Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hockey's head game gets players thinking

Multiple concussions could affect their futures

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It's not exactly the kind of hat trick Winnipegger Justin Augert had in mind for his junior hockey resumé.

At 19, Augert has already sustained three concussions, two last season during his first stint with the Steinbach Pistons of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

His first was when he was only 14 and playing for the St. Vital Victorias Bantam AA club.

He remembers it like it was yesterday.

"I just finished taking a pass and I dumped the puck in the (opponents') zone," Augert said during an interview at Dakota Community Centre, where he's teaching a summer hockey camp. "A guy had come over about six seconds after and blindsided me in the head."

Augert remembers climbing back to his bench, grabbing a water bottle and pressing it against his lips for about three minutes.

Problem was the bottle was empty.

What might be even more frightening was the fact he finished the game.

"I had headaches and wasn't making much sense after the game," said Augert, who's now able to laugh at the incident.

Michelle, his mother, still vividly remembers her son's first head injury.

"That one was really frightening as a parent, because after they took him off the ice and he got himself changed and he came out, I looked into his big blue eyes and all I could see was pupils," she said.

"You couldn't really see that he had blue eyes because his pupils had enlarged so much that it was all you could see."

Justin's parents constantly checked on him that night, waking him up every couple of hours to make sure he was OK.

"It was very frightening. We didn't sleep a lot that night."

Justin was forced to sit out a month.

Fast-forward five years and Justin experienced his second run-in with a damaging head injury.

In October, while playing with Steinbach, Augert's head got between an opponent's knee and the boards, forcing him to miss about six weeks of action; the other concussion came two months after he resumed playing, this time sidelining him for the rest of the 2011-12 campaign.

Upon reflection, Augert realizes he might have returned to the ice a little too early.

"Yeah, I think the first one, I rushed a bit too much. Obviously you want to play. It's frustrating to watch your team play and you're basically doing nothing because you're not allowed to do any physical activities."

He's had about eight months to recover and is fired up for another season in Steinbach.

His doctor and the organization will closely monitor him -- and so will his parents.

"If he's to get hurt early on this season, I think he and all of us will have to take a good hard look at what will be his future in hockey," his mom said.

"While we all love the sport and he loves playing the sport, it's not worth it, because you need that head for the rest of your life."

Brad Olynyk, 22, echoed those sentiments.

The Winnipegger, who now plays defence for the Minot State University Beavers, also suffered three concussions while playing hockey in Manitoba. He, too, suffered his first when he was 14.

He had two more while dressing for the Winnipeg Saints of the MJHL.

Olynyk said he was always cleared by a doctor before returning to play.

"Each one has been treated pretty well. I've never come back from a concussion and then right away (had) symptoms," he said. "When I've come back to play, I've been ready to play.

"Your head is not something you really mess around with. Obviously, I'm not going to play hockey for my entire life. I'm going to need my head for whatever I decide to do in life."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 A4

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