Friday, September 27, 2013

Chapter 34: D1 or Not D1? That is the Question

D1 or not D1?

D1 or  D1, that was the question.

My son and I both shared this dream. I always knew he was talented.  Better than I ever was. I wasn't bad, but the state of hockey development has come a long way since my day.  Ever since he stepped on the ice and learned to skate at the age of two I wondered how good he could be with such an early start. My own hockey career started quite late.  I was nearly thirteen before I learned to skate. And I did pretty well for myself until the injuries caught up with me. 

So it became a grand experiment.  Given his early start how good might he become?  I never kidded myself about the chances of a pro career.  I was well aware of those odds.  The dream was for him to play D1 hockey, ideally with a scholarship.  

Throughout the first and second year of prep school there were plenty of sniffs from various D1 coaches. Most Wednesday night games had plenty of college coaches. Not many on Saturdays due to the colleges having their own games. I stayed out of it but the Tilton coach always told me who was looking at my son.  

Bruce Marshall at the helm
Uconn was almost always around,  usually one of the assistant coaches.  I knew the head coach, Bruce Marshall, fairly well.  As an alum I'd been gifting the hockey team $500 a year since before my son was born.  I'd also played in a number of alumni games.  As my kid developed Bruce was always available to me for prep school and junior advice. My D1 aspirations for my son exceeded Uconn.  

Uconn Hockey lockerroom
BU Hockey Coach Jack Parker watching
the boys at the summer prep camp
Uconn's hockey program was always the red headed step child to the basketball and football teams. Due to title 9 and an overall lack of commitment from the school the hockey team offered no scholarships.  Title 9 meant that the school had to spend money on women's athletics to offset the funds spent on men's sports.  That has recently changed now that Uconn is moving to Hockey East.  

There would be another summer of showcase camps. It was another expensive summer.  I traveled with him to all of them. There was the College Hockey showcase in LA, the Chowder Cup Predraft in Boston, the BU prep showcase  in Boston and Hockey Night in Boston, and the ever popular cash cow-Bliss Littler's Great Western Showcase in Vegas.  

Fall came around and it was back to Tilton for senior year.  He was named one of the team captains for the season.  He was in the leadership on the scoresheet for most of the season.  The impact of the financial crisis had hit home quite hard so the number of trips was lessened.  I worked hard with the school and through the bureaucracy to finally get set up to live stream Tilton's home games.  It took until mid-January before they finally started broadcasting, but I was able to watch all of the home games and many of the road games. I advised the students who ran the broadcast and play by play operation.

We had been very lucky injury wise through all of these years.  Max broke his arm when he was six and missed most of a season of mite hockey.  He re-broke it immediately after he got the cast off and was out for another chunk of time.   He had a hairline fracture of his wrist from falling on his hand during a high school roller hockey game.  I don't recall if this was during his sophomore or junior year at Scripps Ranch High.  He missed about three weeks with that.

Tilton was set to go to Governor's Academy for the annual pre-Christmas tournament.  It was the weekend prior to Christmas of Max's senior year.  These would be the last games before flying home for the winter break.  Unfortunately for me, Governor's did not webcast their games, so I was reliant on text reports from some of the dads who would be attending.  The first game of the weekend tournament was against Governors.  I had gotten a few texts from Rick Rivera,  Jake's dad.  They were generic updates.   I remember, I was driving home and my phone rang.  I thought, "uh oh".

Xavier Nady and Max 
"He's ok, but Max took a hit to the head and he's down".  It was Rick.  I knew as soon as I saw his name on my phone screen there was something wrong.  He proceeded to tell me in as calm a voice as he could that Max had taken a hit and it took a while to get him off of the ice.  He continued to assure me he was ok.  

As it turns out he was significantly downplaying the incident.  He didn't want to scare or upset me.  I started to get calls from other parents, from the coach, from the trainer, from the hospital.

Here is what happened.  Late in the first period Max had passed the puck and attempted to avoid a finishing check from an opponent near the boards just past his team's bench area.  No one was really watching because the puck and the play was now going the other way.  As he tried sidestepping the check apparently he stepped on the players stick blade and lost his footing just as the opponent hit him…He went hard head first into the boards.

He lay there motionless, out cold for some time and then went into a seizure.  As people realized what was going on the appropriate parties acted.  The trainer from Governors and a nurse tended to him first.  I was not there so what I know was related to me by parents and Max's coach, Pat Norton.  Pat told me that what followed was the scariest thing he's witnessed in all his years of hockey.  

So, there was the violent hit and collision with the boards, there was the loss of consciousness and then there was the seizure.  I'll let you read the letter below to get a better of sense of what transpired.  One of Max's teammates was a kid named Chad O'Brien.  Chad's Dad, Toby O'Brien was a scout for the New York Islanders at the time. He's now with the Buffalo Sabres.  I just now found out that Chad Ruhwedal was Toby's guy.  He noticed Chad at Umass-Lowell three years ago.  What a small world.

Toby was watching the game with a friend of his, Chris Hamel.  Chris is a firefighter in Haverill, Mass and an amateur scout for the Minnesota Wild.  

Here is the letter Toby sent to the GM of the Minnesota Wild:

December 21, 2009

Mr. Chuck Fletcher
Minnesota Wild General Manager


I hope this letter finds you well and you and your family preparing for a great Holiday Season!

It is not often that we take the time to follow up on something that needs to be brought to people’s attention.  Often times the good deeds of many go unnoticed while the negative is often pushed to the forefront and dwelled upon.

As a scout with the New York Islanders I, like many road warriors, was making the Holiday traditional New England Prep School swing.  Over the past year, I have become good friends with Chris Hamel (who I met through another first class member of your staff in Brian Hunter).  At this particular game at the Governor’s Academy I was with Chris as both a fellow scout and the father of a player in the game we were covering.

Late in the first period on a solid hit along the boards, a player, Max Balaban of Tilton School and teammate of my son was checked hard into the wall.  He had gone low to avoid the hit and in turn his head was driven hard into the wall.  As Max went down it was clear that he was “out.”  He was motionless on the ice for a short period of time.  Within seconds Max began to go into an obvious seizure on the ice.  The trainer at Governor’s went on the ice, but this was getting bad!  

Chris without hesitation looked around and seeing no other member of the crowd making any motion towards that area, gave me his stuff and ran to the door and “TOOK OVER THE SCENE”!!!  He stayed with Max as he went through the seizure and until he regained consciousness which lasted 3-5 minutes.  When he did, he became violent and had to be controlled.  Again, Chris maintained the player and directed everyone around them.  

The scene was something I had only seen once at a game in person in my 43 years.  He directed the coaches to have the kids leave the ice / benches and maintained control until EMT’s in this rural town arrived.  

As the game began, 45 minutes later, Chris who has I am sure seen a lot in his years as a Massachusetts Fire Fighter, was so shaken he just had to go home.  But he called me and we kept in touch to follow up on Max’s condition throughout the night.

Yesterday in the final games of the tournament, Chris took the time to call and speak to Max’s Dad who lives in San Diego, to fill him in on everything that went on during that 30-40 minute period so as proper follow up could be done.

Max was transported to the Hospital where he was kept until Sunday afternoon.  They felt it was okay for him to fly last night and he traveled home.  He is seeing a Neurological Specialist in California now.

I got this message from his Dad this morning, “Max got home safe last night.  Thanks for everything and please thank your buddy for us again.  It now sounds like he probably saved Max’s life.”

There are a lot of people making millions of dollars in this game and in sports and others who work hard and try and make a small difference in our organizations.

I am a very good friend of your old Pittsburgh neighbor Lou Longo. Lou always told me you were a first class guy and with people like Chris working for you, it is obvious that you are building your organization with similar people.

Chuck, this weekend Chris made a HUGE difference as a human being!

Thanks and have a Merry Christmas!

Toby O’Brien
New York Islanders
Parent of Chad O’Brien (Max’s Teammate)

CC: Brent Flahr
Tom Thompson

So that was what happened.  A few other things I found out.  In the midst of it all, Chris had one of Max's team mates who was not dressed for the game, Morgan Weiterer, come down on the ice and be there to console Max.  Morgan was a calming influence and lent familiarity to the situation for Max. Morgan was another California kid. It wasn't until Max was in the ambulance on the way to the ER that he actually came to and knew what was happening.  It took about 45 minutes for the ambulance to arrive with the emt's. Soon after the hit, both teams were sent to their locker rooms.  They didn't want the boys watching what was happening on the ice.  They waited nervously and when they could they restarted the game.  Fired up, Tilton went out and won the game...for Max.

We were on the phone with another dad, Rick McMenimem for much of the night. Rick made sure that things went smoothly at the hospital.  His wife is an RN.  The hospital was running tests, but concluded that it would be ok to send Max home that night.  Rick and his wife were adamant and helped me convince the hospital to keep him overnight for observation.

Fortunately, the violence of the hit and the event surrounding the immediate situation was much worse than the actual damage to his head.  The tests all came back negative.  By the next morning Max felt "fine".  He had none of the typical symptoms associated with concussions.  No headaches, no blurred vision or nausea.  He was able to fly home that Sunday night and he spent the entire winter break taking it easy.  He was not allowed to skate.  No reading or exercise.  So he hung out, slept as late as he felt like it.  No pressure to do anything.  A perfect vacation.  Of course, he would have rather been going out, hanging out with his buddies, skating and working out.  He never once complained of any effects from the concussion.  He, we...were all extremely lucky.

This was just about the time that the world really started taking concussions seriously, so he got the best care, the best treatment and the right amount of precaution.  In my day I suffered more hits to my head than I can count.  It was not a big deal.  You played if you could.

When Max was a peewee, we watched as one of our friends, Dan Comrie, was forced to retire from hockey at the ripe old age of 17 or 18 due to too many concussions.  Dan had a promising future in hockey. As a junior in high school he'd already been offered a full ride and had committed to Denver.  He was a force in the USHL.  And then it was over.  Just like that.  So we know how serious this can be.  

The day he got home I was out talking to my neighbor.  We lived across the street from Xavier Nady.  Xavier started his professional baseball career with the San Diego Padres and bounced around the major leagues for many years.  Here is his biography.
Xavier came over and met Max and shared his own concussion experiences.  He'd been beaned pretty badly at one point in his career.  I'm not sure if he's playing this year.  Last year he was with the Washington Nationals and finished with the San Francisco Giants.

Max and His Buddy Schmiddy hanging out in
the man cave
Max was out of the woods injury-wise.  We got him, and made him wear one of those Mark Messier M11 helmets for the rest of the season at Tilton.  He had a number of appointments with the neurologist to evaluate and test him.  Tilton, like many other schools and sports teams, has their student/athletes take a "concussion" test before the season to set a baseline.  Then, if and when an injury occurs the player then retakes the test to compare to the baseline.  What I learned from all this is that the players often "throw" the initial test to set an artificially low baseline.  Kids today!  

So after a two week break at home for Christmas, Max headed back to New Hampshire.  Tilton was playing in a New Years week tournament at Tabor in Massachusetts.  Max would have to sit out that weekend until he had the chance to retest with the Tilton trainer and have another appointment with their preferred neurologist in New Hampshire.  Once done he was cleared to participate again.

Crisis averted.  Damage done, but not nearly as bad as it seemed or as it could have been.  My biggest fear, besides his general well being, was that his career would be over, or at least his season would end in the middle.  This was a critical time for being productive and having a good senior season.  He picked up the reins and continued his season the following weekend.  He barely missed a beat.  A few games into his comeback and he took another head shot that broke his M11 helmet...He was fine.  I was out another buck thirty or so.  At least New Hampshire doesn't have sales tax.  Live free or die!  Or as they say in the land of anything goes, such as no motorcycle helmet free AND die!

This is how practiced ended this day
at Tilton
I, on the other hand, had my next surgery a few days after Max went back to school.  This would be my sixth spinal surgery due to all the pounding I took over the years.  A few weeks later I would come back to New Hampshire to recuperate and watch him while I could.  I spent the next three weeks with my friend, Doug Hentz, on Lake Winnepesaukee.  I made it to all the games during that period.  I hung out with Coach Norton's dad, Bob Norton for a good deal of the time.  Bob is well known to many in the New Hampshire and New England area.  He was the voice of Hockey East for the New England Sports Network.  He also coached with Charlie Holt at UNH.  Charlie Holt is the father of my friend and former Uconn teammate, Brad Holt, who I've mentioned previously.  Not many degrees of separation there.

We continued to keep the D1 dream alive.  There would always be more summer showcases and then junior hockey...and then another year of junior hockey.  #21yearoldfreshmanproblems

I'll relate some of the highlights of my stay next chapter.

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