Learn From My Mistakes
By Nicholas Eustace
Can you give a background of your athletic career?
Growing up as a kid, I was fortunate enough to try a variety of sports, however, as I got older my focus increasingly shifted towards hockey. Like most kids who played hockey in the GTA, I spent the majority of my career in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. My GTHL career started with the Toronto Junior Canadians but after 4 great seasons there, my best friend and I moved to the Mississauga Rebels. With the Rebels, we quickly became one of the top teams in North America, making it to 4 consecutive GTHL finals, winning 2 of them, as well as winning an Ontario Hockey Federation championship and upsetting our rivals, the Toronto Marlboros to win the OHL Cup. In all honesty, it still puts a smile on my face knowing we beat the 96’ Marlies, who in my opinion will go down as one of the most skilled minor hockey teams of all time, with players like Sam Bennett, Connor McDavid, Josh Ho Sang and Roland Mckeown. After the Rebels, I finished up my career with the North York Rangers, hoping to attract the attention of college scouts. At that stage in my career I had been in contact with schools such as Providence, Penn State and Canisius, just to name a few. My ultimate goal was to pursue some sort of professional career. Although that did not work out, I do still play hockey today in what I consider to be one of the best intramural leagues, the LUG. Although it is non-contact, my cardio is almost non-existent and the game is at a much slower pace, we still try our best to get pucks in deep, keep shifts short, and buzz around out there.
During your hockey career, did you ever receive a concussion? Can you recall when it happened? How did it happen?
Yes, I suffered multiple concussions, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. I had sustained a few when I was younger, but they were not as significant as the ones that I suffered in the last two years of my career. The concussion that was the beginning of the end of my hockey career, was during the first game of the regular season in my OHL draft year. I was chasing the puck into the corner, one stride ahead of an opposing defenseman. Just as I felt the weight of the puck on my stick, he cross-checked me, slamming my head into the glass. As a result, I didn’t play the rest of the game and ended up being out for six months. The next year, I worked on getting back into game shape and ultimately proving to myself and others that I was more than capable of obtaining a Division I hockey scholarship to play in the States. Unfortunately, this was cut short. Halfway through one of the first games of the midget season, nearly a year to the day after my previous injury, it happened again. This time, I was the instigator. I was forechecking, when I came around the net and hit a guy at full speed. Our helmets collided, resulting in another concussion. I told myself it was no big deal, but that night and for the next month or so, my headaches were unbearable. Being young and immature, I told no one, continuing to play for over a month, until I sustained a second concussion. In mid-October my mom confronted me, I finally broke down, revealing to her that I had been concealing symptoms for a while. In conclusion, I was advised by my mom, dad and doctor to give up hockey. To say I was devastated would be an understatement, hockey was the only thing I knew, it was my life and at the age of 16 I was forced to retire.
How were your concussions handled by the medical staff? By your teammates?
In Minor Midget the medical staff handled it perfectly, no matter how much I pleaded with my coaches to let me back in the game, they would not allow it. As for my teammates, they were supportive throughout the entire process. We were a very close group of guys and I was fortunate to be part of such a great team. However, during my Midget year, it was a different story and I take full responsibility for this. I was on a new team, again with a good group of guys and medical staff. The only difference was that this year, I was well aware that if I had revealed to my parents or coaches that I had sustained another concussion, my hockey career was most likely over. I did everything in my power to fight through symptoms, which at one point included taking up to 4-5 Advil prior to games. I was determined to at least make it to a point where I could sign my letter of intent.
How did your concussion affect your personal, school and athletic life?
My concussions have had a huge impact on not only my athletic life but my academic and especially, my personal life. I had to retire from hockey and all other contact sports. The affect it had on my academics was also prominent, in both grade 10 and 11, I was either away from school entirely or limited to half days for almost 6 months in both years. If it weren’t for my high school, St. Michael’s College School, and being ahead of the curve when it comes to concussion rehabilitation and academics, I strongly believe I would not have graduated high school when I did. This is due in large part to the school’s learning centre and its Return to Learn program, led by Barb Csenge. I will be forever grateful to have attended St. Mikes. My struggles with concussions and academics did not stop there, in my 2nd year at the University of Western Ontario, I was forced to go back home and forfeit a year of credits due to another concussion.
The aspect of my life where concussions affected me most was my personal life. The most difficult part of my concussion experiences were not the physical symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, and dizziness; it was the mental/emotional symptoms. I became a completely different person. I was aggressive, impulsive and very easily agitated, which resulted in me doing certain things that I am embarrassed of. I became overly anxious and very depressed, eventually battling suicidal thoughts on a regular basis. I really don’t like talking about this, especially in a public format, as the majority of my friends and family have no idea. In fact, I had previously reached out to the Western University Chapter of Concussion Legacy Foundation Canada twice about getting involved but did not follow through due to the fact that I was not emotionally mature enough to open up about my experience. At this point in my life, I think continuing to increase awareness about concussions and their relationship with mental health problems is crucial and I am more than happy to continue to bring attention to it.
What did you do about your concussions? How did you feel?
In my minor midget year, I followed what the doctors advised me to do. This consisted of sitting in my bedroom by myself with the lights off, avoiding screens, physical activity and other activities that involved some sort of physical or cognitive exertion. I saw various doctors, osteopaths and physical therapists to try to return back to the ice. I was determined to get back with my team and finish the season - that was the only thing that kept me on track.
After my second concussion, I followed similar procedures. I spent almost a month in a dark room, very limited screen use, no physical activity, etc. Unfortunately, I was not as serious with my rehabilitation this time around. After the doctors told me I could not play anymore, I was discouraged, depressed and without any real sense of purpose. As a result, I started drinking heavily and used drugs to combat the headaches and emotional distress. There was a stage where I was unable to listen to music without the onset of a headache and I did not feel “normal” or symptom-free unless I was intoxicated. Looking back now, it’s easy to say how foolish I was but at that stage in my life, my concussion knowledge and the long-term effects they can have on your brain and cognitive ability were minimal. There was a moment where I had accepted that headaches, pressure and other physical symptoms would be a part of my everyday life that I would have to endure. My ignorance, wishful thinking, and lack of knowledge resulted in me not treating my rehabilitation seriously. In my mind, I never associated concussion problems with severe cognitive impairment later in life and I didn’t realize the effects that drugs and alcohol can have on someone who is trying to recover from concussion symptoms. These are only temporary solutions and prolong recovery, negatively impacting you in the long run.
How did your concussions affect your career path?
For a while I had no idea what I wanted to do after hockey. I was going through the motions and it wasn’t until recently that I decided on what I wanted to pursue. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve became more and more fascinated with the brain, how it works and how the physiological processes affect our behavior. Although I have very limited knowledge on the subject, I have become increasingly interested in the concept of neurogenesis and how we are able to promote it. As of right now, I am finishing my undergrad with a double major in Sociology and Psychology and would like to pursue a graduate degree in Psychology. I strongly dislike seeing people suffer and it provides me with a genuine sense of satisfaction when I am to help. In addition, I would love to combine my passion for sports with my Psychology background to be able to work with athletes.
How are you now taking your concussion experience and making a difference?
Concussions have changed my life. They have made me into the person I am today and I strongly believe that concussion awareness is extremely important. I try not avoid making uneducated assumptions but my guess would be that the majority of individuals who have suffered a concussion go through a quick and relatively pain-free recovery. However, in some cases there are negative consequences linked to a concussion. Hopefully by being completely transparent with my experience, I am able to shed some light on the harsh realities that can be potentially associated with concussions. Ultimately, my goal is to help others who might be going through similar situations. I have been involved with concussion awareness on and off since grade 12. In 2014, I took part in a symposium with world re-known concussion researcher, Dr. Charles Tater and concussion advocate/NHL hall of famer, Ken Dryden. Almost a year later, I received the Award of Merit, from the Brain Injury of Canada Awards. Today, I am involved with Concussion Legacy Foundation Canada where their goal is to educate players, coaches, and parents on concussions. In the future, I would like to continue to further my involvement in any way possible. Hopefully one day from a medical standpoint.
What advice would you give to young athletes?
First and foremost, be open and honest with yourself and others. If you are suffering from head problems, do not ignore it. People always preach not to take brain injuries lightly, and they are right. It has been seven years since I last played hockey and I still deal with symptoms on occasion. Trying to tough it out because it is the championship game or a scout is in the stands is not worth it - trust me. Secondly, as cliché as this sounds, surround yourself with people you can always count on. I was lucky to be surrounded by an incredible group of friends and family, most notably my mom and Nana. If an athlete is put in a situation where they are forced to give up their sport, it is vital to have a good support system around. It is a difficult transition; for many kids growing up their social circle, passion and identity is associated with their sport. Another piece of advice for those who find themselves in this situation where they cannot continue to play due to injury, is to find a positive outlet. I know this may be obvious advice but it can be easy to get caught up in activities that may be harmful. Find something that you are passionate about and enjoy doing. For me this was working out and ironically, kickboxing. However, I am only allowed to take part in pad work and technique - absolutely no contact. Lastly, do as I say, not as I do. I have made some mistakes in the way I dealt with my concussions, ones that you can learn from.
If you could go back and do things differently, what would you do?
There are a few things I would go back and do differently. The blatantly obvious decisions I would change are not continuing to play while being concussed and not to have resorted to drugs and alcohol as a way to deal with my symptoms. As cheesy as this sounds, the decisions I made back then, have shaped me into who I am today, and I would not change much. That being said, my one constant regret was trying to separate myself from hockey and the hockey world. There was a period where I wanted very little to do with hockey, I stopped going to my own games and broke off ties with a lot of my teammates. I made the mistake of isolating myself from something that provided me happiness. As I’ve gotten older, I have a greater appreciation for the time I am able to spend on the ice and around the boys. I think almost anyone who has played a team sport can testify that one of the best parts of being on a team is the camaraderie between you and your teammates.