Former Flames top pick Chucko retires after concussions

Kris Chucko, a former Calgary Flames first-round pick, has decided to retire due to concussions.
Kris Chucko, seen in a 2009 NHL game, is uncertain of his future but said his health is his top priority. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Kris Chucko, a former Calgary Flames first-round pick, has decided to retire due to concussions.   

The 25-year-old winger, selected selected 24th overall by the Flames in 2004, suffered two concussions that he knows of.    "My decision was based on how I felt, how crappy I felt for and have felt for the last 11 to 12 months, and the six or seven months [after] the first one," Chucko said from his home in Minnesota.

"When you sit at home with a headache for six or seven months straight, the decision doesn't come too hard.  

"It was one of those things where I basically buried myself in a cage for two years because I couldn't do anything and I started to think `Is this really worth it?"'   

Chucko played just 43 games for the Abbotsford Heat, the Flames' farm team — 41 games in 2009-10 and two in 2010-11.   

He has not played since suffering his second concussion in October 2010 during a game in Milwaukee. Heat teammate Bryan Cameron missed his target on a hit, and instead connected with the six-foot-two, 198-pound Chucko.   

The impact aggravated a neck injury sustained when he got the first  concussion during the 2009-10 season.   

"If you took out a concussion symptoms chart I was feeling pretty much all of them," said Chucko, a native of Burnaby, B.C. "Dizziness, vision, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to sound, nausea, sickness —you can go right down the list to the very bottom, other than memory.   

"On the second hit my neck just deteriorated, I can't lift a heavy bag of groceries yet, so I'm not working out or lifting weights cause I get these shooting pains down the back of my neck and it's pretty uncomfortable."   

Chucko played in two career NHL games, both with the Flames, during the 2008-09 season.   

He also spent two seasons with the Flames' former AHL affiliate in Quad Cities, Ill., and one with the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights.   

"I'd miss [hockey], if I was completely healthy," Chucko said. "I always say if I had knee surgery this summer and I wasn't playing hockey, I would miss it like heck. There's a lot that I miss — I miss competing, being with the guys doing all that stuff. I don't miss having the headache every day and I don't miss wondering if I'm ever going to get better. I don't miss worrying about my health."   

Chucko returned to the ice late last season skating on his own with the lights turned down at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.   

"It was around the end of the season, I wanted to see how it went," he said. "But I got the concussion in October and then February and March, I still had headaches basically every day. It got to a point where I had thought about what was next obviously cause I wasn't sure if it was ever going away."   

Chucko admits the research conducted at Boston University — which revealed three former NHLers (Rick Martin, Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming) all suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease known to cause cognitive decline, behavioural abnormalities and dementia as a result of head trauma — helped him make his decision.   

"Obviously it's not something you want," he said. "I hope that I stopped early enough, I guess. That was part of my thought, I love hockey, but I love life too."   

After two seasons with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the BCHL, Chucko accepted a scholarship to the University of Minnesota. In 76 games, over two seasons, the right-winger had 14 goals and 34 points before turning pro in 2006-07.   

Chucko, who married longtime girlfriend Lauren in the summer, has since returned to the University of Minnesota to resume his business management degree, which he hopes to complete by September 2012.   

As for what's after that, he's still uncertain.   

 "When you're playing hockey, you always know there's going to be life after hockey, but you don't really plan for it, especially at 25," said Chucko.   

"The nice part about being in school is I'm not jumping into a job where I might not enjoy so I have this year and a half to kind of really understand what I like, find out what excites me and I got to find whatever passion I had for hockey, I got to find something that I feel the same way about."