A teen from Outlook, Sask., may never be able to play hockey again after he was checked from behind at a hockey camp in April. And his mother wants to see a stronger awareness campaign about the danger of such hits in the game.
McKenzie Neufeld was playing at a Kindersley Klippers spring camp on April 30. It was the final game before the team made cuts for its top 40.
In the third period, with six minutes left, Neufeld was on the ice when another player hit him from behind, sending him head first into the boards.
He got up and skated off the ice.
"That's why I think a majority of the people in the arena had no idea my son was even injured," said Hope Martin, Neufeld's mother.
A trainer began to examine Neufeld, when the 16-year-old said pain was coming from the base of his head and neck.
"Immediately, the trainer stopped all conversation and immediately dialed 911," said Martin.
Neufeld was brought by ambulance to the Kindersley Hospital. X-rays were sent to a doctor on call at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon.
He had a Jefferson fracture, meaning his C1 vertebra, located at the top of his neck, had three fractures.
"They said it didn't look good, and they got him back in the ambulance and they brought him from Kindersley to RUH," said Martin.
Once in Saskatoon, they tried to get McKenzie to stand up but he said the pain was excruciating. They kept him overnight and took an MRI the next day.
The MRI revealed that the ligament where his C1 and C2 vertebrae connect had pulled away on one side. The C1 and C2 vertebrae connect the head to the spine and control the movement of the skull.
McKenzie's head was placed into a halo brace, with the hope that the ligament would connect back. He was in the brace for four months.
"When they came back saying he was going to be put into a halo, that kind of rattled us to the core — that was really hard for our family to digest," said Martin.
Unfortunately, the brace didn't work. McKenzie underwent surgery on Nov. 8, during which four screws and two rods were placed into his vertebrae. He will be in a neck brace for the next six weeks.
"The surgeon knew he had to fuse his C1 and C2 to give him some form of quality of life," said Martin.
"When he got out of the halo, and they said he was going to have surgery, I really struggled with that because now my son's life has changed. His career path has changed. What he wanted to do, he may not have the ability to do," said Martin.
"So my kid was very athletic and would go work out two hours every day at a local gym, and he's been confined to immobility for six-and-a-half months."
McKenzie loves sports and being outdoors, his mother said. Besides playing hockey, baseball and golf, he spends his summers fishing, kayaking and swimming.
He had played football for a time but stopped because he didn't want an injury to prevent him from competing in hockey or baseball.
"I think he just appreciates the fact that he's not paralyzed because most people who look at his X-rays can't imagine how he's not paralyzed. So McKenzie is taking it all in stride," said Martin.
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She wants players, coaches, managers, and parents to know the impact hitting from behind can have on a player's life.
"There is a risk of injury with hockey. There is," said Martin.
"I knew my son might get injured but not to the point where it affects the rest of his life."
Against the rules
Checking from behind is an illegal hit in hockey and usually results in a penalty.
Martin points out that jerseys worn by minor hockey players have a "stop sign" crest on the back to remind players to not check from behind.
"If you see their name, full numbers, and a stop sign, you don't hit. You have to know when you are going into the corners or going into the side that you hit the kid from the side, not from behind," said Martin.
"The education needs to get stronger."
She would like to see a stronger awareness campaign, and says the Saskatchewan Hockey Association has been willing to work with her.
Kelly McClintock, general manager for the SHA, says the association makes players and officials aware year-round about the dangers of checking from behind.
"I've been with the Saskatchewan Hockey Association for 24 years and the number of serious neck injuries has drastically been reduced, not only in Saskatchewan but across the country," said McClintock.
McClintock adds he's been in contact with Martin, and that Hockey Canada provides insurance coverage for expenses that the family might incur.
"We are just praying things go well with McKenzie and he can make a good recovery and he can have a functioning, normal life," said McClintock.