Careers cut short

Again this year, the NLL has been hit by the worst kind of injury bug – the one that takes a player out of the league permanently. It’s been almost two months since Knighthawks defender Ryan Cousins was forced to retire due to persistent injuries. Cousins is a former two-time Defender of the Year and was captain of the Minnesota Swarm for seven years. Now, he also played in the league for eleven seasons so it’s not like his career was cut short after only a few years, but at 31, he could easily have played 5 or 6 more years and possibly more than that.

As an aside, while looking for details on Cousins’ retirement, I came across this article by Rochester fan (and NLL employee) Alex Hinkley and was stunned to read that Hinkley believes Cousins should not have retired. Cousins makes what is likely one of the most difficult decisions of his life and Hinkley has the gall to say he shouldn’t have retired? Yes, he was injured last year and came back to play, but he says himself that he had yet another injury before this season began. Normally when a player retires due to injury, it’s not because he can’t be bothered to do the work required to get back in shape, it’s because their doctor has told them that any further injuries could do irreparable damage. Cousins might have decided that playing one more year of lacrosse wasn’t worth spending the rest of his life walking with a cane. It’s possible, even likely, that Cousins may come to regret retiring. But I think it’s more likely that Cousins, along with his family and doctor, decided that he’d much rather retire and wish he hadn’t than not retire and wish he had.

Ryan CousinsCousins wasn’t the only player who retired this season because of injury. Dan Carey, also 31, announced his retirement just before the season began after suffering a concussion near the end of the 2012 season. Carey also missed half of 2009 and all of 2010 due to concussion. Phil Sanderson, another concussion victim on the Rock, hasn’t officially retired, but he missed the last two games of 2012 plus the playoffs and has yet to play in 2013.

If you go over the list of NLL players who have had to retire early due to injuries, a few pretty big names show up:

  • Merrick Thomson accumulated 124 points in two seasons with the Wings (and was an MLL star as well) before concussions ended his very promising career in 2011 at the age of only 27.
  • Ken Montour, the 2009 NLL goaltender of the year, experienced a concussion during a game in 2010 (also at age 31) and never played again. Montour (as well as Thomson and Tracey Kelusky) talks about his experiences in a must-read interview with IL Indoor’s Stephen Stamp from back in 2011.
  • Paul Gait retired after the 2002 season (during which he scored 114 points, the third highest total ever) at the age of 35 due to knee injuries. We’ll ignore the four games he played with the Mammoth in 2005. His twin brother Gary played 3 more full seasons with the Mammoth before retiring, and then unretired in 2009, played 24 more games with the Knighthawks, then retired again.
  • Mark Miyashita was the first overall draft pick of the Vancouver Ravens in 2003 but only played 46 games over 5 seasons with Vancouver, Colorado, and Minnesota before multiple ACL injuries forced him to retire.

The quintessential example of an athlete forced to retire early because of injuries is Bobby Orr. Orr, considered by some as a better hockey player than Wayne Gretzky, played nine full seasons in the NHL and then parts of three more before retiring at age 30 because of repeated damage to his knees. Now Sidney Crosby is in danger of being added to this list, having missed much of the last couple of seasons due to a couple of serious concussions. Last week, he was hit in the head with a puck, breaking his jaw. He’s reporting no concussion symptoms from that, but we all know that if he suffers one more concussion, his career is likely over. Crosby won’t even be 26 until this summer.

There has been a lot of research and a lot more discussion on head injuries in sports in recent years, which will hopefully reduce the number of concussions and early retirements. But due to the nature of sports, particularly contact sports like football, hockey, and lacrosse, you will never completely eliminate the possibility. It’s something the athletes know and a risk they’ve accepted. When you see a freak accident like the one that ended Andrew Suitor’s 2013 season, you start to appreciate the ability of players like Colin Doyle, Shawn Williams, and John Tavares to be able to play for so long. How do they do it? There’s some conditioning involved – being in top physical shape can help you avoid some injuries and recover more easily from others. Being a smart player, and therefore being able to avoid situations that could result in injury, is another advantage these guys have. But Suitor is also a professional athlete, in top shape, and is unquestionably a smart lacrosse player.

Sometimes, as they say, shit happens. Part of the “secret” to a long playing career is just to be lucky.

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