Photo: Kosalan Kathiramalanathan

Shaken up: Rams hockey player Jared Walsh shares his story of recovery from his first concussion

In Sports /

By Matt Vocino 

All Jared Walsh wanted to do was play hockey, but instead he was toiling away on a stationary bike in his own version of the Tour de France.

No, Walsh wasn’t preparing for a summertime ride through the French countryside in pursuit of a yellow jersey. Instead, the Ryerson rookie was dripping in sweat in front of Ryerson’s athletic staff, trying his best to get back into a blue and gold Rams sweater as soon as he could.

A week earlier, Walsh made an auspicious debut for the Rams in a road game against the Guelph Gryphons, recording an assist in the first game of his freshman season. Walsh’s first game couldn’t have gone much better; the second one couldn’t have gone much worse.

On Oct. 15, against the Windsor Lancers, Walsh hoped to continue his strong start, but early in the first period of his first game at home, that plan came to a screeching halt. Walsh was viciously cross-checked from behind into the boards, and for several minutes, the game was delayed as a maintenance crewmember did their best to clean the remnants of Walsh’s blood that stained the Mattamy ice.

While holding a towel to his bleeding mouth, Walsh managed to skate to the locker room. Unfortunately, the damage was already done.

“I had a constant headache, and just looking at light would set my head into a spiral,” Walsh recounted, about two months later. “You just don’t feel right.”

Concussions have become increasingly prevalent and worrisome for all organizations, including U Sports. In a June 2017 survey released by U Sports in partnership with 47 university athletics programs across Canada, the organization found that 26.3 per cent of all reported concussions among its athletes between August 2015 and March 2016 were suffered by hockey players. Between 2004 and 2014, hockey, along with football and soccer, showed a greater than 40 per cent increase of reported head injuries, according to federal statistics.

Despite tracking all player injuries, Brian Finniss, Ryerson’s manager of sports performance, says the school doesn’t conduct concussion research because they don’t have a kinesiology or sports medicine department like a lot of other schools in the country do. However, of the 47 respondents to the U Sports survey, 38—including Ryerson—record concussion data.

 
“I had a constant headache and looking at light would set my head into a spiral”

 

For Walsh, this injury was an especially rough one, as the rookie defenseman had just returned to playing hockey after a year away from the game. He was hungry to get on the ice again, but his symptoms were holding him out of the lineup.

Sadly, by the time he crashed into the boards, Walsh had already become accustomed to sitting on the sidelines.

After breaking his ankle blocking a shot in the 2015 season, Walsh, the 38th overall draft pick of the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Mississauga Steelheads in the 2012 draft, was forced to miss 42 games. “It was definitely one of the tougher years of my hockey career,” said Walsh, who at one point committed to play for the University of Michigan Wolverines. “It’s super tough going to the rink and watching games,” he said. “You kind of feel left out to some extent, as you’re not traveling with the team.”

Although Walsh’s ankle healed in time for him to play the latter part of the season, he decided to step away from the game after the playoffs ended. Walsh was emotionally drained and he no longer felt committed to playing hockey.

“I took that year off not knowing if I’d ever return to hockey,” he said.

Instead of heading to the rink every day for his final year of OHL eligibility during the 2016-2017 season, Walsh headed to his dad’s body shop, where he worked from nine-to-five, Monday to Friday. He was becoming an “adult” sooner than he expected. Soon, the mundanity of a working life started taking its toll. Walsh missed the camaraderie and the friendships he’d built during his hockey career.

“When you’re on a hockey team you’re always seeing 20-plus guys every day and you’re seeing a bunch of familiar faces, and you take that for granted, once it’s finally gone. You miss it,” said Walsh. After missing six months, Walsh knew he had to play competitively again, but he wasn’t sure where.

After reaching out to Ryerson coach Johnny Duco, Walsh toured the Mattamy Athletic Centre. “I was sold the first day walking around,” he said.

Walsh knew he’d need some time to reacquaint himself with the speed of competitive hockey. What he couldn’t have been prepared for, however, was the crash into the boards and the concussion that derailed his comeback before it really got a chance to begin.

Walsh participated in rehabilitory activities after the concussion against Guelph, including bike tests of varying difficulty. Finniss called the bike tests “light,” but Walsh says otherwise. “[The tests] were harder than skating.”

 

“There’s nothing you can do about injuries, just play hard and don’t look back”

 

After completing these tests and remaining symptom-free for 24 hours, Walsh progressed to the next stage, a process Finnis refers to as “sport specific,” and he soon began participating in team practices in a non-contact role. The timeframe of the rehab process is very fluid as “it all depends on if an athlete remains symptom-free,” says Finniss. “For some athletes it can take a week, for some it could take a month, and some four months. It really is completely individual.” After three weeks, Walsh was cleared to play.

After missing five games, Walsh returned to the Rams lineup, and he did it with a surprisingly optimistic outlook. “There’s nothing you can do about [injuries], just play hard and don’t look back,” he said.

In his fourth game back, against Waterloo, Walsh buried his first career collegiate goal from one knee, finishing a one-timer off a pass from below the goal line. It was a milestone Walsh likely expected to reach much sooner.

“It was like starting the season all over again,” he said. “I just look at it as another bump along the road.”

Now healthy and looking to help lead Ryerson to another playoff run, the stationary bike is the last place Walsh wants to be sitting. But, since concussions are an indisputable, seemingly unavoidable occurrence of the game of hockey, sooner or later, another athlete will be forced to go on their own Tour de France.

Hopefully, next time, it won’t be Walsh.

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