floor to play with Jake, 5, and Ella, 2, because it’s a fun and natural thing for a father to do with his children.
What is neither fun nor natural is what sometimes happens to Dad when he does. He feels that same uncomfortable, off-balance sensation rushing back. The dizziness that should be reserved for carnival rides is upon him again, like it was so often during his 12-season NHL playing career, descending every time he took the ice toward the end, whether it be a free skate or one of his 685 games.
Same goes for the words and ideas that slip from his mind like a released balloon, there one second then gone, no trace left behind. And the pain, the physical hurt in his head that comes without warning or cause.
McDonald is done playing, but the problems remain. He isn’t ignoring them anymore.
“That’s pretty scary,” he says by telephone from rural Ontario, where he is vacationing this week instead of training for the first time since 2000.
McDonald, who split his career between the Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues, announced his retirement in early June, citing post-concussion concerns as the reason. And while there is a piece of McDonald that wants to leave it at that, he can’t.
Not while he’s still experiencing dizziness, periods of memory loss, headaches and other symptoms he doesn’t feel like talking about at this time. Not while he’s still trying to heal his brain with a strict diet, supplements, neurofeedback and sessions in his hyperbaric chamber. Not while he sees a problem in the NHL, one he feels he might be able to make better.
It’s complicated, and it’s personal. But it’s a challenge McDonald has accepted by pulling back the curtain on professional hockey’s concussion culture.
“The hockey mentality is to always be tough and play through it,” McDonald says. “But this part about head injuries and concussions, if players don’t speak out, and help other players, and further awareness, then things are never going to change. I would like to help other players. Hopefully, be a part of something that is going to change the game and help reduce injuries on the ice. Allow players to play longer, and live healthier lives afterward.”
As a result, McDonald is talking freely now. He has inside information, and it’s startling.
His five documented concussions? Hardly.
“The number was easily double that, at least, in terms of when I felt like I had a concussion, or some type of symptom going on, and played through it,” he says.
What about the thought process that pushed him back onto the ice too soon?
“During the game, your adrenaline is going,” he says. “It’s multiplied if it’s the playoffs. You want to go back. You want to compete. I did it my whole career. ‘Are you OK to go back and play?’ ‘Yes, I’m OK to go back and play.'”
And that’s how it goes across the league?
“What I’ve experienced, and what I’ve seen, I know there are players that are playing through concussions, doing what I did,” he says.
For McDonald, this switching of stance came slowly, then all at once. He says there was just one time he waited until he felt fully healthy after a concussion before he started playing again. That was in 2001. Eventually, the idea that repeated hits to the head could cause long-term problems started forcing its way into his reasoning. Still, he played on. More concussions led to more symptoms, and less doubt.
It wasn’t until McDonald met Dr. Daniel Amen, a physician and psychiatrist who has been on the front lines of studying head trauma in professional sports, that he got news he couldn’t ignore. Countless MRIs had shown no damage to McDonald’s brain. It was reassuring, and allowed McDonald to bury his worry and suit up for another season, another big hit.
Amen had different tests. One called a QEEG (quantitative electroencephalogram) showed the electrical activity in McDonald’s brain was abnormal. Another, called a SPECT (single-photon emission computerized tomography) scan, showed how the blood in McDonald’s body did (or didn’t) flow through his brain.
“He was able to show me my scan, and show me areas of my brain where I was lacking blood flow,” McDonald says of his first visit to Amen last year. “Then he showed me scans of retired NFL players that showed dead tissue.”
McDonald says he then started thinking about concussions less like a hockey player, and more like a husband and father.
“They don’t just affect you on the ice,” McDonald says. “They affect you every minute of every day, how you interact with your friends and your family. I had to get out. I realized I wanted to spend a lot of time with my kids, and hopefully live out a number of years here with a good quality of life. Hopefully, with some time away from the game, and not getting hit anymore, some of that stuff will go away.”
It might. Or it might get worse. McDonald understands this, and it scares him even more. He has read books about brains, studied the injury he blew off for so long. As a result, he has some ideas, easy changes that could make professional hockey safer without seeming drastic.
The first is about the kind of vicious hits that lead to the most severe head injuries.
“There are always going to be concussions,” McDonald says. “There are always going to be collisions. For me, I’d like to see types of hits — the blind-side checks to an unsuspecting player — disappear. The risk of injury and potential problems is just so high. Why have those hits in a game? You can still have a physical game by getting rid of those hits. How do you get rid of those hits? You implement rules the referees are going to enforce, and you make the consequences far stricter. In my opinion, the suspensions aren’t even near to being severe enough, so you’re still seeing a lot of those hits. The rules need to be modified, and they need to be enforced.”
The second is about how blows to the head are handled the moment they occur.
“It needs to be changed,” he says. “It needs to be modified. How many times, even now, do you watch a game and see a player get hit, and obviously, there is impact to the head. And you don’t even see a player get taken off the ice. They look dazed, or unbalanced, and they don’t get taken off the ice. They don’t get reevaluated. I guess it’s a work in progress. But the whole quiet room part of it [the NHL passed a rule in March 2011 that says players must be evaluated for concussions in a quiet area away from the team’s bench] needs to be more elaborate. Quite frankly, the decision to go back and return to play needs to be taken away from the player that suffered the injury. If the person suffers a head injury, and you’re asking him if he wants to go out and play, in my opinion, he’s not in the state of mind that allows them to make that decision. What would be so bad to have him miss a game, or the rest of the game, to make sure he can get the right help, and make the right decisions?”
The third is about changing the players themselves.
“One thing is education and awareness,” McDonald says. “I don’t think the players are properly educated to potential problems down the road, and things you can possibly be suffering from. I think, in a lot of ways, people say, ‘When you get hit, you are going to have a headache. Then, it will go away and you will be fine.’ Well, there is a lot more to it than that.”
McDonald is finding out the hard way — in headaches, in thoughts that slip from his memory, in dizzy spells when he plays with his son and daughter.
He isn’t a player cursing the league that gave him a career. No, hockey was good to McDonald, even though it is now threatening his quality of life. The question he’s asking is this: Should every player have to have it both ways?
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.