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The hit that changed everything: Concussion sidelines former UM walk-on

Former University of Maine men’s hockey player Kyle Solomon had to give up the game he loved after a number of concussions ended his career.
Jesse Scardina
Former University of Maine men’s hockey player Kyle Solomon had to give up the game he loved after a number of concussions ended his career.
Amy Brooks | The Maine Campus

All he remembers is the hit.

Kyle Solomon, 24, can’t recall the back of his head bouncing off the 3-inch ledge that connects the ice to the Plexiglas board of the University of Maine’s Harold Alfond Sports Arena.

He can’t recall seeing the dime-sized drops of blood falling from the resulting inch-long gash, falling into half-dollars as they melted the frozen surface.

He didn’t start to shake the cobwebs loose until he was in the training room.

And the hit? It didn’t even count as a concussion.

“I’ve had seven — well, the official number’s six,” Solomon said. “Because that one against [Boston College] was never officially marked down as a concussion, but it definitely was. When you’re seeing stars, it’s probably a concussion.

“It was a clean hit. [He] just f—ing killed me.”

But the concussion that ended his career wasn’t administered by a hulking Division I defender out for blood. It wasn’t even an opponent. It wasn’t dramatic, either.

It was a teammate. And it happened in practice.

The hit

During a game-situation drill in early 2010, Solomon left a scrum in the corner and built up speed along the ice.

Trying to gain momentum, Solomon didn’t see 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound forward David de Kastrozza — who was on his team for the drill — skating up the ice with the puck and with just as much momentum.

De Kastrozza clipped the shorter Solomon with his elbow. It was a glancing blow to the side of his head, but just enough to do the job.

“It didn’t knock me unconscious but it gave me a concussion,” Solomon said. “It’s a really bad news hit. When that happens, you know something’s wrong. Nobody should get a concussion that easy.”

No stranger to hits, de Kastrozza said he has taken the brunt of a collision before, resulting in extended periods of sensitivity.

“I had one in college where I couldn’t be around light at all,” he said. “I was out of school for two weeks. I couldn’t watch TV or anything. It can really mess you up for the rest of your career.”

De Kastrozza now plays for the South Carolina Stingrays in the East Coast Hockey League. As far as the blow he delivered to Solomon, de Kastrozza said he didn’t think much of it at the time.

“I really don’t think I hit him that hard,” de Kastrozza said. “It was in practice when I was finishing a check. I don’t know if he landed weird or what happened. I know it’s pretty common. Right after, he kind of fell down and the play continued, and obviously he was my teammate, I wasn’t trying to injure him.

“I’m pretty sure I can speak for the guys on that team and say we didn’t think that would be the last time he was on the ice,” he said.

‘The ones I look for’

As head athletic trainer Paul Culina sat in the Alfond stands last week explaining the university’s concussion protocol in detail, he often spoke haltingly, eyes trained on practicing players.

“Those are the ones I look for right there,” he said after what seemed to be a routine hockey play, the danger of it invisible to the untrained eye.

“That wasn’t a hard hit. This is where I watch a kid, and now he’s back in [the play], but it took him a second to get back into it. He’s someone I’m going to talk to.”

Collisions like the one Culina witnessed in practice are similar to the hit that ended Solomon’s playing days. It’s those impacts that need more attention, according to the trainer.

“A lot of times concussions don’t come from the violent, violent blow,” Culina said. “No helmet is going to prevent concussions. I don’t care what you do. Most of the time it’s the glancing hit to the side of the head.”

The hit Solomon took in practice occurred on a Tuesday. After a week passed with no sign of his symptoms slowing down, he sought out a specialist.

“The team handled it like another concussion, but I knew I shouldn’t have gotten a concussion that easily,” Solomon said. “My dad told me I should see a doctor. My buddy had concussions that ended his career, and he saw [Dr. Robert] Cantu from Boston.”

Cantu is one of the leading specialists in sports medicine. Cantu has testified in congressional hearings on the NFL and concussions, and has appeared on multiple media outlets and programs to discuss the topic, including a CBS “60 Minutes” special on head injuries in football.

“[Cantu] saw me once. I came back up here and went down for a follow-up, and he’d done some tests on me and said, ‘You probably shouldn’t play anymore,’” Solomon said. “I saw it coming.

“He basically said another concussion could kill me.”

The toughest conversation

When Solomon was recruited as a walk-on by the University of Maine, he was all too familiar with the symptoms of a concussion. His new coach wasn’t.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t really aware of those,” said UMaine men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead of Solomon’s past injuries. “Once he talked to us about his previous concussions, that’s what changed the discussion. We were like, ‘Wow, OK.’ I’m proud he did talk to us about those concussions, because he had a couple with us, so we were already wary.”

After gaining knowledge of Solomon’s previous injuries, Whitehead said it became a “slam-dunk decision” to have the Long Island native hang up his skates. However, that didn’t make it any easier for Whitehead when he sat down with Solomon for that tete-a-tete.

“That was one of the toughest conversations I’ve ever had with a player — and I’ve had a lot of them,” Whitehead said. “You know it’s the right thing to do, but it’s not what your heart wants.”

Solomon, who has played hockey since age 5, received his first concussion around the same time he started to take hockey seriously, eight years later.

“You play competitive-enough hockey from a young age, you’re going to get concussions,” he said. “I had the most of them in juniors.”

“Juniors” refers to Solomon’s time playing for the Boston Junior Bruins for the Eastern Junior Hockey League.

The discovery of previous injuries at the college level is all too common, according to Culina.

“All of our student athletes are required to fill out a health-history questionnaire, and it’s cumbersome — 11 pages,” he said. “We go in-depth asking about concussions and concussion history. Anything that happened before they get here is self-report.

“We’ve had a number of cases where it’s not reported, and we question [the athletes] and they say, ‘No, no, I’m fine,’ and they try to conceal their past, but after a couple injuries, they may say they’ve had that problem [before],” Culina said.

After the decision was made, Solomon said he “was a mess for a little while.”

The game he loved for over 15 years was taken from him. He wasn’t sure how to fill the void, especially since he was still enrolled at UMaine.

“My uncle died when he was in his 20s, and my mother told me that my grandmother couldn’t go into his bedroom for a long time,” Solomon said. “Even going past a hockey rink is like going [into that] bedroom.

“I still go in every entrance but the Alfond entrance to campus.”

‘Time heals all’

But Solomon has been able to move on from competitive hockey. He has stepped back onto the ice, but only recreationally.

“I’ve played pond hockey with my brother and with some friends in their backyard pond,” he said. “My friends signed me up for a tournament even though they can’t skate.”

Although Solomon has been able to move on, concussions continue to be a significant talking point in sports — although not as much as they should be, according to some.

Whitehead, who’s also on the NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee, urges more discussion about contact to the head at all levels of hockey. The committee meets regularly to discuss what needs to be addressed to protect athletes’ safety.

“You’ve got everyone at every level talking about it, thinking about how it impacts our sport,” Whitehead said.

“I spend most of my time in those meetings refocusing people away from other topics of discussion like hooking, holding or embellishment and say, ‘This is not the problem, guys,’ ” he continued. “The problem with the game right now, at all levels, is there’s too much contact to the head.”

While you can never take all of the contact out of hockey, Culina said there needs to be a better understanding at each level of the game.

“One of the things that scare me right now is the overall lack of knowledge amongst coaches, parents and even some medical professionals in terms of how to properly deal with a concussion,” he said. “Sometimes a kid will go to the emergency room or see a doctor, and he or she will say to sit out a week and that’s it. Anybody who has ever given that advice — it’s scary.”

As for Solomon, he’s gotten used to life away from the ice, mentioning that at times it’s still tough, but “time heals all.”

All it won’t heal is that scar on the back of his head. It will be there forever.