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Bryan Little has no idea if he's played his last hockey game. But the veteran Winnipeg Jets centre admits a return to the ice from a devastating head injury isn't guaranteed — and he's not willing to risk his long-term health to make it happen.
"It’s something I thought about the first few days I was in hospital. Some of the things the doctors were saying scared me a bit. It still does," an emotional Little said in a 30-minute Zoom call on Wednesday, in which he spoke publicly of his lost season for the first time.
"The biggest thing I’m thinking about through this is having a healthy and long life and being cognitively all there when this is all over. Until I am told there’s not a lot of huge risk in coming back, it’s kind of just waiting and hopefully a good amount of time will change things."
"Some of the things the doctors were saying scared me a bit. It still does." – Bryan Little
Little, 32, has been referred to by some as the "conscience" of the Jets, a beloved member of the team and one of just two remaining players who came over from Atlanta in 2011. He suffered a concussion in the final pre-season game in Minnesota last September, returned for seven games only to be felled by friendly fire, as Nikolaj Ehlers' slap shot struck him directly in the side of the head during a Nov. 5 game at Bell MTS Place against New Jersey.
He suffered a brain bleed, perforated ear drum and related issues including vertigo and temporary loss of hearing that required a wave of appointments with various specialists in both Canada and the U.S.
"A lot of the doctors said I was unlucky, but lucky. Unlucky about the chances of it hitting me in that spot and the injury, but lucky it could have been a lot worse for what it was," said Little, who has played back the frightening scene numerous times in his head.
"I remember passing (the puck) to the point and like I’ve said before, I don’t know why I drifted behind the net, maybe I was just trying to lose my guy. But I lost sight of the puck and I was coming around the net and I felt it right away. I knew I got hit with the puck. I knew it was bad but I didn’t know how bad it was until probably when I went back to the dressing room," he said.
"A lot of the doctors said I was unlucky, but lucky. Unlucky about the chances of it hitting me in that spot and the injury, but lucky it could have been a lot worse for what it was." – Bryan Little
"I went to stand up and I felt dizzy and nauseous right away. I knew it wasn’t good. The whole side of my left side was pretty numb and throbbing and in pain. Once we got to the hospital, we did a bunch of tests and stuff. That’s when it really sunk in, the extent of it."
Little had to undergo surgery, and wasn't even allowed to hold his young daughter for a six-week stretch to avoid any physical exertion. He resumed skating last January, eventually going the Jets in a yellow non-contact jersey prior to the COVID-19 pause in mid-March. But any hopes of a return for the summer playoffs was shut down a few months ago following further testing at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
"That was probably one of the more frustrating points of the whole year, just because I thought I was close -- I was feeling good and then that happens. To go from thinking you're almost back in the lineup to being shut down for the rest of the year was definitely tough," said Little.
"We basically all agreed that I needed more time and more time to re-evaluate at a later date. We don’t know when that will be yet. It could be a bit down the road still. In the meantime, I’m working out. There’s really not much I can do except hopefully let it heal a bit more."
The troubling symptoms have disappeared, but there remains concern about what a future head injury could mean.
"I’m not going to say, ‘Screw this, I’m going to go out and try to play through this or take a big risk.’ So the biggest thing for me to get back would be them telling me that the risk is lower, that I have a good chance of going out there and nothing bad happening. I haven’t heard that yet and hopefully at one point I will hear that from them," said Little.
There were few highlights in the most frustrating season of his career, aside from scoring the overtime winner at the Heritage Classic in Regina, against the Calgary Flames.
"Basically, it goes with the whole 2020 theme. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong," said Little.
The veteran of 843 regular-season games has four more years remaining on his contract, which pays him US $5.291 million per season. If he's unable to continue playing, Little would be placed on long-term injury reserve, which will still pay him the rest of his money while also giving the Jets salary cap relief. At this point, the 2020-21 season is slated to begin with training camps in mid-November, and a full 82-game season starting in early December.
"I basically said that I’m not shutting the door on anything. I’ll wait as long as I can and do as many tests as I can and talk to as many specialists as I can, just try to stay positive and keep that door open. So I’m not too sure about a time frame when I could be back or when it might be too late, all those questions. I’m kind of in the dark as much as a lot of people," said Little.
"The first doctor I talked to brought some things up and that’s kind of been constantly in the back of my head. Especially in talking with my family and wife and stuff, there are some things definitely in the future, there are going to be some decisions that are going to have to be made about what’s next. I’m kind of treating it the same way I have been; I’m not really thinking about it until I know for certain and until then, I’m going to keep preparing myself to be ready, so that’s my plan."
Now 13 seasons into his NHL career, Little shared some friendly advice to those who are just starting out, based on a difficult lesson he's now learned.
"If I could say one thing to a young player it’s never take it for granted. When you’re young, you think you’re going to be in the league for 20 years, and you think you’re going to be playing forever and will always be healthy. Things can change in a blink of an eye. They did for me for sure," he said.
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