The school of hard knocks

Queen’s assistant coach Alyn McCauley is passionate about raising concussion awareness

Men’s assistant hockey coach Alyn McCauley wants to inform hockey players about the dangers of concussions.
Men’s assistant hockey coach Alyn McCauley wants to inform hockey players about the dangers of concussions.

Alyn McCauley has largely left the spotlight behind. In five short years, he’s gone from being a focus of the media circus that comes with playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs to hanging around a 1950s-era rink after a university hockey practice. Not the sort of thing one associates with life in the NHL, but the Memorial Centre is a long way from Maple Leaf Gardens or the Air Canada Centre.

This doesn’t bother McCauley, though, at least not noticeably.

At 31, most of his contemporaries are still playing big-league hockey, a pursuit he had to abandon after the 2006-07 season due to a series of injuries. Yet, McCauley says he’s happy with his 488 games in the NHL.

“My body’s just not up to playing any more,” he said. “I got to play nine years. I was hoping to play about 15, but that’s nine more than a lot of other people. At the end of the day, I can’t complain about anything that I’ve been handed in my life.”

Since leaving the big leagues, McCauley has largely faded into the shadows. When he joined the men’s hockey staff this year, the move came with the condition that he be allowed to largely avoid speaking to the media to keep from overshadowing head coach Brett Gibson, a former junior teammate of his. He agreed to this interview only because it’s on a subject he passionate about; concussion awareness. It’s a topic McCauley knows well, as he suffered at least three major concussions as a player; two while playing in the OHL and one in the NHL.

“I had one where my helmet was off and I had my feet kicked out from under me in Sudbury, then another one where the puck hit me somewhere around the temple area in Oshawa,” he said.

“My last concussion was where I was hit in Toronto. My face hit the glass somewhere in my cheek area. Those were my three major concussions. There’s lots of times where you feel a little woozy and those are concussions, but those, I have no number on those.”

McCauley said he felt some pressure to return to the game quickly after his concussions.

“I felt okay, but I didn’t have the backing from the doctors I saw that I would have liked,” he said. “Even when you get over the physical obstacle of confidence, you’ve got your self-confidence. Even though my brain seemed like it had healed and everything seemed fine, I had to go out there and prove to myself that I was okay and capable of playing at that level. For a player like me, for most players, you can’t have any hesitation in your game.”

Two weeks ago, McCauley spoke at the London Hockey Concussion Summit about his experiences with concussions. The conference featured experts in the field such as Dr. David Mulder, president of the NHL. Physicians Society and club physician for the Canadiens, and Dr. Ruben Echemendia, director of the NHL.’s neuropsychological testing program. Other prominent former players who have dealt with severe concussions also spoke, including Eric Lindros, Jeff Beukeboom, Mark Moore and two-time Olympic women’s hockey gold medalist Jennifer Botterill.

McCauley said speaking at the conference was a new experience for him, but he was glad he did it.

“I kind of felt a little bit out of my element because I wasn’t sure if it was more of a question and answer thing, so I had to speak by the seat of my pants,” he said. “But it was a good experience. I was happy to go and hear what the doctors had to say — especially in my case, about the long-term effects — but I also got to learn a fair bit about young kids in minor hockey.”

McCauley said the conference reinforced the importance of handling concussions carefully.

“It is a very significant injury,” he said. “At the conference, one of the doctors who spoke wanted to erase from everyone’s mind the term mild concussion. There is no mild concussion; they’re all severe, or they all need to be handled that way. The brain is similar to your eyes; you only get one and you need to take care of it. That’s not saying that one concussion is the end of your hockey playing career, but if handled improperly, it could be.”

McCauley said he plans to organize a concussion awareness event for local hockey players. He said one of the Queen’s players suffered a concussion in the first of back-to-back games this year, played in the second game without reporting the injury and got hit hard again. The player didn’t report that he’d been concussed until practice the next day.

“The avenues that players are given or channels that they’re given to report injuries and such need to be better,” he said. “We had no knowledge. It kind of made me sick to my stomach. This player didn’t know what he was really risking and we didn’t either. It kind of got me thinking along the lines that we should really communicate with these players, ‘This is why you really need to sit out and make sure that you’re okay before you get back in there because we’re talking about paralysis, or even death with second-hit, second-concussion syndrome when your brain is bruised or even bleeding.’”

McCauley said a big part of the problem is the macho culture that surrounds the sport.

“One of the things I talked about at the summit was that hockey bravado, and I wouldn’t say that I was a lot different,” he said. “Hockey players want to be that way. They want to be tough and fight through things and put the team first. It’s that kind of mentality, and that’s great. As a coach, I like players that put the team first, but in certain circumstances, that’s not okay. You have to think of yourself and your well-being. You don’t want it to affect the rest of your life.”

McCauley said he’s fortunate to be free of severe concussion symptoms, but knows his injuries may still affect his life in the future.

“I’m sure that the brain cells that were damaged, you don’t replace them,” he said. “On a daily basis I don’t go around with headaches or blurred vision or anything crazy like that, but it was interesting to hear [at the conference] about some of the problems you can have with dementia and a whole massive variety of things that no one wants to experience at any point in their lives. It seems like it brought it on earlier with Alzheimer’s and stuff like that.”

McCauley said the long-term effects of concussions are troubling, but he isn’t living in fear of them.

“I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” he said. “I don’t think about it at night.”

McCauley and the Gaels face the Ryerson Rams tonight at the Memorial Centre at 7:30.

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