NHL star on sports concussion: Be aware, get tested

concussionJason Zent, a retired professional hockey player, has witnessed a dramatic shift in concussion awareness since the start of his professional career in 1995. Though awareness of how a concussion impacts an athlete’s health has improved, Zent is on a mission to continue to raise awareness and promote baseline testing.

Zent played hockey in high school at The Nichols School in Buffalo and for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but concussion was not talked about during his high school and college playing days.

“The first time I heard about concussion and baseline testing was in 1995—my first year as a pro with the Ottawa Senators.” The National Hockey League (NHL)  in 1997 was the first professional sports organization to require pre-season baseline testing to measure neurocognitive skills, including verbal and visual memory, processing speed and reaction time. This type of test provides an objective yardstick to measure an athlete’s recovery if a concussion occurs.

Still, change was gradual. Players, Zent included, didn’t completely understand what a concussion meant or how it could impact their health.

In fact, when Zent suffered his first on-ice concussion, the league had not yet instituted a seven-day, post-concussion rest period. Instead, the team doctor checked in on him periodically during and after the game.

Zent suffered two additional concussions during his career. The second illustrates the advantages of baseline testing as well as the gaps in NHL policy during the late 1990s.

Concussion baseline testing

“After my last concussion, I felt fine after seven days, so I was surprised when I failed my baseline test. When I came back to the rink, the coach told me to get ready to leave for our road trip. He knew I had failed the test, but he called the team doctor and told the doctor what he needed to hear, so he could clear me to play by phone.” Zent had not yet passed that baseline test.

When physicians are employed by the team, as is the case with the NHL, the incentive is to clear an athlete to return to play as fast as possible. “It’s never a leisurely recovery for a professional athlete,” admits Zent. “Players are hurried back after a broken bone, but an x-ray provides a clear image of healing. It’s much harder to discern when a player has recovered from a concussion. Baseline testing is a good starting point to help prevent an athlete from returning to play too soon.”

Zent acknowledges that policy and awareness have come a long way in a short time, but there’s still work to do. “Players are getting bigger, faster and stronger. Concussions are going to happen. We need to be aware of how a concussion affects an athlete in the short- and long-term and encourage baseline testing for all athletes.”

Make an appointment for baseline testing at The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention.