Sports Physio as part of a Professional Sports Team: My Experience in the CWHL

For anyone who’s been wondering why this blog has not be updated as regularly as it had been when it first started, I wanted to first apologize as I know a lot of viewers look forward to the posts, but I’m here to clear this up. For the past 6 months I have been working full time in the clinic seeing clients as well as operating as the head Physical Therapist and Emergency Medical Responder (EMR) for the Boston Blades, a professional women’s ice hockey team that plays in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). Now, as physical therapist, in order to practice on the sidelines the way I did, I had to obtain my first responder (EMR) certification – a course that focuses on medical management in emergency situations. I am not an Athletic Trainer (ATC), nor did I provide athletic training services – I was a first responder during the event, and a PT before and after. I covered both practices (before, during, and after) and games (home and away).

The Boston Blades play in the CWHL, and so all of our opponents operate out of Canada – Toronto, Brampton, Montreal, and Calgary – and therefore required a lot of travel; thankfully one of the perks of working with the team meant all travel and lodging was covered. Practices were every Tuesday and Thursday night and games were Saturday/Sunday (always back to back scheduling for games).

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First game of the season against the Toronto Fury in Toronto, CA at the MasterCard Center

Our roster consisted of girls who went to school in Boston and now live in the city (many BU, BC, and Northeastern alums) as well as girls who commuted from different states – most notably our two goalies Jetta Rackleff and Lauren Dahm who live in Rochester, NY and Syracuse, NY respectively as well as one of our defenders Maggie DiMasi who lives in Vermont – just to play hockey. The players are NOT paid during the season (only travel and lodging are covered for these girls, while staff are given a minimal stipend on top of travel expenses). Unfortunately there isn’t enough sponsorship or a big enough fan base to pay all of the players consistently. This experience has opened my eyes to just how differently women’s sports are treated compared to their male counterparts. It’s one thing to read about it, but to see and experience it first hand was shocking to say the least. I remember asking our GM at the beginning of the season why some of these players would travel so far just to play hockey and not get compensated for it, and her response was “Because they love the game”. These athletes play at the highest level possible for ice hockey, facing teams that have several Hockey Canada members and Multi-Olympians/Gold Medalists, including our captain Tara Watchorn, a 2014 Sochi Gold Medalist. Yet there still isn’t enough interest or money to pay these athletes a salary; besides our captain, every athlete on the Blades roster holds a full time professional job or is in graduate school full time. So they play internationally in Canada, get home at 4am on Monday morning and have to report to work or class in 5 hours – on a regular basis. All for the love of the game.

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Hometown hero Tara Watchorn’s Jersey inside The Old Newcastle House following Canada’s win in the 2014 Sochi Olympics

The overall experience working with the Boston Blades was truly amazing. I had never ice skated before the start of the season, let alone played high level hockey, but have treated hockey players in the past. I learned on the job, analyzed every player’s movement on the ice and posture at rest. I was fortunate enough to have gone through a PT program where I took a Sports PT elective taught by Dr. Melissa Baudo – who served on the Women’s Tennis Association tour for several years and has a wealth of experience with sideline coverage and therapeutic taping – and was able to apply EVERY BIT OF KNOWLEDGE that she taught me (for which I am FOREVER grateful), and then some.

In order to be successful as a sports physio working with a sports team (youth or professional) you have to be able to adapt on the fly. I never once had a treatment table available at the rink – practice or games – which made traditional manual therapy technique positions as well as taping positions unusable; you have to be creative and figure out new, innovative ways to treat on the go, including during 10 hour bus rides. You also have a budget for the season for medical supplies including tape (which can be expensive), so you have to have strategies to conserve the materials that you do have.

I remember a moment during the team’s training camp in September, my order of tape had not yet come in, and I had minimal tape that was left over from the previous season, yet I had to tape a player for patellar support and a valgus/varus knee block combo without Elastikon and minimal Leukotape and Lightplast. I had to think on the fly and modify my taping technique to make sure that player could skate and perform during tryouts. Now, this player arguably needs Physical Therapy/rehab and movement re-education – which I have referred her to. However, as a sports physio, you have to realize that during the season your job is to make sure that the player(s) make it through the season. Rehab is a long term solution, but it is not efficient or effective to shut a player down for 3 months to rehab shoulder impingement if it’s not serious. Athlete education is huge and I always make it clear to the athletes that more serious rehab would be warranted after the season ended but for now I would prescribe ther-ex and on the spot manual therapy to decrease the progression of their dysfunction. You have to step out of the “Rehab” mindset. Unless the player is unable to play due to fracture/concussion, it is unlikely they will sit out. Strains and localized pain from bone bruises or pulled muscles are not going to bench an athlete, and definitely not a hockey player.

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The Boston Blades pond hockey fundraising event at Gillette Stadium

Make sure they don’t compromise their physical fitness and make sure the condition isn’t progressing. You need to earn the athlete’s trust, they need to know that a strain is not going to make you go to the coach and bench them, because if they don’t trust you they won’t report an even more serious injury (concussion being the big one). It all comes down to education of the athlete, letting them understand the risks of continuing while injured. Concussions are not to be messed around with but a pulled groin will heal with time and taping/wrapping techniques can significantly help them play during the healing process.

I’m so thankful for this experience and have met such incredible, passionate, hardworking individuals along the way. This season was a huge learning curve for me – and I appreciate all of the players and staff members who’ve been patient and helped me along the way. Thank you for trusting me with your care this season, it was definitely an unforgettable one!

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The above collage represents, in my opinion, the highlights of the season. Top L: This is our third line, who all required treatment before each practice and game: such wonderful and amazing players who always put a smile on my face and made me laugh. Top R: Me with Tara ‘Watchy’ Watchorn and her 2014 Gold Medal during the final weekend of the Blades season when Watchy’s family hosted the team for dinner – such great hospitality and support from the Watchorn clan throughout the season, Thank You! Bottom L: My first time on ice skates during the Blades final practice. A side note, I won that faceoff with Nicole ‘Gino’ Giannino – Maybe next time I’ll strap on Dahm’s goalie pads and stand between the pipes! Bottom middle: This was an emotional game as it was the last of the season for the Blades in Watchy’s home town – the game itself was a nail biter and I felt that our team played some of it’s best hockey in that one game, truly unforgettable. Middle: This is probably my favorite of the season. It is on a road trip to St. Georges when we played Montreal Les Canadiennes at Marie-Philip Poulin’s home town in front of 1000+ screaming and excited hockey fans with standing room only. The atmosphere was unreal and I think it shows the potential of Women’s Ice Hockey. The future is bright for this sport and I can’t wait to see it continue to grow.

 

 

 

 

 

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