Cassie Campbell-Pascall entered the 2006 Olympics knowing it could be the final time she played for Team Canada. Determined to end her tenure as Canadian captain standing atop the podium as an Olympic champion, she led with passion and pride as Canada asserted its dominance as the best the women’s game had to offer.
Like so many before her, though, a concussion almost cost Campbell-Pascall the opportunity to retire on her own terms. Having already sustained previous head injuries, Campbell-Pascall received another in April 2004 that jeopardized her Olympic hopes. “Originally, I thought it was more of a neck problem,” she said. “But I realized the concussion was so severe the impact actually bruised the spinal cord in my neck. That’s something that really never goes away.”
The misconception is that Campbell-Pascall’s injury is rare, that women’s hockey, which penalizes bodychecking, wouldn’t face concussion issues similar to its men’s equivalent. But body contact remains in the women’s game, and a study of NCAA athletes published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015 showed women’s hockey had the third-highest rate of reported concussions behind men’s wrestling and men’s hockey, but, shockingly, ahead of men’s football. “We don’t have bodychecking, and so sometimes we’re more susceptible to body contact because we put ourselves in different positions not expecting a check,” Campbell-Pascall said.
So, for every Eric Lindros or Marc Savard, there’s a Campbell-Pascall or Amanda Kessel, the Team USA standout whose career nearly ended due to concussions. In fact, research suggests women may be more prone to head injuries. “I worked with (concussion researcher) Dr. Charles Tator for a long time, and he had a study about how females are more susceptible, potentially, to getting concussions,” Campbell-Pascall said. “Because I know him, I called him and was like, ‘What’s the key here? Are we weaker?’ But he said, ‘You know, Cass, to be honest, we don’t have a lot of female brains to study.’ ”
And that’s why Campbell-Pascall is donating her brain to the Canadian Concussion Centre, joining rugby’s Jen Kish, Olympic gold medalist Kerrin Lee-Gartner and Fran Rider, president of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association since 1982. Campbell-Pascall’s hope is that her donation can help find answers as to why concussions may impact women differently than men and whether the female brain is more susceptible to concussions.
When it comes to reporting, Campbell-Pascall has some theories of her own. For one, it may be a result of women being more in tune with their bodies. But she also thinks women understand the endgame is different for them than it is for men. The pressures to play are the same, true, but women have to be more cognizant of life after sport. “I think women know they have to go and get a job after,” Campbell-Pascall said. “So, they can’t ruin their lives playing sports. Football players, they’re going to go to the NFL and make millions and millions of dollars, so maybe they’re willing to sacrifice a piece of their health for money. In women’s hockey, we don’t have that.”
Scientifically, Tator said “certain possibilities” have been discussed pertaining to women’s susceptibility to concussions. Neck strength, and thus potential for whiplash, and possible hormonal-related reasons are among them. But it’s not solely proneness to concussions in need of examination. “Why do concussions last longer, in terms of symptoms, in women than in men?” Tator said. “And that’s in our own studies. We don’t really know why that is. That would be one of the reasons why we should examine human brains.”
Paramount to understanding the effects of concussions in women are donations such as Campbell-Pascall’s, particularly given the lack of data. Tator said a recent study of the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was conducted using 44 brains, but not one was a female brain. “Even the U.S. centers have had virtually no experience with this condition in women, so it’s imperative that it be looked at,” Tator said. “Having prominent women come forward and say, ‘OK, I’ll pitch in and agree to this,’ perhaps that will influence a lot of other less-known athletes to do the same thing.”
That’s why Campbell-Pascall didn’t need to think twice about her decision. In her words, she’s not going to need her brain once she’s gone, and her biggest concern is one she hopes her donation, along with others, can mitigate. “My worry about concussion research and promoting concussion research is that people are going to say, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to let my daughter play sports,’ ” she said. “But I think that should be the exact opposite. If we can help the research, then we can make sports safer for our kids and hopefully safer for our professional athletes, as well.”
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.