Belleville Bulls captain Luke Judson hasn’t needed an alarm clock to wake him this week. Instead he’s been awakened by headaches, the lingering remnants of the concussion he suffered on Saturday.
“It’s hard to explain,” Judson said Tuesday of the aftereffects. "It’s like you’re out in space a little bit, like you’re watching everything from afar. It’s hard to focus.”
The concussion was a first for Judson, a gritty winger who managed to navigate through 209 Ontario Hockey League games with the Bulls over his four-year junior career without ever taking a major blow to the head.
“I’ve never had one before,” said the 20-year-old. “I think the doctors and trainers on my team were pretty surprised when I said that because of the way that I play, I’ve been decked a few times this year and in my career.
“I’ve been lucky.”
The injury was the result of a hit from Sudbury Wolves forward Marcus Foligno on the second-last day of the OHL’s regular season. There was no penalty on the play and Judson isn’t even sure what happened. He hasn’t seen video of the hit nor does he want to since he believes at this point the damage is already done.
All he wants now is come back in time to help lead his young Bulls – the eighth seed – in the playoffs against the top-ranked Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors when their Eastern Conference first-round series opens on Thursday.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” said Judson. “If it was my arm or anything else I would know I was done for the season, but right now it’s still up in the air. You look for that progress every day and when you don’t get it’s frustrating.”
The winger from Emo, Ont., halfway between Thunder Bay and Winnipeg, said he’s recovering but still has a hard time dealing with noise, particularly in social settings like the mall or even the Bulls dressing room where there are lots of voices and activity. He still gets dizzy at night, when the room spins. That dizziness makes it difficult for him to sleep. Still, Judson said he acknowledges and accepts the dangers of playing major junior hockey.
“Guys are taking the risks to play the game because they love it,” he said. “Injuries are a risk; we are all putting ourselves in situations where it could happen, but we’re trying to make a career out of (hockey) and if we end up getting injured that’s another bump along the road I guess.
“I don’t think the parents like it too much, but I think we’re all well aware and try to do our best to protect ourselves.”
In addition to severe suspensions the OHL has handed out for hits to the head – even unintentional ones, in the case of the 10-game ban to Tim Billingsley of the Niagara Ice Dogs last week – the league has also produced videos to help inform players on the seriousness of head injuries and point out the type of hits that are verboten.
“Educationally you learn a thing or two, but as far as reactions on the ice – that’s exactly what they are, reactions,” said Judson. “Some people aren’t going to make the right reaction at the right time. I don’t know as far as that goes how you can change how a player plays that drastically with a video, but I’m not sure what kind of steps can be taken in that regard.”
And therein lies one of the problems hockey leagues across the country are facing: how to make a contact sport safer and yet still keep the physicality and aggressiveness intact.
“It’s quite a can of worms,” said Dr. Michael Czarnota, the official neuropsychological consultant for the OHL and WHL. “There are so many different causes for injuries and responses to the injuries that it’s just impossible to come up with a single solution to reduce the number of injuries that we have. There’s going to be a lot of talk about improving equipment or reducing equipment and player behaviour or rule enforcement and rule changes . . . My understanding is that it’s going to take all those things to have a meaningful reduction in the number of injuries we have to deal with.”
Czarnota, who has been active in the sports concussion field since 1998, notes he has seen a general increase in the number of head injuries in the two junior leagues he works regularly with, but adds that other sports and leagues have also seen their concussion rates rise.
“The question is are they happening more frequently or are they just being recognized and reported more accurately?”
On the OHL's Ottawa 67's alone there are four players out of the lineup due to concussions suffered during games -- forwards Shane Prince, Jon Carnevale and Cosimo Fontana and defenceman Julian Luciani.
According to Czarnota there is no hard and fast rule about when a player is ready to return to the lineup since every concussion is different. Generally though, players must pass tests – both at rest and under physical exertion -- like the baseline concussion test, which involves different measures such as remembering words, shapes or patterns, discerning spatial locations and general reaction time.
“The first time I did it, it was pretty easy,” said Judson of the test he took before the injury. “I think the report I got after (his injury) showed pretty clearly that I was having trouble the second time. When the symptoms go away more hopefully I can take it again and I’ll be able to breeze through it better.”
Before Judson can return to the lineup he’ll need Czarnota, who has been working with the junior hockey leagues, and the Bulls medical staff to give him the green light after reviewing the tests.
“We want the team physician and the neuropsychology information to come out in unison, so that we all agree that the player looks healthy from our individual perspectives (and) we can feel that much more confident that they’re really ready to go,” said Czarnota.
When the OHL and WHL hold their annual summer meetings, Czarnota expects that dealing with head injuries will once again be a hot topic among everyone from owners to the athletic therapists. He’ll present his case to team officials and the message he has for them is simple.
“I think what we want to do – the way I approach things is to just say, ’Recognize it when it happens and deal with it straight up,’ ” said Czarnota. “We know that there are some guys who will try to hide their injuries, we know that there will be concern that guys are embellishing their injuries for whatever reason, but the fast majority of people are just going to be honest about how they feel and eager to get back to their jobs.”