Mark Scheifele, Gabriel Landeskog leading the way in concussion awareness
As Mark Scheifele bent over the faceoff dot, the red circle began to spin.
It was Game 6 of the 2013 OHL finals, late in the third period. The Barrie Colts' 17-year-old superstar was back on the ice, not long after a hard check had launched him headfirst into the boards. Scheifele had risen slowly from the hit, feeling “pretty junky, pretty woozy,” and went straight to the locker room, where he recalls the concussion protocol as “pretty nonexistent” – a few questions about his current status, little more. So since the Colts were then one win away from the title, and since they were still mounting a third-period comeback, Scheifele made the choice to return. “Went out for a shift, had no idea what was going on,” he says today. “Yeah, I wasn't functioning great.”
Barrie tied the game during Scheifele's shift, forcing overtime against the London Knights. But between the blinding arena lights, ear-splitting crowd sounds and suddenly whirling faceoff dot, the symptoms were too obvious to ignore. Scheifele ruled himself out of the extra period, leaving the Colts without their leading playoff scorer in a 5-4 loss, and then decided to sit for an eventual Game 7 defeat, too. “Which is a pretty tough thing to do,” he says. “You're a hockey player. You fight through bumps and bruises all the time. You play through lots of big injuries.”
Scheifele figures this attitude informed how he handled his first major concussion. “A private process,” he says. Friends, family and his agent stayed abreast of his recovery, helping convince him to miss Game 7. But he mostly kept the injury's real impact hidden from teammates. “It was a week of feeling like I wasn't even in my own body,” he says. “A lot of laying in bed, a lot of vegging. A big chunk of time where I didn't feel myself.”
Only recently has Scheifele, now a 23-year-old alternate captain for Winnipeg and the NHL's leading scorer (18 points) through Wednesday, grown comfortable enough to publicly share his experience. “I'm not afraid to talk about my problems with concussions, because it's something that needs to be spoken about,” he says. The honesty and advocacy comes at a welcome time. As the league plods through a class-action lawsuit filed by former players, and as head trauma at-large continues shining beneath the sports world's spotlight, Scheifele and Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog have begun working with a Canadian-based foundation called EMPWR, an education-driven initiative founded by an old Ontario friend.
Their roles? Simply, talk.
The night before Halloween 2009, seven games into his underage junior season with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers, defenseman Ben Fanelli retreated behind his net and took the puck from his goaltender. As he pivoted to pass, an oncoming forechecker crushed Fanelli from behind, high at the head. The teenager spun sideways, more horizontal to the ice than vertical. His head struck the metal stanchion, with such force that his helmet sprung off like popcorn. He dropped onto the ice and lay there, motionless. Doctors diagnosed him with a fractured skull, and said odds were slim that he'd ever play hockey again.
Over the next two years, Fanelli worked toward that very goal. He remained with the Rangers, watching games from the stands and going on road trips, and then training when he was healthy enough. The team also connected him with head trauma specialists, so he mined them for potential recovery methods. “Nutrition, balance work, cognitive mind games like word searches and Sudokus,” he says. “I don't know what worked for me, because I was doing so many different things. Light cardio, special massages on my neck…” It all led to Sept. 23, 2011, when Fanelli reappeared at home to thunderous applause.
“It was really open context,” Fanelli says of his recovery. “Concussions at that point were just becoming a big issue in the sport. A couple in the NHL happened all around the same time” — Sidney Crosby being the most noteworthy — “and that's when things started to spark.”
On the grassroots level, Fanelli found his calling. In March 2011, before his comeback was compete, he launched Head Strong: Fanelli 4 Brain Injury Awareness, a charity aimed at educating kids about concussions. He told his story in classrooms around the area. He sold T-shirts at the rink with a cartoon version of his face – “a little silly,” he says — and rubber bracelets, altogether raising around $35,000. Eventually, Fanelli's agent connected him with two Toronto businesspeople, who helped guide EMPWR into existence. He describes the foundation's mission like this: “Help be a platform to share all the research that's going on, so other people can build on that and we can start getting some answers.”
For help, Fanelli reached out to Landeskog, his former Kitchener teammate who was on the ice when Fanelli got hit. Then in his first North American season after coming over from Sweden, Landeskog still remembers the sight of his teammate, surrounded by medical staff and loaded onto a stretcher. “We're sitting as a team on the ice and a bunch of us were crying,” he says. “It was a scary, scary moment. It makes you appreciate everything.”
During Fanelli's recovery, he and Landeskog grew even tighter, goofing off at the mall and hanging at Landeskog's billet house. “He's a 40-year-old when he was at the rink, and a 14-year-old when he was away from the rink,” says Fanelli of his friend, now 23 years old and once the youngest NHLer to ever wear the captain's C, until Connor McDavid swiped the title this year.
So when EMPWR needed celebrity faces for its ambassadorships, Fanelli knew where to turn. After all, Landeskog had been through it too.
On Aug. 2, 2016, one month before he appeared for Team Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey and two months before his sixth NHL season began, Landeskog authored an article on The Players' Tribune titled, “We Need to Talk About Concussions, Right Now.” No ghostwriter for this one. The words were all his.
Like Scheifele, Landeskog had needed time to accept the story of his concussion, which happened four games after the 2012-13 lockout ended, in the first period against San Jose. The next morning, Landeskog had awoken with a crushing headache — “like two cement blocks were pushing against the sides of my skull,” he wrote — and sensitivity to the sounds and light of his cell phone. Even so, he hid the symptoms from trainers, reassuring concerned teammates that he'd skate the next game, no problem. Only when team doctors directed him to a specialist did a concussion get diagnosed.
“You realize that we do have to try to change the stigma around the macho culture, around sports,” Landeskog says today. “I'm not trying to take away from guys playing injured, and guys playing through shoulder injuries or whatever it might be, but a head injury is a completely different ballgame. It is a sign of strength to speak out and to take the time that you need to recover. You need to start somewhere.”
The article was one place. Another was a speech Landeskog gave at an EMPWR event about a year ago, to a packed back room of roughly 120 at a Toronto restaurant. “I practiced my speech for about a week,” Fanelli says. “I was ready to go, excited. He came in with no preparation, and English is his second language, and he absolutely won the crowd over and it was unbelievable. Even managed to drop an F-bomb by accident.
“He really brought a human side to the conversation of concussion. More are talking about it now, but not many professional athletes want to talk about it. It was more naturalizing the conversation of concussions in a very simple way.”
When Scheifele suffered another concussion last December, colliding with then Jets teammate Andrew Ladd during practice, he experienced a similar awakening. A Kitchener native, he and Fanelli had met through their mutual agency, and stayed in touch through the years. During Scheifele's recovery, Fanelli encouraged him to stay active, rather than stewing in a quiet, dark room.
“Maybe don't watch TV and play Xbox for hours, but you can watch TV, read a book, keep your brain involved,” Scheifele says. “Go for a walk. Get some fresh air. Have a conversation. The biggest thing was, don't change our lifestyle. Try to be engaged in the world. It's the opposite of what you'd do with a broken leg: don't be on your leg. You want to stay involved, just don't do something that's going to further risk that injury.”
Scheifele doesn't envision himself penning an article like Landeskog (or dropping F-bombs in public speeches). But he believes that, by opening up about his health and recovery to fellow players, they'll follow suit in future situations. “I see a big change, for sure, in terms of guys going up to the trainers, saying I don't feel right, I might have a concussion, or I got bumped or hit under the chin, I don't feel 100 percent,” Scheifele says. “That's the biggest difference I see.”
There are indeed other ways to attack the concussion problem – the class-action lawsuit, which seeks medical help for retired players and monetary relief; the NHLPA's $500,000 challenge gift to Western University for research in Aug. 2015; the NHL's updated protocol policy this season, which gave independent spotters authority to remove players from games. Talking is just how Landeskog and Scheifele choose to help.
“It's not even that they have to share their personal stories,” Fanelli says. “It's that they're leaders, to put their face with that and show there needs to be a little more attention put on this.”