As a hockey goalie, Brad Madigan was used to seeing things coming at him - usually pucks and enemy sweaters.
What he didn't see coming was the end of a professional hockey dream at age 17 - a concussion that would end his career as a hockey player and make him like the statistics he was there to illustrate at the unveiling of the results of a probing study of concussions in junior hockey.
The Hockey Education Concussion Project, headed by sports medicine specialist Dr. Paul Echlin of London, Ont., found the incidence of game-related concussions (in this study of junior-age male players) is seven times higher than the previously reported rates. Dr. Echlin says too little is known about the dangers of brain injury, from recognizing it to treating it to premature return to play.
"These numbers are my patients," says Dr. Echlin, lead researcher of the study. "They're human beings and should be respected as such. ... Why are we exposing young athletes to danger and not asking the questions? It's everyone's responsibility."
Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Cusimano blamed "a void of leadership," in hockey when it comes to concussion injuries. "Everyone recognizes there's a problem and the people empowered to make the [rule]changes aren't making those changes," said Dr. Cusimano, a member of the hockey neurotrauma and concussion initiative research committee.
It was two years ago that Madigan of Oakville, Ont., went from being a goalie at the midget double-A level to being a statistic. With 30 seconds left in the second period of a game between Aurora and Newmarket, Madigan made a save. An opposing Newmarket forward collided with him, "and I wound up on my back. I thought I was just winded but I found out later I was unconscious. I was out for what seemed like a couple of minutes but later I was told it was 10," Madigan said in an interview.
He left the ice, went to the dressing room and when teammates arrived, he was angry with them, upset that he'd been crashed in his crease - behaviour unusual for the statesmanlike Madigan. But he washed his mouth-guard, told the coach he was ready to play on and finished the third period.
Hockey's culture told him if he was hurt, suck it up.
Madigan finished Grade 12 and was accepted into a business course at Wilfrid Laurier University. Then, Madigan, who is now 19, crashed into post-concussion hell. There were a host of symptoms including forgetting his shifts at his part-time job and having random nausea attacks at school. He lost short-term memory. He'd been losing peripheral vision in the past few seasons as a goaltender. He had migraine headaches and was becoming sensitive to light and sound and he was emotional.
"I'd been playing through concussions, though I didn't know it. It's what you did in hockey, play hurt.
"I was already done with hockey but Paul [Dr. Echlin]shut me down from school, too."
He'd sit in the basement, separated from other students, from his team, from the game he loved.
"You lose hockey that you've been playing for years, six days a week, and you lose your identity. There was depression. I'd go to school for lunch just to sit with my old friends. It was tough to deal with. I felt like I had no relationships at all, and that was depressing.
"It was tough for my parents to deal with. My mother would blame herself because she didn't know more, didn't see it when I was first hurt, didn't tell me not to play. I take the blame myself ... No one sees the dark side of it."
Madigan tried to go to school again, and was permitted a reduced course load at Laurier. He was offered a note-taking service and a longer than usual test-taking period because of his post-concussion syndrome. But last spring, when he was still having symptoms, Dr. Echlin made him stop school again.
As he addressed the news conference where the study results were revealed, he came close to tears twice.
"One of the things coaches and trainers have to know is what to look for and say 'you're not going back out there,'" Madigan said. "I don't know if I'll be symptom-free. I've been off since May and the amount of improvement has been marginal. I'm hopeful, but it might be wishful thinking."
The study, which followed two unnamed male junior hockey teams for 52 matches, shows that 17 of the 67 players suffered 21 concussions, meaning some went back and were reinjured.
Occurrence of concussions wasn't accidental, the study found - 80 per cent of the observer reports described the hit that caused concussion as purposeful rather than incidental.
Sometimes, a fight was involved - 24 per cent of the concussions occurred in players who were directly involved in a fight just prior to the diagnosis of concussions. Forwards suffered the most concussions in the study at 71 per cent of the cases, while 29 per cent happened to defencemen, and most of the concussions occurred in the third period.