Bryan Little unsure of what his future in hockey will look like
Bryan Little remembers the final shift he took in the 2019-20 season, he hopes it doesn't come to be the final shift of his NHL career.
With 12:33 left in the third period of a 1-1 game against the New Jersey Devils on November 5, 2019, a Nikolaj Ehlers slap shot caught Little in the left ear, puncturing his ear drum and concussing him on the play.
"I just remember passing it back to the point. I don't know why, but I drifted behind the net maybe just trying to lose my guy. I lost sight of the puck and I was coming around the net and I felt it right away," Little said on a call when the media on Monday.
"I didn't know how bad it was until I got back to the dressing room. I went to stand up, felt dizzy and nauseous right away. I knew it wasn't good. The whole left side of my head was pretty numb and throbbing and in pain."
Still recovering from the horrific incident, Little is unsure when, or even if, he’ll be able to return to the ice and eventually the Jets lineup.
As much as Little would love to lace up the skates and go to battle with his brothers again, he realizes that his life as a son, as a husband and as a father is far more important that his life as a center on a talented Winnipeg Jets club.
“Some of the things the doctors were saying scared me a bit, it still does. The biggest thing I’m thinking about through this is having a healthy and long life and being cognitively all there when this is all over,” Little said. “Until I am told there’s not a lot of huge risk in coming back, it’s just waiting and hopefully a good amount of time will change things.”
As Little has gone through this whole process since November, there’s been a ton of ups and downs. His journey to where he is today has been a bit of a roller coaster.
"That's been the hardest thing throughout this whole process. I feel good, I feel fine. The recovery, there's not much I can do except time," he said. "You just have to wait it out and see how you're going to react. I feel good, it's just a matter of waiting to see how it goes."
In the days and weeks following that unforgettable November night, Little couldn’t do much. Through all the appointments with different neurologists, concussion experts, vestibular therapists and other doctors, Little couldn’t even drive himself, relying on his wife to get him from point A to point B.
“They told me I couldn’t even lift up my daughter for six weeks,” said Little. “For the first while it was just doing tests and seeing how it was looking and progressing. The biggest thing was making sure nothing was getting worse. Every time I was going into one of these I was hoping everything would look better. Obviously that wasn't the case. It wasn't getting better and it wasn't getting worse.”
In January Little was finally able to return to the ice, and as the days passed and signs continued to point to a return to game action for Little, he couldn’t pass the last test prior to be cleared for contact.
A tip to Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic provided Little with news he certainly did not want to hear. It was news that put an end to his season prematurely.
"I had one more kind of test or appointment before I got cleared for contact. That was when I decided to go down to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and see another specialist there. That's when that testing led to some recommendations of not to play right now, and come back later for more testing at a later date,” recalled Little.
"To go from thinking you're almost back in the lineup to being shut down for the rest of the year was tough."
It was from that appointment the decision was made to have surgery to fix the ear drum, a disappointing ending to what was a disappointing season as a whole for Little.
Little suffered a concussion during the Jets preseason before playing in just seven regular season games. He had two goals and three assists in those seven games.
“Basically, it goes with the whole 2020 theme, everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” said Little. “It was definitely the toughest year of my career. I’ve tried my best to stay positive through the whole thing. That hasn’t been easy.”
Thankfully for Little, he has the enjoyment of his daughter to keep his mind off things and help him continue to focus on his most important job to date: being a father.
“It definitely helps coming home and seeing my daughter and spending time with her, taking my mind off everything,” he said. “Playing with my daughter definitely keeps my spirits higher.”
When a freak accident like this one occurs, it’s easy to look back and think about what you could have done differently to have avoided it. For Little, it’s what he could have wore differently.
“I kind of kick myself over how much those [ear guards] could have saved me. Where the puck hit me, it’s crazy, it didn’t even touch my helmet. It hit perfectly in that ear hole,” said Little. “I would recommend everyone wear them after what happened to me.”
With the COIVD-19 pandemic putting a pause on the 2019-20 season and ultimately delaying the start of the 2020-21 season until (hopefully) December, Little has the benefit of some extra time in his pocket to fully recover from his injury.
And if he can’t return to the game of hockey, don’t you dare call it a retirement.
“I don’t like using the word ‘retirement.’ I’d be done from injury,” said Little
“That’s been in the back of my head since it all happened, since the first doctor I talked to brought some things up. Especially talking with my family and wife, there’s going to be some decisions that have to be made about what’s next.”