January 25, 2012

LaFontaine striving to end hockey's concussion epidemic

By Jesse Connolly

RANDOLPH, Mass. -- Nearly 16 years have gone by since Pat LaFontaine endured the scariest two months of his life, but when the NHL Hall of Famer took to the podium as a featured speaker in Play Smart’s concussion prevention seminar in Randolph on Monday night, he remembered every moment in vivid detail. 

NHL Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine shared his experience with post-concussion syndrome with a crowd of players, parents and coaches in Randolph, Mass. on Monday. (Getty)

Just being able to do that makes LaFontaine feel immeasurably blessed.

In the fall of 1996, the Sabres captain suffered a concussion early on in the season. But back then, things were different. Hockey’s culture encouraged NHLers to play through “getting their bell rung.” Doctors had yet to fully grasp the severity of head injuries.

But deep down, LaFontaine knew something was seriously wrong.

“I remember going to the doctors and saying, ‘Something’s not right. I don’t feel like myself,’” said LaFontaine, recalling how he was repeatedly told that everything was fine.

“I remember being scared the first time and getting emotional. I played one more game and everything was going too fast. Thank God (coach) Ted Nolan pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re not right.’”

Nolan’s decision to keep his star forward out of action literally proved to be a lifesaver.

“I had this sense of relief and I remember breaking down,” LaFontaine said. “Every single neurologist said to me, ‘Just pray and be thankful you didn’t get hit during that time. You shouldn’t have been playing. You’re so lucky you didn’t get hit during that period of time.’”

LaFontaine was lucky to dodge further damage, as the then-31-year-old already had significant swelling in his brain. His bout with post-concussion syndrome, however, still lied ahead.

“The next two months were the longest months of my life. I went into a depression, I couldn’t control my emotions and I didn’t leave my house,” LaFontaine told the crowd of players, parents and coaches. “All the sudden the player that was the captain of the team, involved in the community and had three kids couldn’t even get up and shower. He’s reading books to his daughter and he starts to break down and cry because he can’t put the words together.”

During a visit to the Mayo Clinic, LaFontaine said Dr. Jason Mihalik assessed the impact of post-concussion syndrome on one’s emotions perfectly, stating that it feels like someone has come and ripped all your enthusiasm and the spark that makes you who you are out.

“You’re not yourself,” said LaFontaine, who returned for the 1997-98 season after a trade to the Rangers before another concussion led to his retirement. “Post-concussion syndrome, you feel like you’re losing it. It’s the closest thing to feeling like you’re losing your mind.”

Now 46, LaFontaine has made it his purpose in life to minimize the number of athletes who have to go through the hellish experience of post-concussion syndrome, appearing at many seminars like the one at the Lantana on Monday to spread awareness.

“It’s great that Play Smart and South Shore Hospital have taken a proactive approach in a very important and serious problem that’s occurring now in our game,” he said. “The more awareness, the more you reach coaches, parents and trainers, the more you educate them, the better. There’s still a lot of unknown things about concussions. I think as you can see it’s somewhat of an epidemic that’s occurring in our game today. The more we continue to learn, the more we continue to bring awareness out to everybody.” 

Pat LaFontaine is one of just four players in NHL history to skate for all three teams based in New York. (Getty)

LaFontaine knows he’s not on an easy mission. Although the great medical advances that have taken place make a tremendous difference, it’s still up to a player of any age, their parents, coaches and trainers to be cognizant of the effects of concussions.

“Unfortunately it’s always been this macho sport and you always kind of keep that to yourself,” said LaFontaine. “But the more we’re learning to tell our story, the more we’re learning to tell people what happens to you during that time. I think that more and more people understand how serious this issue is with concussions and multiple concussions, and are hopefully learning to prevent concussions and the solutions to how we prevent them.”

The Missouri-born center, who racked up 1,013 points in 865 career games, applauds the strides the NHL has made this season in curbing head injuries.

“They’ve continued to bring out awareness and I commend them for trying to be proactive,” said LaFontaine, who was joined by former NHLers Ted Donato (Dedham, Mass.), Tony Amonte (Hingham, Mass.) and Bob Sweeney (Boxboro, Mass.) at the event sponsored by South Shore Hospital.

“I think having Brendan Shanahan and some of the rule changes have been a definite positive. I hope we continue to go in that direction because it has made a difference.”

And though there are still a number of tweaks that can be made to the game to make things safer, LaFontaine made it clear that concussions are never going to simply just disappear.

“We can change rules, equipment and things to prevent them and minimize them, but we’re not going to get rid of them completely,” he said. “The key is, when they occur, how you treat them -- just to make sure  that concussed athlete doesn’t go back into play until they’re more than 100 percent healed. That’s where the real damage is done.”

As someone that’s come within a single hit of suffering that real damage and a human being that feels infinitely fortunate that a full, healthy life lies ahead of him, LaFontaine feels the onus is on those that can speak from experience about post-concussion syndrome to join together and educate the masses.

“I think we have an obligation and a responsibility to try to give back and try to tell a story that might be able to help others out,” LaFontaine said. “I hope this continues to grow. I know it’s starting to happen, but we need to bring more and more awareness out all the time.”

Judging by the rousing ovation his gripping speech received on Monday night, it’s safe to say LaFontaine is well on his way to making a world of difference.