Of all the hockey injury comeback stories that arise every year, I gravitate to ones that involve officials. Here's hoping that longtime NHL linesman Thor Nelson, who has been unable to work the last two years because of post-concussion syndrome, is able to return the ice this upcoming season.
Thor is a tough guy but concussions are no trifling matter, especially when the symptoms linger. It can be debilitating. The veteran of over 1,000 NHL games and two Olympic tourneys has not been able to work since late Dec. 2013; a few weeks after being concussed. He tried to work through blurred vision, headaches and other symptoms until it became unbearable.
As with many athletes, Thor's concussion symptoms were cumulative. He had multiple concussions during his career -- officials can get them just as easily as players after getting struck by a puck, involved in collisions, when accidentally struck while breaking up a fight, etc. -- and it got to a point where the after-effects made it impossible to do his job.
After a long period of time where simply trying to work out was a trigger for agony -- and even light skating was out of the question much less intensive skating -- Thor slowly recuperated. He is now said to be at a point where he is symptom-free and can attempt a comeback in earnest.
I am hoping like hell that Thor makes it back to the NHL ice. It would be nice if his dedication and perseverance have a tangible reward. More than even that, however, I simply wish all my officiating and playing brethren a normal quality of life long after they take off the uniform for the final time.
Concussions are insidious. I know from personal experience. I returned to work through 26 concussions -- that I know about -- during my playing and officiating careers but the after-effects can be horrible. I wouldn't wish some of what I've gone through on anyone.
I am glad that the science -- and awareness within hockey-- of concussions has improved in the years since I played and officiated. Where concussions were concerned were (sometimes literally) in the Dark Ages, especially in my playing years. It has only been years later that many learned we did ourselves no favors by sacrificing quality of life to tough it out on the ice when we "got our bell rung."
Of all the compelling aspects of the Thor Nelson story, the most heartening is that he now feels well enough again to be in position to make a serious push for an NHL comeback. Stepping back on the NHL ice again and resuming his career would be some mighty sweet icing on the cake but the good fight he's fought deserves our recognition regardless of what happens.
************************************************************************ Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Today, Stewart serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) at both the Division 1 and Division 3 levels.
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.