The chill in the October air was apparent. A white cloud of breath escaped from Rams goaltender Ally Sarna’s mouth as she skated back to her net with her helmet and game face on. This was her first game back after recovering from her second shoulder surgery. Returning to the ice just before Halloween in 2016, Sarna had her head in the game.
It wasn’t long before a shot from the slot rang off Sarna’s helmet. “If you ask any goalie how it feels to get hit in the head, it never feels good but, more often than not, you end up being fine,” said Sarna.
Despite a constant ringing in her head and having a hard time focusing, Sarna continued to play as her adrenaline took charge. “I remember sitting in my room between periods convincing myself that I was okay and that it was just a routine shot to the head,” she said. So she went out for the second period.
With two minutes left in the game, Sarna realized something was wrong. She was able to get the word out to the bench that she was not okay.
“The next thing that I can clearly remember was not being able to tell the two teams apart,” she said. “I had no clue what was going on.”
That was her fifth and final concussion playing hockey. She hasn’t stepped on the ice since.
According to the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, a concussion can occur from a blow to the head or body that causes the brain to move rapidly back and forth within the skull. This sudden movement can create chemical changes in the brain, sometimes stretching and damaging brain cells. The effects of a concussion can be serious and may affect the victim’s life for good.
Women’s hockey is traditionally non-contact. It’s the most noticeable difference between the men’s and women’s games. Despite the rule, the Rams have racked up multiple serious injuries, including nine concussions this season.
It’s the most injury-laden season that Rams goaltender Sydney Authier has seen.
Authier, who currently is in recovery for a concussion of her own, was there with Sarna when she got off the ice that day. She said she remembers having to strip Sarna from her uniform and gear. Sarna vomited shortly afterwards.
“I remember not being able to catch my breath,” Sarna said. “[I was experiencing] a lot of shaking, lethargy, and there was this fogginess,” said Sarna.
When she regained some physical stability, Sarna asked Authier asked if the score was still 1-1. It wasn’t. Authier had to tell her it was 4-1 in the second period, that she had let in three goals in the second period. Sarna said to this day she has no recollection of that happening.
Helmets became mandatory for all new NHL players in 1979-1980 seasons, but players who were already in the NHL could continue playing without one. According to the book From Hockey to Baseball: I kept them in stitches by Ken Carson with Larry Millson, there are fewer recorded head injuries post-helmets in the league and that seems to factor in the way athletes are playing. With helmet mandates trickling down from the professional leagues, the game has changed
Helmets are not meant to prevent concussions, but avoid any bumps, cuts, and cracking of the head. If a player is hit in the head strongly enough, current helmet technology cannot hold back the brain from shaking or impacting the skull.
“They [Ryerson sports therapists] take any head contact very seriously, so the minute you get hit in the head or have the slightest headache, they like to take precaution,” said Authier. She has had two concussions in her Ryerson career. Her last one on was on Jan. 4, after getting hit in the head with pucks during practice.
Under the Ontario University Athletics’ (OUA) Student-Athlete Health Protection Policy, teams are only mandated to exclude a player from athletic activity for the remainder of the day on which they sustained injury, but Authier has not been on the ice for a month.
“This is the worst one I’ve had in my career,” Authier said. “I think each time they get a little worse. This one is just dragging on,” she said.
Despite her injury, Authier said it’s important to stay active while experiencing concussion-related symptoms to accelerate recovery.
On top of her physical health, Authier said her coach and sports therapist urged her to seek help outside of the locker room, and has seen a counsellor. She has been recovering with the Rams’ medical team, exercising daily on a stationary bike as a means to monitor her symptoms as her heart rate increases.
“Being out of your sport is tough, it takes a toll on your mental health,” said Authier. To Authier, sitting out for the last month has been difficult. She said she misses being a part of the jokes in the dressing room and the feeling of being on the ice, but she tries to stay as involved as she can.
“I have seen people have to retire from their career young, and I don’t want to see that for myself,” said Authier.
One of those young retirees is Sarna.
After a recovery process spanning seven months, Sarna said she sat down with her family, coaches, and doctors to discuss her future with hockey. Returning to the game as a goalie wasn’t an option.
“Everyone around me saw my quality of life decrease with this concussion, and no one — including myself — was willing to see me risk everything and go through it again with the next hit,” said Sarna.
Although the ordeal began over a year ago, Sarna said she still deals with permanent issues caused by her last concussion.
“It was the hardest decision I have ever made,” Sarna said. “I had spent almost everyday of my life emerged in the game since I was eight years old.
“I felt betrayed by the game for a bit.”
As her concussion symptoms continued to linger, Sarna said she started to experience panic attacks. She also said the year went by as if she was blacked out the entire time, trying to piece together the puzzle after the fact, often missing what was going on around her.
She’ll likely never set foot on the ice as a player again, but has found a new role in hockey. The Rams offered Sarna a role as a goaltending coach this season, her senior year, to be around the team.
Sarna said her new role has made the decision to quit playing hockey easier, but that she still misses playing the game.
“I don’t think that feeling will change for a long time,” said Sarna.
As an “invisible” injury still not fully understood in the medical world, Sarna said that a concussion is not a sign of weakness, and no will and desire can help heal it.
“You only have one brain,” Authier added, “Take care of it.”
Sarna and Authier may have been hit to the head one too many times, but no matter what position they are in — whether they are sitting out, playing, or coaching — they will always have their heads in the game.