Red Deer Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin knew he was in trouble the day he picked up a hockey stick and trashed his garage.
He feels that a chat afterward with Red Deer counsellor Bob McKenzie may have saved his life.
Tears flowed down more than a few cheeks on Saturday afternoon as Wallin talked about his battles with brain injury, starting with his father’s suicide in 1994 — the same year he first played with the Rebels.
Wallin had already suffered a couple of concussions at the time, and they wouldn’t be the last, he told professionals, parents and people who had suffered brain injuries during a conference at Westerner Park.
The career ender happened while he was sniping for the Detroit Red Wings, who had picked him up a couple of years earler in the NHL’s first round of drafts.
An opposing player reached around from behind, slammed him in the chin with his stick, lifting him off his skates and landing him backward on the ice. It was a double trauma to the brain, which was still in motion from the first hit when the back of Wallin’s head hit the ice.
Wallin said he signed an autograph after the game. He remembered who he was, but couldn’t remember his number. Most of the next seven hours is still a mystery to him.
It was his sixth concussion.
Sitting down with McKenzie for counselling, Wallin was asked a question nobody had ever asked before.
“He said, ‘Jesse, have you ever taken the time to grieve the loss of your hockey career?’”
It was a game changer. Wallin learned with McKenzie’s guidance that his dedication to the game had filled in the hole left when he lost his dad. That understanding helped him come to grips with the emotional aspects of his physical injury.
With support from the Canadian Mental Health Association, he and his wife, Jennifer, put together an agenda for Saturday’s conference, Concussion: A Game Changer, to share some of the lessons they have learned and to bring together a pool of experts to talk about caring for people who have suffered a brain injury.
While plenty of work has been done to prevent head injuries, including updated rules and improved helment technology, people are still going to have concussions, said Wallin.
One of the biggest challenges they will face is that concussion is an invisible injury, which makes it more difficult for friends, family and co-workers to grasp the reasons for certain behaviours, such as a irritability and irrational ideas.
However, as surely as you can’t bench press with a broken arm, a broken brain can no longer perform as well as it did in the past, said Wallin.
Therefore, while every concussion is unique, everyone who has suffered a brain injury needs support through the recovery process, said Wallin.
Along with the help of his counsellor and other professionals, Wallin said Jennifer, who has a degree in psychology, played a key role in helping him work through his recovery.
Now 34, he feels healthy and restored. However, reflecting on the fate of fellow friends and hockey players who have suffered similar injuries, Wallin said he is not certain that the injury won’t come back to haunt him at some point in his life.
Saturday’s workshop received financial support from a variety of Red Deer individuals and businesses.
Please visit www.reddeer.cmha.ab.ca or call 403-342-2266 to learn more.