Sponsored by Scoreboard Enterprises
By BOB YORK
Paige Decker and Josephine Pucci share a few things in common. Both excelled as three-sport athletes at New England Prep School Athletic Council schools … both saw their collegiate hockey careers cut short due to concussions … both, as a result, are now determined to shine more light on what is known as “The Invisible Injury.”
In an attempt to create more answers and less questions about concussions and the carnage they can leave in their wake, Decker and Pucci teamed up with Danny Otto, another collegiate hockey player who suffered a career-ending concussion, to create the Headway Foundation in November 2016.
The foundation’s goal, which is spelled out on its website’s home page, “is to insure concussions are handled properly, beginning with prevention and symptom reporting and continuing with treatment, support and recovery.”
Decker starred at Westminster School (’10) and Yale University before her career was cut short early in her senior season (November 2013) when she suffered a concussion as well as an accompanying whiplash injury. “My concussion healed relatively quickly,” said Decker, “but I struggled for years to reach a full recovery because many doctors completely overlooked the whiplash.
“I felt like I owed it to myself and to all the other people struggling out there to try and make sure that nobody goes down the same path I did,” said Decker, who was named Westminster’s MVP her senior season after a team-high 30 points helped lead the Martlets to the 2010 Division I NEPSAC ice hockey title. “I would not wish what I’ve been through upon my worst enemy.”
During her rehabilitation – which took Decker to more than 50 healthcare professionals throughout the United States and Canada – she finally found the help she needed at a physical therapy center near Toronto that dealt with neck injuries and its staff was cognizant of the fact that such injuries – including whiplash – are often associated with concussions. It was during her quest for a successful recuperation that she and Pucci, who had passed concussion protocol by this point, began comparing notes on their injuries and recoveries.
Up until this juncture, the two had been long-time adversaries in the prep and collegiate athletic arenas. Pucci attended archrival Choate (’09) before taking her game to Harvard University and was a member of the 2014 Olympic silver-medal winning United States women’s hockey team. Prior to her senior season at Harvard, however, she suffered a concussion (August 2012) while playing in an exhibition game with the Women’s National Team.
“I knew right away it was a concussion because I’d had a couple others and I could tell this one was pretty significant,” Pucci told Martin Kesler in an interview following the injury. “I returned to Harvard in September for my senior year but after just one week of classes, I found myself confined to a bed.
“I stayed there for an entire week,” remembers Pucci, who was voted Choate’s MVP her junior and senior seasons after helping lead the Boars to the 2007 New England Championship and the 2008 Founder’s League title. “I went to a doctor in Boston and she basically told me, ‘you need to leave school, not play hockey and just focus on recovering.’”
Pucci’s road back eventually took her to a clinic in Atlanta where she began a recovery effort that would allow her to participate in the 2014 Olympic Games. While in Atlanta she not only began to mend, but also discovered a new passion in life. During her rehab, the psychology major began noticing the joy her fellow patients were exhibiting in recovering from their concussions and it ultimately inspired the now 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army to apply to medical school, where she is currently a first-year med student at the F. Edward Herbert School of Medicine of the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md.
“Concussion awareness is improving, but many people still don’t know what to do when they get one,” said Otto, who sustained his concussion and whiplash complications while playing for Yale in 2011 and was forced to withdraw from school during his final semester. “The foundation advocates an interdisciplinary approach to treatment, centered on a “quarterback,” a medical professional who coordinates care across different specialists and health-care professionals,” Otto told Evan Frondorf in an interview.
“Headway is also working to change the culture around concussions with its ‘New Tough’ pact,” added Otto, who played for Yale after captaining the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League and still resides in New Haven where he now works in the school’s investments office. “It does so by asking athletes to pledge to report concussion symptoms as soon as possible. The ‘old toughness’ was that you should play through it like any other injury. This is a way to change the mindset … it requires more mental toughness to pull yourself out of the game if you suspect something isn’t right.”
Decker, who is a client solutions manager for Facebook in Los Angeles, emphasized the need for “New Tough” in her Concussion Blog by pointing out that according to the Center for Disease Control there are two worrisome trends on concussions: even with the recent attempts to publicize the seriousness of concussions, approximately 69 percent of student/athletes are still neglecting to report possible concussion symptoms. The second trend is the overall increase in studies highlighting the risks posed to athletes who continue to play with head injuries.
Headway isn’t simply promoting “New Tough” on its website and blogs, however. It has taken its fight to the battleground: the rink. For the third straight year the foundation has sponsored a Concussion Awareness Weekend. This year’s promotion was held Feb. 1-2, during which Headway partnered with a number of NEPSAC boys and girls teams, as well as the 24 men’s and women’s teams representing the Eastern College Athletic Conference, plus other standbys as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and the National College Hockey Conference.
“The two major goals of our awareness program are to help athletes prevent concussions and if they do occur, to help them to be cognizant of their side effects,” said Decker, who has not only been mindful of concussions as a player but as coach as well. She headed up the girls hockey program at The Gunnery (2016-17), “and as a coach, I always put the health of my players first and foremost … I’d never ask them to play if they didn’t feel right.
“Although hockey is an aggressive sport,” added Decker, “we speak to its cultural side in an attempt to prevent concussions and urge players to avoid illegal hits to the head and neck area. And, if one should occur, or you suspect one has occurred, we urge them to be mindful of their side effects of concussions, the most common of which are headaches, blurred vision and nausea.”
“Participating in ‘New Tough’ gives the kids an opportunity to play for something much bigger than themselves,” said Williston Coach Christa Talbot-Syfu, who is also the president of the New England Prep School Girls Ice Hockey Coaches Association. “It’s a real conversation starter as far as concussions and their prevention are concerned.
“Every year, more and more prep teams are getting involved in these games,” added Talbot-Syfu, whose Williston squad squared off against Berkshire School in one of the ‘Awareness’ pairings. “Prior to the game we talk to the players about concussions and about being able to detect and report symptoms they might be suffering from as well as being able to detect them in a teammate who might have suffered a concussion. To me, the highlight of the ceremonies is when the players take the pledge to be more aware of concussions and to report any symptoms as soon as possible.”
In addition to Williston and Berkshire, other NEPSAC schools whose boys and girls teams participated in this year’s concussion awareness program included St. Paul’s, Choate, Loomis Chaffee, Greenwich Academy, Pomfret, Kent, Gunnery, Vermont Academy and Millbrook.
“We’re thrilled to see the growth and participation of so many hockey teams during our third annual Concussion Awareness Weekend, more than 4,500 student-athletes took the New Tough pledge this year” said Decker, whose foundation helped promote the cause by issuing Headway stickers for all prep and collegiate skaters to put on their helmets. “The sheer number of athletes rallying behind this campaign is a testament to the progress being made about the proper ways to handle concussions, and we are just grateful to be involved.
“Our goal over the next two to three years is to have representation from every men’s and women’s collegiate hockey conference in the country,” added Decker, who in addition to the ECAC, WCHA and NCHC, welcomed teams representing three more college conferences to the foundation this year: Hockey East, New England Small College Athletic Conference and Atlantic Conference.
This year’s head count also included an ever-increasing number of NEPSAC teams, as well as junior hockey clubs, but the application process no longer stops at the collegiate level. This year, professional hockey made its debut as teams from the East Coast Hockey League took part.
Concussions in sports have long been a topic of conversation – with football taking center stage. A study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine examined the occurrence of sports-related concussions at the college level in 25 NCAA sports, from the 2009-2010 school year, to the 2013-2014 school year.
That data was collected and reviewed by the NCAA Injury Surveillance Program as well as calculated to determine national estimates. There were 1,670 reported sports-related concussions, with an estimate of 10,560 nationally each year. Of the 25 sports examined, men’s ice hockey had the second largest concussion rate at 7.91 concussions per 10,000 exposures, while women’s ice hockey was third at 7.50. Men’s wrestling (10.92) was first, while, surprisingly, football was fourth at 6.71.
Headway’s founders haven’t attempted to achieve these goals by themselves, however. The foundation has stacked the deck against this injury by recruiting numerous people for its board positions who have run the gamut of experience on concussions … from those who have suffered them to those who treat them.
Among those who have joined the fight are four board members who, like Decker and Pucci, hail from NEPSAC schools. Those four are: Zac Hamilton (Westminster), Nic Pierog (Canterbury), Alexis Banquer (Kent) and Liz Mullarney (Covenant of the Sacred Heart).
“I never really thought much about concussions until I was diagnosed with one and it pretty much turned my life upside down,” confessed Hamilton, who, as a goalie at Colgate University, admitted “I started getting concussion symptoms before I ever really suffered any severe hits. I wasn’t very big (5-11), so I think those smaller hits I received here and there throughout my career finally caught up with me in January of my sophomore year.
“It took me four or five months to get back on the ice but I had to sit out my entire junior season before I adequately recovered,” added Hamilton, whose efforts to make it back and his performance once he returned for his senior year resulted in him receiving Colgate’s Coaches Award as well as being named to the ECAC All-Academic Team for a second time.
Hamilton highlighted a four-year prep career at Westminster by being elected team captain his senior year and followed that up by being named the team’s MVP after posting a stingy .911 save percentage.
“I got involved with Headway my junior year at Colgate … during its first ECAC Concussion Awareness Weekend,” said Hamilton. “Being sidelined with a concussion, my coach asked me if I’d like to be the team representative and I’ve been working with Headway ever since. It’s really proven to be a great opportunity for me … I was able to relate to my teammates what I’d been through as far as concussions and rehabilitation were concerned. ”
Hamilton, who majored in cellular neuroscience and currently works as a health care consultant in Boston, serves as director of Headway’s media relations and spends much of his free time talking with and offering support to other athletes who are suffering from concussions and their accompanying side effects.
As for Pierog, who averaged more than a point per game during a two-year career at Canterbury by notching 61 points over 58 games on 21 goals and 40 assists, he’s still putting pucks in opponents’ nets. He is currently playing for the Manchester Monarchs of the ECHL, where he has chalked up 27 goals and 18 assists for 45 points in 55 games this season. In fact, those lofty stats have also allowed Pierog to log some playing time in the American Hockey League this winter while on loan to the Providence Bruins.
“I owe the sport of hockey a great deal and having been a representative of Headway at Clarkson (University) and watching the foundation grow has allowed me to feel as though I’ve been able to give something back to this game,” said Pierog.
“I was Headway’s team rep at Clarkson for three years,” added Pierog, who is a rarity among the foundation’s ranks as he signed up before suffering a concussion.
“It’s been really rewarding for me to help promote this foundation and to help navigate athletes who have suffered concussions through the ups and downs of what can sometimes be both a long and difficult recovery period,”
Pierog hasn’t shunned his representative responsibilities now that he’s on the professional level either, as he’s not only making the Monarchs aware of concussions, he’s spreading his knowledge to at least two other ECHL teams, as well.
“In addition to working with the Monarchs, I’ve got some good friends playing on the Maine Mariners and the Adirondack Thunder,” said Pierog, “and through them I’m trying to spread the word throughout the ECHL”
As for the other two former NEPSAC athletes on the Headway board, Banquer, who is a junior at Wesleyan, played hockey and lacrosse at Kent and is doing the same for the Cardinals. The fact that she has suffered three concussions has likely played a role in her pursuing a career in medicine. She is majoring in neuroscience and psychology and is currently researching human memory at the school.
Mullarney, meanwhile, attended Georgetown after graduating from Sacred Heart and suffered a concussion her senior year while practicing on the sailing team. She graduated in 2016 and began working on Wall St., before suffering a second concussion. She was forced to take a leave of absence to recover and has used that time to spread the medical knowledge she finally found.
For more information on the Headway Foundation, check out its website at http://headwayfoundation.com
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