British Columbia·Situation Critical

Junior hockey player with suspected head injury waits immobilized on ice rink for ambulance for nearly an hour

Hockey officials say a player injured during a BCHL game in Prince George waited for an ambulance for almost an hour while team staff kept him immobilized on the ice.

Ambulance arrived after game announcer drove to hospital to ask for help

A group of medics stand around a hockey player laying prone on the ice, as his teammates look on.
Vernon Vipers player Will Blackburn lay on the ice for nearly an hour waiting for an ambulance to arrive after being injured during a game in Prince George. A Prince George hockey official says he blames systemic, provincewide problems for the ambulance delay, not the paramedics or dispatchers. (Chuck Chin)

A junior hockey player with a suspected head injury waited almost an hour on the ice at a Prince George, B.C., arena before an ambulance responded to a 911 call, according to the general manager of the Prince George Spruce Kings. 

"He's lying on the cold ice, and at that point, you know, the [hockey staff] were starting to get a little bit concerned about hypothermia as well as what could be another injury," Mike Hawes told CBC News.

Hawes said paramedics finally arrived at the Kopar Memorial Arena about 50 minutes later after the game's announcer drove to the University Hospital of Northern B.C. and asked paramedics at the ambulance emergency bay for help. 

It happened Saturday night, during a game between the B.C. Hockey League's Vernon Vipers and the Prince George Spruce Kings.

Shortly before the end of the third period, a 19-year-old player from Vernon, identified by hockey officials as Will Blackburn, fell into the boards and appeared to hit his head.

The arena's first aid attendant, as well as the teams' trainers and athletic therapists, tended to the player on the ice, and officials called 911. 

"The player was conscious, but they just wanted to make sure [he wasn't seriously injured]," said Hawes. 

With the player's spine immobilized but no paramedics in sight, Hawes said repeated calls were made to 911 to see where the ambulance was. 

"Actually, a couple of times, we were put on hold and weren't able to get through to anyone at dispatch," said Hawes.

"I had no answers for the Vernon coach and the players, and they're getting frustrated. Obviously, there's nothing I can do." 

Hawes said he eventually sent the team's longtime public announcer to the hospital.

"Unfortunately, I think that's kind of the way we ended up getting the paramedics to attend was the fact we sent one of our staff members up to the hospital to talk to them, face to face."

Soon after, an ambulance drove to the arena, about a three-minute drive from the hospital, and transported Blackburn to emergency. 

The player was released from hospital several hours later, after tests that included a CAT-scan.

He was able to travel home with his teammates by bus.

Hawes says he doesn't blame paramedics or dispatch, but what he calls a provincewide, systemic problem with emergency response.

"I know it's in every community in the province, and it's something that hopefully can get sorted out. What if it was a much, much more serious injury?" 

B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) said that when the call came in at about 9:24 p.m., it was initially assigned as a "yellow" response, which means no lights or sirens were necessary.

By 10 p.m., new information from the arena suggested the situation was more urgent than originally thought, and the call was upgraded to "orange," with lights and sirens. BCEHS said the ambulance arrived by 10:07 p.m.

"We know it's stressful when someone who needs an ambulance is waiting for one," a spokesperson wrote in an email.

"If the family is seeking information about their care, we encourage them to reach out to our Patient Care Quality Office."

This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.

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Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.