Sports

Lost in a daze: Career cut short by concussions?

Concussions have wreaked havoc in the life of former National and American Hockey Leaguer Michael Funk. - Abbotsford News
Concussions have wreaked havoc in the life of former National and American Hockey Leaguer Michael Funk.
— image credit: Abbotsford News

Dan Kinvig,

Black Press

Michael Funk could do without the dreams. He isn’t usually one to recall where his mind travels while he sleeps. But once a month on average, in that no man’s land between slumber and alertness, the Abbotsford native will realize he’s been dreaming about playing hockey.

For a second it’s a positive feeling, and then, reality.

After suffering four concussions in 14 months, the former Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks prospect has been advised by neurosurgeons and hockey managers that continuing his pro career could be detrimental to his long-term health.

The end of his career looms – at the age of 24.

In conversation, it quickly becomes clear that Funk is a man divided.

“I don’t want to risk the chance of being out of it, of being in that state anymore,” he says. “I’ve been in that state for long segments of my life, and I would never want to be like that for years, or longer.”

But: “I’ve still got my head wrapped around hockey.”

And: “As of right now, I’m not done.”

 

Promising prospect

 

In November 2006, during Funk’s first pro season with the AHL’s Rochester Americans, he was heading to the showers after a home game when Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier walked in and told him he had five minutes to get ready – he was going to The Show.

Less than 24 hours later, the former second-round draft choice pulled a Sabres jersey over his shoulder pads and hit the ice against the Ottawa Senators for his NHL debut.

In a post-game interview, he said he wasn’t sure whether or not he’d been dreaming.

The first concussion, in September 2008, was a freak accident.

On the first day of Sabres training camp, the lanky 6’4” defenceman was cruising around the net when he collided literally face-to-face with forward Patrick Kaleta. One of Funk’s good buddies with Rochester the previous two seasons, Kaleta had come flying in to bodycheck another player, but lost his balance.

Funk had never experienced even a minor headache prior to that play, but the concussion symptoms – mainly intense nausea to the point of vomiting – sidelined him for two months.

He worked his way back into the lineup with the Portland Pirates, Buffalo’s new AHL affiliate, but 13 games into his comeback, a Lowell Devils forechecker drove him face-first into the glass. Funk was out before he hit the ice. He woke up in an ambulance.

He tried to return later that season, but in his first full practice, he took a bump during one of the drills and fell backward. His head didn’t hit the ice, but the jostling of his skull was enough to resurrect the symptoms. Season over.

During his concussion convalescence, Funk would often wake up and pour himself a cup of coffee to clear the morning cobwebs. He’d finish his cup, and realize the fog hadn’t lifted.

“You just figure you’ll wake up one day and you’ll suddenly feel better,” he says. “But it’s a process. No listening to music, no reading a book – you can’t concentrate. You’re in a dazed state you don’t quite come out of.”

 

Fresh start

 

In the summer of 2009, Funk was a restricted free agent. The Sabres, concerned about the concussions, declined to make him a qualifying offer.

The setback turned into celebration in short order, as Funk landed a one-year, two-way contract with the Vancouver Canucks – the team he rooted for growing up.

Funk was gloriously symptom-free when he began the 2009-10 season with the Manitoba Moose, Vancouver’s AHL affiliate. He got off to a great start, posting seven points in his first 18 games. Even more encouraging, he took a thunderous hit in the corner in one of the early games, and bounced back up.

Game 19 was on the road against the Texas Stars. Funk had the puck along the side boards, with Stars forward Luke Gazdic bearing down on him. He took the hit to make the play. Skated to the bench. Minutes later, off to the dressing room. Game over.

The flight back to Winnipeg after the fourth concussion was among Funk’s worst moments.

“As soon as you get way up in the air, it feels like your head is going to explode,” he says, recalling the howling propellers of the charter aircraft. “It was an awful feeling. I felt like I was going to puke. I pretty much kept my head down the whole time.”

About a week before Funk’s last concussion, Moose head coach Scott Arniel had taken him aside and said if he continued to play well, he could expect a call-up to the Canucks.

In early January, Funk found himself back in Arniel’s office for a less upbeat chat. He had tried everything to shake the symptoms, from massage to treatments, but daily testing indicated he was recovering at a much slower rate than previously.

His season was done.

Medical staff, and Arniel himself, encouraged him to hang up his skates for good.

Funk originally planned to stay in Winnipeg for the balance of the season, but in March, he packed his bags and came home. With the playoffs approaching, it had become torturous to watch game after game from the press box.

He found work with his brother James, 28, building a new house on a former tree nursery property in Chilliwack. The house is almost finished now. The other day, Funk busied himself by cleaning out an old barn on the property.

“That was a brutal job, which brings me down to earth,” he says with a wry grin.

The headaches have faded, but Funk doesn’t quite feel like himself. Generally the laid-back type, he’s much more irritable.

“Little things happen, and I snap,” he says. “If I can’t find something, it’s ‘Where is that stupid thing?’ Whereas before, I’d just look for it. I get very frustrated.”

 

What now?

 

There was a time when he simply couldn’t envision life after hockey.

He’d sit down to ponder alternate career paths, but he’d never had a nine-to-five job – he’d been away from home since he was 16.

These days, Funk is gradually getting used to the idea of a new vocation. He’s done research on what it would take to become a realtor. It’s a job he’d be good at – he’s handsome, well-spoken, and personable to a fault.

But he’s loathe to invest a lot of time pursuing another profession when he’s still got an overwhelming itch to play hockey.

Funk’s NHL career has amounted to nine games, all with the Sabres between 2006 and 2008, and there’s a sense of unfinished business.

“Really, it feels like I’m in the Twilight Zone or something,” he says. “I feel like I should be playing hockey, but I’m not. It’s a weird feeling.”

The opportunity to suit up for a couple of beer league games in Abbotsford last October was too much to resist. Initially, it was exhilarating to be back on the ice. Funk joined up with a bunch of his old minor hockey buddies on a team called the Dynasty, and scored eight points in six games.

But the novelty quickly wore off.

“I haven’t gone to play in quite a while, because the last time I was there, I got a little upset,” he explains. “Some kid – I don’t know who he is – took a bit of a run at me, nudged me the wrong way. I didn’t snap, but I kind of told him he’d better watch it.”

A couple years ago, Funk and his dad bought a house in Chilliwack together.

They rent out the main house, and Funk lives in a carriage suite at the back of the property.

The hockey dreams – of the literal variety – leave him rattled when he wakes up.

Maybe he shouldn’t watch hockey on TV before he goes to bed.

“It’s weird – sometimes your dreams are very real,” he says. “Then you wake up and realize, oh. I’m in Chilliwack.”

As one of Canada’s foremost concussion experts, Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator is frequently the bearer of bad news.

“I have to do this almost weekly in my office – tell athletes their careers are over,” he said. “I recently had to tell a soccer player who’d had three concussions in about 12 months that she could not play again.

“It’s very tough, especially with young people. Some of them just break down in tears once they hear the news they can’t go back.”

All too often, patients don’t heed the advice.

Tator co-authored a paper last year on the issue of compliance – whether frequently concussed athletes do in fact follow doctor’s orders to call it quits.

“About one-third of them say thanks for the information, then leave your office and do the opposite,” he said. “It’s very tough to give up the roar of the crowd, the adrenaline surge and the love of the game.”

There’s so much at stake. The short-term danger is second-impact syndrome – acute swelling of the brain when a person sustains a second concussion before they’ve recovered fully from an earlier one. Long-term risks include increased incidence of memory loss, dementia, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease.

As to the scope of hockey’s concussion problem, Tator refers to another study he co-authored in 2010. Independent physician observers compiled data from two Ontario junior teams which indicated as many as 35 per cent of players might suffer concussions in a given season.

That’s the highest rate of concussion incidence ever recorded for hockey.

The current concern about concussions is, at least in part, a tribute to increased medical knowledge about brain trauma.

“They used to be called hangovers, not concussions,” said Abbotsford Heat head coach Jim Playfair, who played nine pro seasons. “I never had a medically documented concussion. But I’ve been knocked out, I’ve been woozy, I’ve been sitting on the bench with my head spinning, feeling like I want to throw up. I guess I know now that I had them, but I didn’t know back then.”

Diagnosing the cause of hockey’s concussion epidemic and prescribing a solution is complicated business.

There’s a persistent chorus that today’s players don’t respect one another like they did back in the good old days. Grainy video clips of epic stick-swinging battles might suggest otherwise, but Funk thinks there’s some merit to the notion.

“Some guys get it, some guys don’t,” he said. “There are always going to be third- or fourth-line guys who are playing for their job.”

Playfair points out that the rule changes coming out of the NHL lockout in 2004-05 essentially “took the speed limits off.”

“It’s not a clutch-and-grab slowdown game anymore,” he said. “It’s a matter of bigger bodies, more speed, and less ability to slow them down.”

Dr. Tator concurs.

“The forces on the brain from even a simple collision are much greater than they were,” he said.

Tator believes the culture of hockey must change.

In 2009, he made headlines for his criticism of CBC commentator Don Cherry, famous for his “Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em” highlight videos.

“There is a tendency, in some leagues and some areas, to over-emphasize hitting,” Tator said. “Sock ‘em, rock ‘em, disable ‘em. When it should be, respect your own brain and the brains of your opponents.

“The culture of the game can get out of hand. We need to stress skill, respect, sportsmanship.”

With concussions, Tator believes prevention is the closest thing to a cure. He’s a founding member of ThinkFirst, a national injury-prevention organization which seeks to educate people about brain and spinal cord injuries.

ThinkFirst initiatives include Brain Day, a program for elementary school students, and the Smart Hockey video, which promotes the attribute of respect as both a team-building attitude and an injury-prevention mentality.

A variety of concussion resources, from assessment tools to return-to-play guidelines, are also available on the website, ThinkFirst.ca.

 

Hitting home

 

Michael Funk’s concussion battle is hardly unique – both in terms of the sport at large, and within the Abbotsford hockey community.

The AHL’s Abbotsford Heat have had at least a half-dozen players sidelined by the dreaded head injury over the franchise’s two seasons of existence.

The saddest story belongs to Kris Chucko, a former first-round pick by the Calgary Flames.

After missing 39 games last season, he was concussed again just two games into the 2010-11 campaign, and hasn’t played since.

At the junior level, a series of local Western Hockey League players – Nathan Lieuwen, Kellan Tochkin, Ryan Kowalski, Joel Rogers, Scott Ramsay, Riley Boychuk – have been sidetracked to varying degrees. A pair of concussions likely cost Kootenay Ice goalie Lieuwen a shot at being an NHL draft pick in 2009.

 

Concussions in other sports

 

The concussion problem is hardly confined to hockey, nor is it limited to adults. A study published last year in Pediatrics, an American medical journal, estimated that concussions represent 8.9 per cent of all high school athletic injuries.

Girls are reported to have a higher rate of concussion than boys in similar sports. The reason for this is unclear. Theories point to weaker neck muscles in females, and the notion that male athletes may be more reluctant to report concussion for fear of removal from competition.

Another study estimated that between 2001 and 2005 in the United States, individuals in the age 8 to 19 range made roughly half a million ER visits due to concussion. Approximately half of those concussions were sports-related.

Ice hockey and football registered the highest concussion rates among organized team sports.

 

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