REGINA – Former NHL defenceman Jamie Heward says he was “bred to be a hockey player.”
That total devotion to his sport helped him achieve his dreams, but also led to the series of concussions that have likely ended his career.
“I’ve been playing hockey since I was 5 years old,” Heward told about 150 people gathered Saturday for a Hockey Canada concussion seminar. “It’s what I do, it’s what I’ve always I wanted to do and I, at times, did whatever it took to make sure that I was the best and make sure that I made it to whatever level I needed to get to.”
Heward received his first major concussion when he was playing junior hockey for the Regina Pats in 1988.
“At that time … the education wasn’t nearly as good as it is now,” he said. “Instead of being sidelined for a week to 10 days or going through testing and that kind of thing, I played two days later.”
He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1989 and went on to play for Toronto, Nashville, New York, Columbus, Washington, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay. He also won two gold medals with Team Canada at the IIHF World Championships.
Along the way there were more concussions.
Last New Year’s Day, Heward was playing for Tampa when his head smacked the glass awkwardly after a hit by Alex Ovechkin. He was knocked unconscious and spent a night in the hospital, waking up with concerns that he might have suffered some kind of long-term neurological damage.
That day is “still a blur,” Heward told the coaches, physicians and others gathered at the seminar.
“That hit pretty much ended my career. It’s not the way I thought I would ever go out,” he said.
Heward estimates he may have had as many as 20 concussions over the years, but he kept going back to the game.
“The pressure to get back on the ice as quick as you possibly can is so incredible,” he said. “I don’t mean it’s pressure from management and trainers, I mean it’s pressure from the players themselves.
“When I got hit the first reaction was ‘I’m not going to get paid. If I don’t get back on the ice, I’m not going to get paid. Somebody’s going to take my job and I need to get back on the ice.’ So at times, hockey players, we’re our worst enemy.”
Heward says hockey players will lie to trainers and doctors because they don’t want to come out of the lineup.
And hockey isn’t the only sport feeling pressure to do something about concussions.
In an Associated Press report this month nearly 20 per cent of 160 NFL players surveyed said they’ve hidden or downplayed the effects of a concussion.
Experts at the Hockey Canada seminar say that’s a big part of the problem.
Paul Dennis, a sports psychologist who spent 20 years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, says the self-imposed pressure on players and the culture within professional sports need to change.
“People want to win, they want to be successful, they want power, they want glory, they want money and they are willing to sacrifice health and put themselves at risk in order to achieve those goals,” Dennis said. “That’s a mistake.”
Dennis said that coaches, trainers and parents have the responsibility to help change that culture.
Dr. Charles Tator, a Toronto neurosurgeon, agrees there needs to be a culture adjustment within hockey. He says there’s a lack of respect in the game and that figures such as Don Cherry who promote fights have a “negative influence.”
“I feel there’s been too much emphasis on the sock ’em, kill ’em type of hockey rather than on skill hockey,” Tator said.
Heward says it’s important to look at protocols and guidelines that will help future generations.
“This is a serious problem that demands serious attention,” he said. “This is a problem that could change our game forever and it certainly could change sports forever.”