Acadia star cautions victims not to rush back into lineup
Ryan Graham isn't sure how many concussions he's suffered playing hockey over the last seven years.
"I know of four or five documented," says the 24-year-old from Mount Pearl. "Besides that, there have been times I hit my head off the ice after a fight and then play the next shift ... but you don't know."
What the former Quebec Major Junior Hockey League forward does understand, after missing nearly a year of action following his most recent concussion while playing for the Acadia Axemen in the AUS playoffs last year, is that he never wants to go through it again.
"Every sympton you can think of, I've had it and I was experiencing it through the summer until July or August. Even before Christmas, I was still showing a few symptoms.
"The last one was really scary. I was terrified."
What's worse is that Graham's most recent concussion was completely avoidable.
In an early February regular season game last year, Graham, who had already suffered at least two serious concussions in his career, was levelled with a "good clean check" at centre ice. He shook it off and finished the game.
"I couldn't sleep that night. When I lay down in my bed, the room was spinning, almost like I was drunk."
Graham ignored the symptoms and dressed for the next night's game, figuring it was just a stomach ache. After taking a hit early in the game, he knew something wasn't right and took himself out of the lineup.
He kept himself out of action for a month, but when the Axemen advanced to the second round of the 2011 playoffs, Graham let his own pride supercede his recovery process.
"I don't think I was completely honest with the doctors at the time because I wanted to get back so badly."
Graham got lucky in his first game against the UNB Varsity Reds, but on his first shift of his second game back, he got hit again. Square on the chin.
"My knees buckled and I tried to get up, but it was almost like my legs were like jello and I kind of had to crawl to the bench. I knew right away that was it.
"If I had known it would have kept me out of game this long, I probably wouldn't have gone back in."
But he did and for the next eight weeks he would pay the price by waking up disoriented and dizzy. He watched his grades slip and was forced to defer his final exams. Even simple things like driving a car or watching television would set off bouts of nausea and headaches.
"It was scary stuff that I wouldn't wish upon anyone."
Moreover, Graham simply felt numb inside.
"I had no motivation to get off the couch to do anything. I just wanted to sit down in my apartment and not leave."
After missing almost the entire first half of the 2011-12 AUS season, Graham returned to the ice towards the end of November and started taking contact not long after.
"But I still didn't feel like myself."
After talking it over with his parents during the holiday season, Graham met with Acadia's coaches when he returned to Wolfville, N.S. Short of a miracle, he told them, his season was done..
"At that point, I had a lot of weight on and my family was pretty adamant about me not going back at it unless I felt 100 per cent, which I didn't."
The hockey gods must have been smiling on Graham, because he got that miracle.
"It's like someone flipped a switch and I started to feel better and better."
For his part, Graham believes his dramatic turnaround has a lot to do with living a healthier lifestyle.
"I wasn't treating myself the best. Once I turned that around, my head got clearer and I started remember things better.
"Now I feel 100 per cent."
Last weekend, Graham played his first game since March when the Axemen took on the Saint Mary's Huskies in Halifax.
It didn't take long to see if he was truly ready to return to the game.
"In my first shift I got hit really hard behind the net, hammered up against the glass. I shook my head a little and felt okay. Once I got that out of the way it was business as usual."
Last night in Charlottetown, Acadia met the UPEI Panthers in an AUS quarter-final game.
Given his experience with concussions and the long road to recovery, Graham has advice for anyone mulling an early return to action.
"You can't rush back. It's not worth it," he says. "At the end of the day, would you rather finish a game, or be able to read to your kids when you're 40? You have to look at the big picture."