All the pie graphs, flow charts and scientific data in the world can’t tell the real story of the pain and suffering an athlete experiences when he or she is dealing with the effects of post concussion syndrome.
After listening to some of the leading experts in their respective fields discuss the scientific elements of head trauma at the Concussions in Ice Hockey Summit at the Mayo Clinic, Jim Johnson captivated the lecture hall packed with neurologists, physicians and athletic trainers with his recollections of the agonizing days and weeks that he experienced after suffering a series of concussions that ultimately ended his professional hockey career.
The New Hope, Minn., native was playing with the Phoenix Coyotes early in the 1997-98 season when he took a hit in a game against the Montreal Canadiens that left him seeing stars. The next night it was an elbow to the head in Ottawa that left him groggy. But as he had done throughout his hockey career that included four years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and 829 games in the NHL, Johnson fought through the pain and continued to do his job on the ice.
It was a hit several nights later during a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning that ultimately turned out the lights on his playing career.
“I remember scoring on a shot from the blueline that beat Darren Puppa, but I couldn’t even see the goal,” Johnson recalled. “After I scored I skated to the bench and realized that I couldn’t even read the board ads. That’s when I knew I was in trouble.”
The days and weeks that followed found Johnson sleeping as many as 14 hours a day, and after a short walk to the mailbox he was so exhausted that he needed to lie down again. But it was one particular incident that made Johnson realize how badly he needed help. As he thought he was getting better, Johnson set out one day to pick up his daughter at school and returned home without her.
Eventually he sought medical help at the Mayo Clinic, where he learned about the severity of his injuries and the seriousness of second concussion syndrome.
That experience left a lasting impression on Johnson and led him to take a hard line when it comes to dealing with concussions among his own players during his time of coaching youth hockey in the Phoenix area.
“I was coaching a Bantam team, and I had a father who accused me of ruining his son’s hockey career because I forced him to sit out due to the effects of a concussion,” Johnson said as he shook his head.
“I don’t care what a parent thinks. If a kid has no business returning to play, he’s not going to play as long as he’s on my team. From my experience it’s easy for me to hold strong to these beliefs.”
The hard lessons that he learned have also led Johnson to push for greater coaching education to help stem the tide of recurring concussions. A coach is in the best position to diagnose the early signs of a concussion and has the authority to keep an athlete out of action until he or she can be fully diagnosed by a physician.
“When something like that happens to you it scares you because you don’t really know what’s going on. Now, we have so much more knowledge, and we have to get it out to our youth coaches,” said Johnson, a long-time supporter of USA Hockey and its Coaching Education Program.
“When we are talking about our kids’ health and their futures, I would always rather err on the side of caution.”