Phantoms coaches, players grateful for increased awareness of concussions
By Tom Williams
If there is one good thing coming from the concussions suffered by high-profile hockey players like Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Marc Savard and Chris Pronger, it’s a better awareness of diagnosing head injuries.
Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen and assistant Brad Patterson say things have changed for the better since when they suffered concussions as players.
Noreen was 17 and in his first season of junior hockey when he was hit into the boards. His head struck the ledge at the top of the board.
“That’s the only one for sure that I know of,” said Noreen, 28. “I had tunnel-vision, extreme tunnel-vision [but] I finished the game then felt nauseous afterwards, light-headed.
“An assistant coach took me to the hospital where I was diagnosed with a concussion.”
Noreen said the injury caused him to miss two weeks of games.
Patterson, who played for Michigan Tech before an eight-year professional career that included two stints with the Youngstown SteelHounds, said he suffered four concussions.
“They were all pretty much the same, I just didn’t remember stuff [right after the injuries],” said Patterson, 32. “You get hit and you might remember getting hit but then you’re missing some of the time-frame after.
“Like I would sit on the bench and not [remember it],” Patterson said. “You’re coherent, you’re functional but 15 minutes down the road you wouldn’t remember what you were just doing.
“Luckily, I didn’t have any lingering effects or post-concussion syndrome.”
Crosby, the face of the NHL, has not been so lucky since suffering hits by David Steckel on Jan. 1, 2011 and Victor Hedman four nights later. The Pittsburgh Penguins captain missed the rest of the season and didn’t play again until Nov. 21.
Crosby scored 12 points in eight games when he suffered a hit on Dec. 5 against the Boston Bruins. He hasn’t played since and no one knows when he will.
With teammate Letang out now indefinitely after suffering his second concussion of the season on Feb. 29, the Pens are hurting.
Sam Anas and Pat Conte, the two Phantoms who suffered concussions this season, know the feeling.
“I was hit from the front,” Anas said. “My head hit the ice and [my opponent] fell on me. It was kind of a whiplash and my head smacked the ice.
“It hurt but I got up. I wasn’t dizzy but it was almost like I had chicken legs,” said Anas who added that went down twice before skating to the bench.
“I was dizzy and had a headache for the rest of the game, just sitting on the bench,” Anas said. “I definitely thought I might have a concussion.”
Conte suffered his concussion during a fight.
“I got knocked out, I really didn’t remember anything,” said Conte who woke up in the lockerroom. “Some of the guys started filling me in.
“I fell on my shoulder, I didn’t fall on my head, it was the punch that actually gave me the concussion,” Conte said.
Conte’s symptoms — headache, dizzyness, nauseousness — kicked in and lingered.
“The day after the fight was the worst,” Conte said.
Noreen said neither player was rushed back onto the ice.
“They both missed a couple of weeks and we kept them out a week more than was suggested by the doctor just to play it safe,” Noreen said. “Right or wrong, that’s something our staff decided to do.
“It’s just something we’re not going to play around with — if it’s an arm or a shoulder or a leg, that would be different,” Noreen said. “But when you are talking about someone’s head and especially with the future these guys have, it’s something we’re not going to mess around with.”
His players weren’t happy but understood.
“I was upset, obviously,” Anas said of sitting out an extra weekend. ”But just seeing that Crosby has gone through and a lot of guys in the league, you realize how important [playing it safe] is. Your eagerness to get back on the ice can take over.”
Noreen and Patterson don’t mind that the USHL has guidelines for head injuries that teams must follow.
“[When I played], everyone would always say, ‘I’m good, I want to go out and play,’ ” Noreen said. “Whereas now when you get something, there is a guideline with how you deal with it.
Before each season, players take a computerized baseline test that measures cognitive functions (shapes, colors). When a concussion is suspected, the injured player must take the same test and the result is compared to the preseason test. Those who don’t pass don’t play until they do.
“When I had my concussion, there were no impact tests or computer baseline tests,” said Noreen, adding that the attitude was “when the headache is gone, let’s get you back out there.
“They weren’t being diagnosed and I think it was something that was overlooked.”
Another test requires 20-30 minutes on an exercise bike.
“If you go the rest of that day without a headache, then your exertion level can go up a little bit the next day,” Patterson said. “So maybe you go to practice but it’s non-contact. You wait a day, see how your head reacts as far as headaches.
“As long as you don’t have lingering headaches, then you can come back.“
Noreen said increased safety has become a hockey priority.
“As far as safety measures go, our number one priority right now is to try and reduce the number of concussions in the [USHL],” Noreen said. “Every meeting I’ve been to — from GM meetings to coaches meetings — that’s always our number-one, hot-topic issue: what can we do [to be] at the forefront.”
Noreen said the goal is to come up with ideas or a rule change that could be a pilot program for the NHL, but don’t expect hockey’s biggest league to make major changes.
On NBC Sports Network’s “Costas Tonight” on March 1, host Bob Costas and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman discussed a proposal to ban fighting at the amateur level of hockey in the U.S.
Declining to be specific, Bettman suggested the NHL won’t be banning fighting anytime soon.
Concussions have made an impact on Youngstown players. Patterson suffered his fourth concussion as a SteelHound.
In August 2010, Andrew Lamont, who was the leading scorer among the Phantoms returning for their second USHL season, was jolted by a crosscheck to his back and was unable to play again.
“We kept him out the whole season and he hasn’t played since,” Noreen said.
The most frightening on-ice moment in the history of the Covelli Centre came in the Youngstown SteelHounds’ final season when defenseman Jeff Alcombrack’s neck crashed into the goalpost in January 2008.
“That’s the only time I had ever seen an injury like that,” said Patterson who was Alcombrack’s teammate in that game in January 2008.
Alcombrack’s concussion caused him to miss the rest of the season. A month after the SteelHounds were booted from the Central Hockey League over extreme money issues, Alcombrack was cleared medically.
The defenseman played another full season with the CHL’s Memphis team where former SteelHounds coach Kevin Kaminski went after the Youngstown franchise folded. Alcombrack, who was called up to the AHL in 2007, played 17 more games the following CHL season before retiring.