‘New life’ after NHL career cut short
Post-concussion syndrome forced Jaroslav Svejkovsky to retire early from the National Hockey League. But he’s grateful for the 113 games he was able to play with Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning between 1996 and 2000 and harbours no bitterness.
Today, “Yogi” is carving out what he says may be an even more rewarding career teaching hockey. He is an assistant coach with the Western Hockey League Vancouver Giants and Director of Hockey Operations for the Seafair Minor Hockey Association, where he also coaches Atom rep.
“I feel perfect now,” says Svejkovsky, 35, who was selected 17th overall in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft by the Capitals and appeared to be on his way to a productive pro career after scoring 23 goals and 19 assists over five NHL seasons. “It’s been 11 years (since he was forced to retire) so there’s been lots of time to recover. If I would be younger I’d probably try to go back and play. But I’ve found a new life in terms of coaching and stuff like that and I feel this is probably what I was meant to do and I don’t look back.”
Taste of the big league
Svejkovsky scored seven goals in his first 19 NHL games in the 1996-97 season playing left wing for the Capitals, including four in a single game. He played parts of the next three seasons with the Caps before being traded to Tampa Bay during the 1999-2000 season. He had 10 points in his final 29 NHL games with the Lightning.
“I always thought of myself as a person who did everything I could everyday to achieve the maximum of my abilities,” he said. “I think that helped me to never say ‘Why is it me and not the other guy next to me?’ What I felt more of was not accomplishing everything I wanted to. I first wanted to get to the NHL and then establish myself as a great player, which is tough. Sometimes it takes a lot of years and I wasn’t able to do that, but I was able to establish myself as an NHL player.”
Svejkovsky suffered the first of three concussions during his third pro season. He would suffer another before the season was over.
“With the first one I got a puck in the jaw with five minutes left in a game against Montreal and came up with a huge melon and I felt sick and nauseous,” he said. “But I woke up the next day and didn’t feel sick anymore, had X-rays on my jaw, and went to practice. I still felt a bit awkward in practice but I scored a goal in the next game.”
The second concussion resulted from an elbow to the jaw during overtime of a late-season game against the New York Rangers. This time Svejkovsky said he felt off, “where you know something is wrong yet you don’t know what it is. I came back to the locker room and said to the trainer ‘I feel something weird, something’s different.’
“I would go for a walk and feel sick,” he said. “I was aware of my surroundings yet confused a little bit. I definitely, already at that time, knew what a concussion feels like.”
Since the concussion occurred late in the season, Svejkovsky had an extended period to recover and was anxious to return to play the following season.
“The only good thing about coming out of a concussion you knew exactly when you were ready,” he said. “There was no fear or anything like that.”
A final shot
He was 23 years old when he began his fourth, and final, NHL season in 1999. He believed he was at a point physically where he was able to take on added ice time.
“I felt like I trained the same way as earlier but yet I can do more in the gym and be faster. I was excited about making the next step from just another guy in the NHL to perhaps being the guy.”
But just as his confidence was growing, Svejkovsky suffered a knee injury prior to the start of the 2000-01 season. Tampa Bay asked him to play two games for the farm team (Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League) before returning full-time to Lightning. It was during the second of those games he was checked hard after playing a puck and knew right away he was in trouble.
“I had big and short-term memory loss and it was about eight months before I could drive. I never recovered in time to go back and play (the next season),” he said.
Svejkovsky said he never imagined he would ever suffer a concussion, but now believes he was fortunate to have not suffered more during his hockey career.
“I believed I was a hard guy to give a concussion to because I went to the net, got punched in the head, and all the things a goal scorer has to do,” he said. “I was pretty active and I think that’s why recovery for me was very, very long. For me, each concussion was different with significantly different symptoms.”
Following the last concussion, Svejkovsky was advised to take a long break from the game.
“I could stay home and get healthy and there was already a team out there interested in me (to play again),” he said. “I was excited and (thought) I’ll get healthy in year or two, but fortunately or unfortunately I just never got to the point where I got completely healthy. So once I started coaching that was my destiny, where I was good as playing and, who knows, maybe better. Working with players gave me brand new look at life. My dad was a professional coach and I thought maybe this is the avenue God wants me to go. But I never felt I didn’t want to go back and play. Even coming here six years ago to work with the Giants I felt if I got completely healthy I’d go back. But now I feel totally fulfilled this is the right thing for me and my family.”
The severity of concussions has become a hot-button topic, particularly in light of the 2010-11 injury that has sidelined Pittsburgh Penguins’ star Sidney Crosby indefinitely.
But Svejkovsky said athletes have an inherent desire to compete, and sometimes adrenaline makes you want to play through if at all possible.
“It’s not any different than playing with a bad bruise or a pulled ligament,” he said. “I’ve been in that position and then you start finding out it’s way worse. (Crosby) has been going through the same type of things I went through as a player. You can sense a lot of compete from guys like that, but everybody is competitive on a different level. There’s a difference between being hurt and injured. You play injured and it could get way worse, (whereas) playing hurt with bruises and scrapes, that’s something where the pain is tolerated. But with injuries, especially concussions, sometimes being so competitive doesn’t help you.”
Svejkovsky believes concussions can be reduced if not eliminated by making players and officials aware of the difference between hitting and collisions and trying to take somebody out. He said the NHL is making great strides this year as are junior circuits like the Western Hockey League.
“Even in minor hockey there’s a head contact rule where you automatically get a four-minute penalty,” he said. “At the end of the day that by itself is really going to help the skill players, yet it’s also going to help the competitive player because nobody is taking body checking out of the game. You’re just trying to take penalties out of the game.”
Even in a non-hitting environment like Atom Division hockey, Svejkovsky said the players are taught to be aggressive because that’s a big part of the game. But they’re not being taught to elbow an opponent in the head or push them into the boards from behind.
Svejkovsky said taking interference out of the game has contributed to the sport being faster and more severe injuries. The game will slow down once players start thinking about how they’re going to hit, he added.
“When I look at hockey now I still see a great game that I think is going to get better because there are good people out there looking after it. Look at Brendan Shanahan (chief player disciplinarian for the NHL).
“You have a skilled yet very competitive guy. Who else (is better) to decide if this hit is to take a player out or just a competitive thing. Things happen fast and there are still going to be injuries.
“I’ve seen head injuries in basketball and different sports, but again I think steps are being made for (hockey) to be continuously a great game and more and more fun.”