The man whose hockey career was cut short by injuries and concussions has a story to tell.
One night recently, one of his players, Niagara IceDogs defenceman Jesse Graham, was speeding into his own end to corral a loose puck. Chasing him was Peterborough Petes semi-trailer Derek Mathers. Graham is 16 and weighs 166 pounds; Mathers is 6 foot 2, 230 pounds.
Opting not to get splattered against the glass like a bug on a windshield, Graham dodged the collision, then skated to the bench all apologetic. What kind of hockey player avoids taking the big hit just so he can skate again?
His coach, former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Mike Van Ryn, told Graham he did the right thing.
"I said to him, 'You're in a vulnerable position, try to protect yourself,'" Van Ryn recalled. "If I didn't make a play on that puck, maybe I don't get hurt. Maybe Tom Kostopoulos doesn't get suspended."
That play, that puck and Kostopoulos are all part of another Van Ryn story. It happened Nov. 10, 2009, in wham-slam fashion. Van Ryn went speeding into the Leafs' zone to get a puck along the end boards; Kostopoulos of the Montreal Canadiens came barrelling in.
Knowing he was being chased but not thinking he was going to get head-planted, Van Ryn was rammed into the glass and suffered a concussion. Kostopoulos received a three-game suspension. The hit, combined with his wrist and knee troubles, convinced Van Ryn to retire at 31 and begin a career as an assistant coach with Niagara of the Ontario Hockey League.
It's in his current role that Van Ryn imparts the wisdom of what he learned the hard way, that anything can happen, especially if you're not prepared. What concerns him is if the younger players are getting the message.
"We're seeing kids following through to the head more than ever," Van Ryn said. "You're seeing the kind of hits where the arms come up and the elbows come up. I also see some of my kids playing two feet off the boards, turning their backs to get a puck. I'm all for punishing the kids who are doing the hitting, but we have to teach the players how to protect themselves."
Changing habits isn't easy, but clearly something has to be done when the Western Hockey League acknowledges it experienced at least 97 concussions/head injuries during the 2010-11 regular season, a total that surpasses the NHL's 80 incidents. (As for the OHL and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, neither posts its weekly injury reports on-line the way the WHL does and neither had its concussion/head injury total available Tuesday.)
To determine how best to protect the players from themselves, the WHL has formed a competition committee that will issue a report this summer. Most hockey people believe there are multiple launch points, from equipment matters to rule enforcement to tougher suspensions. But the common theme is changing player attitudes and making them more aware of consequences.
"It's a competitive game and these are competitive guys," said Spokane Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz, a competition committee member. "With us, we're dealing with younger athletes so we have more responsibility than the NHL does. … We have identified that the number [of concussions]is up and we know guys want to play. Will they tell the trainer they're hurt if they have to sit out? That's what we have to be careful of."
Players at the major junior level want their shot at the NHL. They understand they need to make an impression. So some take chances they shouldn't take; they're reckless, careless. They just don't think anything bad will happen to them and that, insisted Van Ryn, is what got him his weeks' worth of wooziness and headaches.
"Especially the younger guys, they still come across the middle with their head down and you can't do that," he said. "Things happen so quickly and the guys are bigger and people get hurt. In my case, I came back [from the Kostopoulos hit]and played and got another concussion. I just thought getting into coaching was a safer choice for my family.
"Now I try to teach these guys."
He does that by telling them stories, like the lesson he learned from former Leafs defenceman Rob Ramage, who told his younger teammate, "This game's about self-preservation and how long you can play it."
"Maybe I could have taken that to heart," Van Ryn said. "You're hoping these kids understand that."