Shocks At The Heart of The Grey Matter

by Jas Faulkner, Nashville Correspondent

As I type this, I am sitting in a dimly lit room.  There is a sheer blue scarf over the screen of my netbook.  I am having an off day, which means I am dizzy, nauseated and very sensitive to light and noise.  Earlier today I got sniffly over the image of a young woman celebrating her graduation in a P!nk video.  This is where you can take a guess as to what is going on: Psychotic break?  Menopause?  Erratic blood sugar? Rockingpneumonia and the boogie woogie flu? Or I could just cut to the chase and tell you.

Consider it cut.   This is what happens when you sustain a light concussion.

I bring this up because not too long ago, some prominent hockey columnists posted on Twitter that they thought Boston Bruins’ center Marc Savard was faking the extent of his injury.

I beg to differ.

Savard’s injury has been diagnosed as a Grade 2 concussion.  In the months that followed the dirty, dangerous – and shamefully unaddressed by the NHL – hit from Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke, Savard has made an attempt to return.   Going back to active status proved to be  overwhelming (or maybe Dan Carcillo was just too tasty.)  Shifts on the ice were followed by days, no, weeks off of it as he recuperated.

What’s the big deal?  It was just a hard hit to the head.  Happens all the time.  Right?

In a sport rife with violence that would make Wile E. Coyote shake his head and say, “No thanks, bro.  I’m good!”  It is easy to see concussions as just another bump and bruise to be suffered.  Players stay on IR for a couple of weeks and then they’re ready to get back out there and take more punishment.   The reality of what a concussion is like is considerably different from what is shown on TV  or the movies.

It isn’t a superficial blow where there is cosmetic damage and some bruising.  The brain, which is pretty soft and spongy to begin with, is battered against the hard interior of the skull.  The results can differ based on the violence of the blow and the part of the brain that is affected. Severe trauma can lead to tissue damage while less violent shifts can, at the very least, cause radical changes in neurological function.

Savard has stated in interviews that he suffers from sensory hypersensitivity, depression, nausea and dizziness.  Out of all of those challenges, he has admitted that the toughest one  to deal with is depression.  This isn’t much of a surprise considering the “Walk it off!” nature of hockey and the general attitude towards illness that is engendered in being a man in the Western Hemisphere.   The ethos generally follows along the lines that there is no crying in hockey.  Let’s face it, Greztky’s trade tears and Ovechkin’s playoff losses notwithstanding, when was the last time you saw a grinder weep?

Been there,  done that, sort of…

Having written all of that, I have to add the qualifier that I have no idea what it’s like to be in Marc Savard’s head.  Aside from what he has revealed to reporters, I have no special insight into the specifics of his experience.

I do know what it was like when I had my own lights dimmed on October 5th of this year.  Let me change that, because the slang that is used to signify a concussion in sports reportage in general and the dialectics around hockey in particular minimize the true extent of the effect it can have on a player’s life.  Time to retire phrases like “getting your lights dimmed” and “scrambling your eggs”.   I’m not going to add to the problem by continuing to use those phrases here.

My hit was most likely nowhere near as hard as what Savard received.  I was in my studio, on the phone with a friend discussing screen printing when I tripped and pitched headfirst into the box of wood scraps I use for block printing.  The most ironic thing about it was that at the moment I tripped, I had just said something to the effect of  “This is where you really need to pay attention to detail.”

I was stunned but not really hurting just yet. Extremely disorientated, I crawled over to my phone and told Amy, the woman I was speaking with to keep talking to me.  As I pulled myself to my feet, there was the surreal sensation that any sense of up or down was completely gone.   My ears were ringing and I felt like someone was trying to pry loose the right side of my skull. Every time I moved my eyes, moved my head or just moved, my vision was occluded by what looked like someone throwing a handful of metallic confetti into a fan. I managed to make it to my sofa, where I sat, dazed as the ambient noise of my house was replaced by a dull roar that did not go away for what felt like a very long time.  Unable to do much more than sit and hope for the best, I waited for nearly an hour as my hearing and sight seemed to fade in and out and I struggled to keep upright and conscious, because it was the only way I felt like I would be okay.

For the next two weeks I sported a lump that actually exposed bare scalp as it pushed away the hair and a swollen bruised area that looked like I had taken eye makeup tips from a 1983  issue of “Bop!” magazine.  Happily, the outer damage healed quickly.  However, in the weeks that followed I was plagued by migraines, insomnia, and mood swings that made things pretty horrible for me and made me a nightmare to be around.  Every, and do mean EVERY, insecurity was magnified to the nth degree.  I felt like an outhouse rat with an orange juice can stuck over her ears.   I did not attend a practice or a game without a migraine until November 13th.

Shine on, Chatty!

Like many hockey fans, I am looking forward to seeing a healthy Savard in the Bruins’ lineup for the long haul.    The Savard whose public persona is one of a formidable foe on the ice and a sweet goofball behind the mic has been sorely missed.  Beyond the specifics of Savard’s current condition, it is fair to say that the fallout from this situation is far from over.  As more information is being released about the long range effects of concussions, the league continues to address the prospect of mitigating the real danger of permanent debilitation and the mechanization behind the NHL’s inaction continue to come to light; it is evident that the questions that will be answered go beyond “Alex or Sidney?” and “Will Miller get the cup?”.

I’m lucky in that, as a female, middle-aged artist and writer who happens to cover hockey as an important part of my work, the demands on me to man up in the face of an injury are fairly low.  The burden on Savard as the public face of what is not working in the NHL has been tremendous. It would be nice to think that, at some level, his experience might have provided some incentive for those who want to make the sport safer for future players and that this scarily close echo of Bill Masterton’s death will never happen again. It is arguable that  Cooke didn’t learn a thing from the experience, but hopefully the NHL did.

Jas Faulkner


  • Mark Willoughby

    Great article. First, so glad you are better. Concussions are nothing to take lightly. Second, as a former football player who had three concussions in his playing days, I can attest that the feeling is like none other. The disorientation and sense of not “being right” can last for weeks. Hopefully, the NHL and all sports leagues are starting to take the issue of concussions seriously and will appropriately punish the types of hits that Cooke and others dish out.