There comes a point in every player’s career, whether you play at the elite level or you bear the late nights of a rec league, when you sustain an injury. It is inevitable in contact sports, a collision of bodies results in injury. If you are lucky, the collision is minor, and the game goes on, but in some instances a player goes down on the ice and for them it is a game changer.
By now we have all seen the video of Boston Bruins center Gregory Campbell, who broke his leg blocking a shot with his body during a power play in game 3 of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals. In case you missed it or want to relive the moment, you can watch it here. His courage and determination to rise up off the ice and play through excruciating pain is inspiring and downright insane. In Bauer’s words “Own the Moment”.
My game changing moment happened five minutes before the end of the game, on a long shift in the wee hours of Sunday night rec league. In a battle in front of the net, two players collided into the side of my knee as I worked to defend my zone. As their bodies bore down I heard the inevitable pop as my ACL gave way. I laid there on the ice and thought “I’m going to get up, but that felt wrong”. I continued to lay there and realized I wasn’t getting up. There was no way I was going to “own the moment”, no I was going to wallow in it. The game stopped and I was still there, laying on top of my crumpled knee. I got up and skated off on my own power to the locker room, in denial about the damage my knee had incurred despite the pain and swelling.
An ACL tear is the holy mother of sports injuries. Skiers, basketball players, soccer players, hockey players and even golfers are the most at risk for this type of injury due to the intense twist and plant motions required from the sport. Studies show that women are more likely to sustain an ACL tear than men when engaged in these sports. One reason for this may be the design of a woman’s hips and how that distributes torque across the joints of the leg. Some studies suggest that women rely more on their ligaments than their muscles in physical activities and another idea put forth is that different hormone levels in a woman’s body affects the strength of both ligaments and joints. Regardless of the reasons, sustaining an injury to the knee is no fun, and tearing the ACL more often than not requires surgery to fix if an athlete hopes to return to their chosen sport and compete. Unlike other ligaments in the knee, the ACL, once torn, does not heal on its own. Repairing a torn ACL is not really a repair, because the orthopedic surgeon cannot simply sew the torn ligament back together, it must be replaced and the knee re-engineered. Without getting into the nitty gritty, there are three main ways the ACL is replaced, two that use your own tissue and one that uses tissue harvested from a cadaver. No matter which option is chosen, the road to recovery is long and painful.
Some athletes choose not to have surgery to replace the torn ligament and in fact for many sports, running, biking and swimming, a functioning ACL is not necessary as long as the quadriceps and other support muscles are strong. I opted for surgery because I wanted to play hockey again at the same level of intensity and not worry whether my knee would give out during a shift. I wrestled with the idea of surgery at first. My knee felt close to normal a month after the initial injury and the thought of not being able to play hockey for a year weighed heavily on my mind. Not just hockey, but other physical activities like running and dancing would be off-limits for at least six months. ACL surgery was going to take away my life and my mind rebelled against the injury and the recovery. The toughest battle has been the mental torture of the injury, not the actual injury itself.
No matter what type of injury an athlete sustains, mental toughness is essential to their recovery. In Saul L. Miller’s book “Hockey Tough”, Peter Twist says “an injury in many ways is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to build problem solving skills and mental durability. It takes both commitment and mental toughness to tolerate the extreme efforts to get back to a world-class level.” Positive self-talk is key to a successful rehabilitation and getting back to the game. The mind can easily defeat you, planting seeds of doubt especially when the pain of the injury creeps in. Rehab can be daunting and the little victories must be celebrated, no matter how trivial they seem. As an athlete, I took for granted that my legs would know how to respond, take for instance contracting your quad muscles. Never did I think this would be so difficult but I literally didn’t know what to do. I had to mimic my good leg and celebrated the little movement I got. I have had to accept that I will have good days where progress will be made but also days where I may take more steps back than forward. Patience with the healing process is a hard pill to swallow, particularly for a high functioning athlete, but necessary if a full recovery is expected. I am allowing myself to cry, but I will not let my injury defeat me. This injury will make me a stronger athlete, a stronger person. I own this moment.