Sheilan Laing doesn’t like to talk about why he doesn’t play hockey.
Being unable to lace up his skates and get out there for a good skate – feeling the wind in his face as he picks up speed, hearing the crunch of his blades cutting into the ice and the sound of teammates and foes battling for the puck – not playing is a scar that runs deep with the 37 year old Chilliwack man.
When he thinks about why he’s not playing, old feelings bubble to the surface, and he relives the moment that forced him to the sidelines.
He feels frustration and anger as the images flash in his mind.
A playoff game in a men’s hockey league. A spirited battle along the boards. A vicious and totally unnecessary cross-check to the back of his head by an agitated opponent.
“I believe it was the final game of the final playoff series,” Laing says. “I was checking him along the boards, just working hard. I turned around to head off the ice for a line change, and guys from both teams say he hit me from behind in the head.
“I was knocked out before I even hit the ice.”
Laing doesn’t remember any of that.
Instead, he remembers sitting in the dressing room crying, and the anguish he felt knowing that he was concussed.
“It wasn’t even anger that I felt,” he says quietly. “That came later. What I felt in that moment was despair because I knew what I was going to have to go through everything all over again.”
Laing was no stranger to concussions before that terrible night.
He figures he started down that path in bantam. He was a smaller player then, learning to hit and be hit, and he remembers “seeing stars.”
“I was knocked unconscious twice in my first year of bantam,” he says. “But back then it was kind of, ‘Get your mind straight and get back out on the ice.
A few years later, after experiencing a significant growth spurt, Laing found himself playing junior B in Nelson.
He was hammered into the boards by an opponent and knocked out.
“I was probably out for a week or a week-and-a-half after that hit and I wasn’t feeling good whatsoever, but the team doctors said I was ready to go back in,” Laing says. “I told them I didn’t feel right, but it got to the point where the coach said, ‘If you don’t get back out on the ice, we’re going to be looking to trade you.’
“So I got back out there, and within the first 10 minutes of my first game I got flattened by a guy and was concussed again.
“Several of my teammates told me later that the coach was yelling, ‘Get up you pussy!’”
The Nelson coach was true to his word, trading Laing to the Castlegar Rebels soon after. Advised by a non-team affiliated doctor to stop playing hockey, Laing told Castlegar that he was walking away from junior B at 18 years old.
“At that point, I couldn’t even walk around without getting dizzy,” he says. “I had headaches all the time and the bright lights of a rink made me feel disoriented. That went on for years afterwards and the worst part is I blamed myself. I thought I wasn’t ‘tough enough’ to get through it, and I was the one who quit.”
Through it all, Laing’s love of hockey never wavered.
He stopped because he had to, but he never lost the desire to play.
Laing grew up playing hockey with a lot of guys in Chilliwack, and figured the local men’s rec league would be a relatively safe way to scratch the hockey itch. Most of the players he played with and against knew something of his history and recognized that he was at high risk for another concussion.
“It’s not like there was an unwritten rule to not hit me or anything like that,” he says. “But guys are pretty respectful about that type of thing. It’s supposed to be non-contact and I was a pretty big guy who could handle himself, but if there was a skirmish I’d just turn away or push around a bit and find a way to get out of it.”
It was six years from leaving junior B to the night he was blindsided in the men’s league game.
Laing was now 26 years old, married with his first child on the way.
Laing only missed three works of work after the hit.
The after-effects of the concussion lasted way longer, wreaking havoc in his life.
He found that he could barely remember anything from his childhood, and memory lapses made it difficult to function at work, where he was a construction site foreman.
Depression and anxiety already plagued him, and got much worse as he struggled to regain what was lost.
“I resorted to a lot of drinking to get through it,” he admits. “That took a toll on my marriage.”
Laing actually started drinking and experimenting with drugs a lot earlier, when he was a teenager in Nelson. It’s a common story with young hockey players who move away from home and experience ‘freedom’ for the first time, encouraged in their excess by teammates who are two or three years older. By the time he left junior B, the alcohol and drugs were as much about self-medicating as anything else.
“I didn’t know it at the time, I had no idea why I was doing it, but I was depressed and anxious and feeling horrible about myself and the shitty way that it (his hockey career) ended,” Laing says. “By the time it fell apart in Nelson, I was drinking to the point of blacking out,” Laing says. “When I got back to Chilliwack I just partied for three or four years until I met my wife. Even after that, I was drinking way too much.”
Up to and following the last concussion, it remained a major issue in his life. When he drank too much, he lost every shred of control. He was emotionally volatile, willing to fight anyone at the drop of a hat and he’d lash out at anyone, even his wife.
Fortunately, he married a woman (Jill) who was blessed with tremendous patience.
“She’s always been there for me,” he says, smiling. “Many times our relationship has struggled because of the stuff I’ve gone through and she’s stood by me. It’s not one thing she’s ever said or done, but I honestly don’t think there’s a chance I’d be here today without her.”
In his lowest moments, Laing thought about walking away from life. Thinking about Jill and his two children was all that kept him going.
“Every day I’d be driving down the road and I’d think, ‘I can just crash into that telephone pole or drive off this bridge, and I came very close,” he says. “I had pills for the depression and anxiety and I’d just stare at it thinking, ‘I could take the whole bottle.’
“I thought about buying a gun. I thought about hanging myself in my garage. I didn’t care about myself and the only thing that brought me back was my wife and kids and thinking about the harm I’d be causing them.”
A turn for the better came when Laing heard a radio advertisement for the Advanced Concussion Clinic in Vancouver.
The specialists were the first to show any understanding of what he was going through.
“You have a broken arm and people can see that you’re hurt, but you have a concussion and no one knows how you’re feeling inside,” Laing explains. “I went to my family doctor for years and he had no idea what to do with me.
“So I drove all the way down to Oak Street in Vancouver on my own dime.”
Since walking through the doors to that clinic, Laing has learned a ton about concussions and how to cope with the physical and mental havoc they create.
“But I don’t think you ever feel normal again, you just feel like you’re a little better,” he says. “This last year, especially since I quit drinking alcohol, I think it’s given my brain more of an opportunity to heal. I’ve worked on a lot of mental stuff through it all, therapy and everything, and I feel better than I have since I was 17.”
But there are still times when he doesn’t feel well.
Eleven years later, there are moments when he struggles to remember the name of someone he met just five minutes ago.
He has a day planner. He literally writes everything down, because he has to.
“Unless I write it down, I’ll forget,” he says. “There are times when I go into a room with people I’ve met a dozen times and I can’t remember their name, and there are times when I can’t remember the name of a certain product or pipe that I’ve used for 15 years. I can’t get the word out and it gets embarrassing and frustrating because now they’re thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about. And that’s where anxiety comes in.”
Playing hockey again? Still a dream.
Laing attempted to come back a couple times, playing four games here or five games there.
“But I just couldn’t do it, because I get disoriented when my heart-rate gets too high,” he laments. “The last time I tried, I was out there for a shift and one of my teammates said, ‘nice pass’ and I didn’t even know what they were talking about. They could see it. They could see that I wasn’t the same player anymore.
There was a point when revenge was on Laing’s mind and the only thing he thought about was getting back onto the ice so he could challenge the guy whose cheap shot triggered this nightmare.
He admits he even took steroids for a while, because the guy he’d be going after “is a mean and tough cat.”
Nowadays, he’s about forgiveness.
The man who did this too him has apologized many times since, pretty much every time the two run into each other in public.
A more mature Laing says life’s too short to hold grudges, even well-deserved ones.
But that doesn’t mean he’s cool with how it happened, how it was allowed to happen, and how it could happen again.
“A lot of the guys in the rec league have played rep or junior hockey their whole lives, so they have that competitiveness in them,” he explains. “Near the end of the year and into playoffs, we understand that it gets amped up a bit. There’s a little more body. A little more stick-work. Emotions run a little higher and we’re totally find with that. I was involved in that too.
“But when it comes to cheap shots from behind or taking a guy’s knee out, that’s unacceptable.”
The solution, he says, must be a zero tolerance policy, especially for hits to the head.
“First offence, gone for the rest of the year. Second offence, gone for good,” Laing says with conviction. “These are all guys trying to earn a living right? You can’t be taking three or four months off to recover from an injury. You get a guy who hip-checks someone and breaks his leg or dislocates his knee, and the guy who’s hit can’t go to work for four months. What do you do about that? That’s not right.”
When Laing comes back, as he eventually still plans to do, he hopes to come back to a league that is safer that the one he left.
“I do miss it a lot,” he says wistfully. “I love the smell of the rink. I love walking in there and smelling the ice. The concession. The hockey gear. Say it’s weird, but those are the smells I’ve grown up with my whole life. I love the people. I love being on the ice skating as fast as I can for a loose puck. Scoring goals. Making a big play. All those things. Being on the ice or in the dressing room, just joking around. You miss that stuff.”
And now that he’s finally putting his story out in the open, Laing also hopes that other concussion victims realize that they’re not alone.
“I’m at the point now where I’m feeling better about myself and I can be a positive influence for someone who’s might be going through exactly what I’ve been through,” he says. “If anyone reaches out to me, I’d love to help them get through it quicker than I did, because it took a very long time for me.”