In the days and weeks after Brad Gushue slipped and hit his head on the ice at a Grand Slam event in October, the jokes came fast and furious.
He received good-natured pokes about his poor footing at nearly every event. People lined up to have their picture taken with the Newfoundland and Labrador skip, who was sporting a couple of dandy black eyes. The local newspaper drew a cartoon making fun of his pratfall. He even got requests to pose in a hockey helmet to draw attention to his slip.
But more than two months after the incident, Gushue’s injury is no laughing matter.
“I’m still feeling the effects,” he said. “I still get headaches.”
While he didn’t realize it at the time, the talented curler suffered a significant concussion, joining a long list of athletes from other sports who are dealing with post-concussion symptoms.
Concussions in curling? To some it doesn’t seem possible. Curling is the gentle sport of brooms and rocks and sliders and ice. Many still regard it as that game their grandparents play.
But times are changing. Once thought reserved for football and hockey players, head injuries are a real issue in curling, although concrete numbers are hard to come by. But rather than the players at the top of the sport, most of curling’s concussions come at the grassroots level.
A random survey of a handful of clubs across Canada showed that nearly every one had dealt with an accident involving a player who’d slipped and knocked their head against the ice.
I can attest to it first hand. Two years ago, while playing in a fun bonspiel at a Toronto-area club, a player on the next sheet was preparing to sweep. His back was to our sheet and a takeout shot clipped a guard, flew across and took this player’s legs out from under him.
His head wacked the ice with a horrible thud and blood began to flow. Paramedics were called and the man was carried off on a stretcher.
Thankfully, he wasn’t seriously hurt.
But this gentleman was lucky. In the Toronto area, there are at least two reports of curlers dying as a direct result of hitting their heads on the playing surface in the last year.
That’s right – deaths from curling head injuries. That’s how serious it can be.
“I wasn’t aware of the amount of people who fall and hurt themselves,” admitted Gushue. “Since the accident, I’ve heard all sorts of stories.”
It’s not always club players either. Gushue said Canadian champions Rick Folk and Cathy King both told him of hitting their heads on the ice.
Gushue’s fall was not typical in that he hit the front of his head. But where he did come in line with others who have fallen is that he didn’t give the injury much seriousness. He made a quick trip to the hospital and then came back and, remarkably, finished his game.
“I didn’t know the symptoms,” he admitted. “I think the adrenaline was just pumping. I wanted to get back to the game.
“I didn’t really know anything was wrong until I got back on the ice.”
It didn’t take him long to realize this was no little bump on the head.
If there was one good thing about his accident, it’s that it’s brought attention to the situation.
While far too many clubs have had to call 911 to assist a fallen player, there is no understanding of just how common head injuries in curling are.
One of the few formal studies was done for the Public Health Agency of Canada. Doctors D.K. Ting and R.J. Brison tracked curlers at three clubs in Kingston, Ont. Over a 10-year period, there were 66 curlers treated at two different hospitals for head injuries.
Dr. Shannon Venance is one person trying to shine some light on the problem. A curler and a neurologist at Western University in London, Ont., she’s seen players in her league fall and hit their heads and knows full well the impact causes serious injuries.
“Part of what I do as a neurologist is thinking about the brain and the safety of the brain,” she said. “No one ever intends to have a fall. But when you do, you tend to go backwards, fall back and the severity all depends on how heavy the head hits the ice.”
After one of their friends suffered a head injury several years ago, Dr. Venance and her team led a movement of players in their league to wear head protection on the ice. It’s something that has curiously been missing in curling but, in certain groups, shouldn’t be, she said.
“Broken bones will mend. You can’t fix a scrambled brain.”
The women began wearing the Ice Halo, a protective band that wraps around the head and puts a level of padding between the ice and the body. It wasn’t the most fashion-forward item, so the curlers dressed them up a bit, turning any sheepishness about wearing it into a fun adventure.
The Ice Halo was developed by Barbara Armstrong of Barrie, Ont., who came to her product through necessity. As a new curler, she took to the ice, slipped and fell, hitting her head and suffering a concussion.
Thankfully, Armstrong’s injury was not too severe and she returned to the ice a few weeks later. But she did so wearing her invention.
“I’m not sure if I would have ever curled again without it,” she said.
Over the years, she’s seen her business grow significantly. And, she’s added different styles, many of which look like hats, allowing some fashion sense.
“There is definitely reluctance to wearing it for some,” she said.
Since Gushue’s fall, her sales have risen dramatically as more and more people realize they are just one fall away from a serious injury.
Doug Flowers, who owns and operates Goldline, one of the game’s largest equipment companies, has seen a similar spike in sales since the Gushue injury.
The company’s line of Head First protective gear comes in styles that look like headbands, tuques or ball caps. But, he says, there is still an over-confidence among players who refuse to put on any such product.
“So many of us who curl, we played sports all our life and our feeling is that we don’t need a helmet because we aren’t going to fall,” Flowers said. “We just think it’s never going to happen to us.”
Flowers also said that the products that are available are good but probably still need to be better. He tried to have the Canadian Standards Association to certify his line but was turned down as the organization didn’t have a test standard for curling. The market is simply too small at this point.
He’d like to see that change and ensure that when people make the decision to wear something like a Head First hat, they know it will offer the proper safeguards. Right now, it’s the best line of defence.
Many at-risk groups wear bike or hockey helmets on the ice. Juniors, as well as some seniors and Special Olympians, are required to put them on at many clubs, although there is no provincial or national standard.
Curling Canada is beginning to discuss the issue, as are many provincial governing bodies and the World Curling Tour. There is also talk of a protocol for players injured in events like the Tim Hortons Brier or Scotties Tournament of Hearts, to prevent an injured player from returning to the ice. So far, though, there aren’t any regulations.
For Gushue, being the poster boy for head protection is something he doesn’t mind.
“It’s definitely opened up the conversation,” he stated. “I think there’s a stigma of wearing head protection and we have to make that go away. There’s this tough-guy image we have, that we’re never going to get hurt.”
Despite his fall, he doesn’t think he’ll be putting on a helmet or protective hat, but he does acknowledge there is a risk, no matter whether you’re a professional player or a first-year curler.
“I guess if it can happen to us, it really can happen to anyone.”