Hockey is a game of speed, skill and toughness. Playing in the NHL can take a significant physical toll on those players lucky enough to make it to the big league. Often times, the people most responsible for keeping players on the ice and ready to play in such tough conditions are the unsung members of the club’s medical staff.
Entrusted with the players’ health and well-being, they work around the clock to ensure the players are ready come game time. There are four in-house therapists – Head Athletic Therapist T.D. Forss, Assistant Athletic Therapist Chris Davie, Massage Therapist Stephen Lines and Physical Therapy Consultant Ryan Williams – that look after the day-to-day medical needs of the players.
“Whenever guys come in here they always say our medical staff is top-notch, among the best in the League,” said Oilers Assistant Captain Taylor Hall. “I work a lot with TD and Chris and they’re a great team, they never pressure me to play before I’m ready and they work hard to get me back on the ice.”
Just like the Oilers, the therapists share a similar skill set, but each have an important role to play on the team.
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“Each of us have similar skills but also different skills so we can cover a wide variety of treatments,” said Forss. “For Chris, he’s really good at the long-term rehab, doing creative exercises for Return to Sport in the gym and taking the guys on the ice. Ryan is a physical therapist so he can do a variety of things but his manual skills are really good. Then Stephen does a lot of the soft tissue, but he also does cranial-sacral treatments which we use for concussions.”
As head athletic therapist, Forss has to know a little bit about each area, managing the staff and looking after the large amount of paperwork that accompanies each treatment.
“We do emergency care, medical treatments, we do strength and conditioning, Return to Sport and on my side of things, there’s a lot of paperwork that you have to do for the NHL,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that need to be informed about when a player’s been hurt, everyone from the coach to the GM to the players agent, the NHL and NHLPA.
“All my assistants have to document what they’ve done for the player so that if they get traded to a different team, there’s a file that goes with them wherever they go.”
In addition to the in-house therapists, the Oilers medical staff is rounded out by five team doctors (Dr. Dhiren Naidu, Dr. David Reid, Dr. Michael Wagner, Dr. Jeff Robinson and Dr. John Clarke), three dentists (Dr. Ben Eastwood, Dr. Nathan Kern and Dr. Trevor Ushko) and an optometrist (Dr. Brent Saik).
“At a game we always have three doctors. One will be an orthopaedic person and then two of the other four will be in attendance. Dr. Naidu is our head physician and he’s here close to 75 to 80 per cent of the games.
“We also have other affiliate physicians that we deal with for chiropractic if we need it and we have emergency physicians under contract that come to the game.”
During the season, Forss and the other therapists work three different types of days: games days, practices and off-days.
A game day will start when they arrive at Rexall Place around 7:30am, with treatments beginning around 8:15am.
If a player needs ice time but isn’t cleared to practice with the rest of the group, Davie will take him on before the team skates at 10:30am.
“After the skate we do post-practice treatments, which are mostly like icing and assessing to see if the player is better or worse,” said Forss. “Sometimes we’ll do a little more advanced treatment if we think they need it.”
The staff will finally get a break around 1pm, returning to Rexall three hours before the game.
“Guys will start trickling in and we might do some treatments before getting them ready for the game. During the game I’m on the bench and Chris and Ryan are usually in the room; they might be doing treatments on guys not playing, or they might just be getting ready in case someone gets hurt. And then Stephen usually stands in the runway watching the game in case we need someone to run back and forth.”
In the unfortunate event that a player does gets hurt, Forss acts as the first responder on the ice.
“If they get hurt during a game, I would go out and assess the player and make sure we’re able to safely get them off the ice. If we can’t because it’s serious, then there’s signals that I do – a fist in the air – and that brings on the ambulance that sits onsite, and then it brings on the doctors. We’ll do a group assessment and decide how we’re going to prepare them for transport and do any treatment that we have to get them off the ice.”
With minor injuries, if a player hurts their hand or foot while blocking a shot for example, Forss would assess them on the bench and decide whether they can return to the game right away or need further care in the dressing room.
Following the game, Forss and the physicians once again assess the players before heading home.
On practice days, a similar schedule is followed to that of pre- game, but practice and treatment times will often run a little
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longer. Finally, off-days for the players still mean work for the therapists as they use this downtime to do treatments and work on rehabilitation for those that need it.
“When a player has an off-day, we still have a treatment day. Our only real off times are two or three days at Christmas and three or four days during All-Star break,” said Forss. “In the off-season, a lot of people think we don’t do anything but once the season’s done, it probably takes about two weeks to figure out exactly what guys’ injuries are, if they need surgeries and if they do need surgery, where they’re going. If they’re going somewhere, one of us will go with them.”
“I’ve had to take a couple weeks off and Chris came along to help with treatments and rehab,” added Hall, who was on injured reserve as recently as November with a leg injury.
“They always make you feel comfortable and are really great to work with.”
And as if their schedules weren’t packed enough, the team still manages to find time to maintain their certifications, all while periodically bringing players back to Edmonton for off-season assessments and rehab.
“We obviously can’t do it during the season so we have to fit all of our professional development into those few short months,” added Forss. “Then you still want to take a vacation, usually in August.”
There’s no doubt that by the time the end of summer rolls around, the Oilers medical team have not only earned that vacation, but also an honourary assist for their dedication and hard work in ensuring the players are ready come game time.