The final blow to Tyler Page’s hockey career was forgettable, literally.
His teammates never saw it. He doesn’t remember it.
He was a 16-year-old playing major junior hockey in Ontario, Canada, a province that has produced thousands of professional hockey players.
His coach tapped Page, a defenseman, to go into the game. Page didn’t move. He sat on the bench with a blank look on his face.
“My teammates told me I was just sitting there staring at my hands,” said Page, now 30. “I don’t remember anything. I was in the hospital for a couple of days. I lost short term memory.
“I was born with skates on, had played competitively since I was 5, and that was the end of my career, at 16 years old.”
Page had suffered too many concussions before that game — he estimates six or seven — without giving his brain time to recuperate. So any type of hit to or even quick jerk of his head was enough to cause damage and prompt doctors to pull him off the ice.
“If you go back too early from a concussion, there can be long-term problems,” he said.
Today, Page is once again indulging in his hockey passion. He is a defenseman for the Westerly Hockey Club and he is devoting his time to another cause: making sure that no other aspiring athlete endures the same fate he did.
Page, who is a chiropractic physician and specialist in sports rehabilitation in Groton, uses OptoGait, a portable optical detection system that produces baseline measurements for athletes. The system is a product of Microgate, an engineering, medical rehab and sports timing company founded in Bolzano, Italy.
The technology helps in the evaluation of when it is safe for a concussion patient to return to the field. It’s also used for preseason testing so that if an athlete sustains a head injury during the season, the preseason test can be used to assess how the athlete’s functions have been altered.
“You don’t always see the impact of a concussion with the naked eye because it’s not in the form of a headache, nausea, fogginess or dizziness,” Page said. “Sometimes athletes don’t show symptoms. This technology takes your ability to diagnose and treat concussions to a whole new level. And since it’s almost impossible to predict how long concussion symptoms will plague a player, this can give us a measurement on progress.”
OptoGait, which is growing in popularity with professional sports teams, particularly European soccer squads, is a series of quick tests: three tests on a treadmill for gait, including walking, running and jogging; marching in place with eyes open and closed; hopping on one leg, both left and right; and checking reflexes through visual and audio stimulus.
The system uses infrared frequency LEDs positioned opposite each other on transmitting and receiving bars. It measures how symmetrical an athlete’s body is and the coordination of movements — what the brain is telling the body to do.
“That is why the testing is huge,” said Page, who has a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University, doctorate from New York Chiropractic College and owns Page Chiropractic and Sports Rehab in Groton.
“It gives you objective data not just subjective. It helps us see if there’s progress, so we can get you back out playing when you’re 100 percent, not 80 percent.”
The dangers of sports concussions have been taken more seriously in recent years and have turned into a considerable medical worry for parents of young athletes across the country.
The fears have especially been fueled by reports of former NFL players — most notably Junior Seau, a former San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots star — having been found posthumously to have had a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma.
The New York Times reported in May that dozens of youth concussion clinics have opened in nearly 35 states in the last three years and that 43 states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island, have passed laws requiring school-age athletes who have sustained a concussion to have written authorization from a medical professional before they can return to their sport.
There also are new guidelines that suggest players be pulled from games even if there is only a suspicion that there’s been a head injury.
In Rhode Island, state law requires all school coaches, paid and volunteer, to take concussion-awareness training.
Westerly High School’s team physician, Dr. Bernard V. Marzilli Jr., does preseason testing on players on the football and boys and girls soccer teams and then does follow-up testing throughout the season when necessary for students with head trauma, said Jamey Vetelino, Westerly’s athletic director.
Page is in the middle of doing the same preseason testing for the New York Rangers athletes and the NHL team’s farm club in Hartford. He also hopes to start preseason testing for the New London High School football team next year; he is the team’s doctor.
Page, who conducts the testing on anyone free of charge, said he would like to see more local high school and youth sports teams take advantage of the technology.
It’s important, he said, for coaches, parents and the athletes themselves to understand the effects of concussions, especially since athletes as young as those in Pop Warner youth football leagues and youth soccer leagues can suffer from concussions.
“I care about the education,” Page said. “A concussion doesn’t always look like that vicious hit you see in the NFL. It can be a quick jerk of your head or your head hitting the turf. Sometimes the person doing the hitting can actually sustain the concussion.”
A SLOW PROCESS
Max Spelman is slowly recovering from a concussion.
The 25-year-old Westerly resident who is the goalie for the Westerly Hockey Club took a puck to his mask in March and hasn’t returned to the ice.
He’s scheduled for his second baseline test with Page next week. On his first test he scored high — a warning sign neither his head nor his body were ready to return to the sport.
“I’m hoping to see some improvement this time,” said Spelman, who has suffered concussions before this one, playing hockey and lacrosse. “This time around I’m more educated in the process. I know that just because I don’t have a headache anymore doesn’t mean I’m OK to play. Being able to track my progress is going to help me, and hopefully I can make a full recovery.”
While Page has recovered enough to be able to play hockey now, he still feels symptoms from the head injuries he suffered when he was a teen. He has headaches and, at times, trouble concentrating.
“Twenty years ago, you got your bell rung and you’re stubborn, figure it happens and you continue to play,” Page said. “Now, we’re taking it much more seriously because of the long-term effects and how dangerous (concussions) can be. We’re talking about the rest of your life.
“I’ll talk to any team, any athlete, any parent who will listen. It’s my main passion now because I don’t want to see what happened to me happen to anyone else.”
For more information, contact Tyler Page at 860-446-9705.