In Bedford, Mass., the U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey Team has been preparing for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia. Nobody will be told “you’re not going” until December, so for forward Josephine Pucci, there’s no tension in the camp … yet.
“I mean, it is true that there are gonna be cuts, but right now we’re just having fun,” she said. “We’re practicing, and that’s far away. We’re just trying to get better every day, and it’s been a blast just practicing. I’m having so much fun just playing with the team again and being part of a group.”
Two seasons ago, Pucci co-captained the team at Harvard. She is among the players most likely to be having fun at this camp. She has recently made the switch from defense to offense. More significantly, she’s made the switch to player from spectator. Last winter, Pucci suffered her third concussion. The consequences were different from those of the first two. Pucci figured out pretty quickly that she wasn’t going to be returning to the hockey rink right away, though she thought she could still be a student.
“I did return to school, but I was getting headaches after studying, and if I tried to exercise, I’d get headaches,” she said. “It just, basically going to class and exercising would exacerbate the symptoms and make them worse.”
Lyndsey Fry, Josephine Pucci’s teammate at Harvard and on the national team, remembers that it was hard watching her friend try to push through her symptoms.
“That first couple of weeks was really tough,” Fry said. “She couldn’t really leave her room. She just wanted to be in the dark. She couldn’t really go to class, so I think we all kind of saw it coming, and knew that it was going to be the best thing for her when she told us she was going to withdraw for the year.”
Withdrawing from school helped. But as far as Pucci was concerned, rest wasn’t helping enough. So she traveled to the Carrick Brain Center in Atlanta to consult with Dr. Ted Carrick, who has treated brain injuries in all sorts of people, including Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and various others from the NHL.
“What happens with these hockey players is, they come in after having a big injury, but what we find is they’ve perhaps had three or four concussions before that, and perhaps they weren’t managed appropriately,” Carrick said.
Pucci fell into that category, at least in terms of the numbers, though she’s inclined to brush off the first two concussions as minor … at least in comparison to what happened to her last winter. At the Carrick Center, the prescription for concussion number three went well beyond rest. First, she underwent a thorough examination which included a detailed medical history. Eventually, Dr. Carrick and his colleagues got down to the business of restoring Pucci’s equilibrium and her skills.
“We put them on the ice, and we have our exercise physiologists and people who are on the ice so we’ll have them turning, for instance to one side and shooting at the goal, and we’ll put in diagnostics so we can measure brain function and eye function and acceleration and angulation of body parts on the ice, and we can do it in live time,” Carrick explained.
“Wait a minute, you have a hockey rink in the clinic?” I asked.
“Well, we don’t have one in the clinic, but we have one down the street,” Carrick said. “And we have it pretty full with NHL players, Olympians, and it’s an important part of our rehabilitation.”
Just as important is caution. Even after hockey players at the Carrick Center can skate and shoot without dizziness, headaches, or fatigue, Dr. Carrick doesn’t necessarily conclude that they’re ready to return to their teams.
“We don’t send people back unless they are in the super-normal levels,” he said. “We have some people where we say, ‘Your headaches are gone, you can do all these things, but your performance is just average. It’s not worth the risk for you.’ And we have that little talk with them.”
The little talk ends with something like “find something other than hockey about which you can be passionate.”
Nobody has had to have the talk with Josephine Pucci. She recovered from her multiple concussions and returned to the “super-normal level” of which Carrick spoke. When she’d done that, to coach Katey Stone’s delight, Carrick sent her back to the national team.
“We think that they’re not at risk in reference to anybody else in the game when they can perform activities at a super-great level,” Carrick said.
Pucci agrees with that prognosis, and says she’s not worried about potential long-term consequences from the hits to the head she’s taken.
“No, because I feel 100 percent, and that’s the biggest thing with young athletes,” she said. “It’s scary when you get two, back to back, but if you fully recover then you should be all set.”
With several months to go before the Olympics, Stone is offering no speculation on whether Pucci will make the final cut. Regarding Pucci’s history, Stone says she’s learned that no two head injuries are alike, and that caution is much the best policy, but she’s taking the word of the experts – in this case the doctors at the Carrick Center – on Pucci’s condition, and she says she’s always valued Pucci’s contribution to the national team.
“She’s dynamic,” Stone said. “You know, Pooch is, she’s an incredible athlete, and the physical tools she has are as good as any I’ve seen. She’s very versatile, but she plays with a serious edge to her, and as a result of that, you create some contact, and some contact comes to you.”
If either the coach or the player is concerned that the contact could involve Josephine Pucci’s head, neither of them is talking about it.