First, I would like to thank BAC Hockey for the opportunity to tell my story. My name is Ryely McKinstry, I am 20 years old and I am a retired hockey player due to concussions. Other than my family, this is the first time I have really opened up and talked about my story publicly. I want to make it clear that I am not a writer, but this is my honest story. The purpose of my story is to help others who have or are currently going through concussion problems, and hopefully giving them the perspective from someone who has been through it.
I grew up in Calgary playing in the Buffaloes organization. I played two years for Blair with the Bantam AAA Bison’s, where I ended up getting 2 minor concussions in my two years. In the summer after Bantam, I was invited to try out for Team Alberta at the top 80 camp. At this camp I was hit from behind and suffered my first more than minor concussion. After my Bantam years, I played one year of Midget, where I managed to stay concussion free, before moving on to play for the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League. My rookie season as a 16 year old was a struggle. I got a concussion and a back injury around Christmas time so I went home to recover and returned two and a half weeks later.
After the season ended, I was invited to try out for U18 Team Canada. I didn’t make the team but I felt like I was playing good hockey and carried that into the next season. Under a new coach, I had a fresh start, and was excited. I played 6 games before getting hit and suffering another concussion. This one kept me out for about 3 weeks and off the ice for a month. My symptoms were pretty much just a bad headache, like the others, but I also felt very foggy and dizzy. After the three weeks however, all my symptoms seemed to subside. I went back to practicing and working out full-time, played 5 more games and got hit again and had another one. This one put me out for a month and the team decided to send me home for the rest of the year to rest up and get myself back to 100%. This was a tough time for me. All I wanted to do was play hockey. I would watch all the boys’ games on the internet, just wanting to be back in Vancouver.
Another thing I struggled with was school. I came back to high school in Calgary. Coming back to Calgary was a tough time. My brother, cousins and most of my buddies moved away to play hockey, so I didn’t have much to do. I didn’t have hockey, I didn’t have friends to hang out with and I didn’t really care about my school marks because I knew I wasn’t going to graduate that year. I had missed close to two months of school in Vancouver due to my head, and I was informed I wouldn’t be able to graduate on time with all my friends. Luckily enough for me, the principal allowed me to walk the stage with my buddies.
I finished off my school year and went back to Vancouver for my 18-year-old season. I can’t even call it a “season”. I got concussed in my second preseason game. This was the worst one. I couldn’t watch TV, I could barely look at my phone. I couldn’t read books, the only thing I could do was stay in my room and sleep. I had to wear sunglasses inside because the light bothered my eyes and my head so much. For 2 months all I did was sleep. I would try to go for a walk with my mom, but I would make it to the end of the block and would have to turn around because it was just too much. The headache was awful, the dizziness was so unbearable I couldn’t walk without feeling like I had to throw up, and the fogginess made me feel like I just wasn’t myself. I’ve been asked by a few people what a bad concussion feels like and the only way I can really describe it is think of your worst hangover but it lasting for 2 months. I couldn’t do any physical activity, and pair that with eating like shit, I got fat. I was clearly unhappy because of my hockey situation and now I was becoming unhealthy, so I really wasn’t in a great place mentally or physically. So sleeping all day and getting fat was all I did until I started feeling a little better and was able to go see a doctor. You can probably assume how the appointment went. After 7 concussions, the doctor with reason told me retirement should be my only option. Obviously this was heart breaking to hear as an athlete. You spend so much of your time trying to build your dream and you sacrifice so much for it just to have it shattered in a couple of words. The doctor’s appointment was the first time I realized that one day I won’t be a hockey player anymore and that day was coming up quick. I had to make a choice. Either I quit hockey or I put my health on the line and give it one more go. People probably think I made the wrong choice. Hell, my parents probably thought I made the wrong choice, but they supported me all the way and I decided to give it one more shot and lay it all on the line.
I had to wear sunglasses inside because the light bothered my eyes and my head so much
I started to get back into shape, back in the gym and back on the ice. Unless you’ve done it before, people don’t realize how much work it is to get back into WHL playing shape. I hadn’t played a regular season game in over two years. I hadn’t played a semi-competitive game since the preseason game. I was 20 pounds heavier than my playing weight. I had to lose weight, get stronger and get faster. I also had to start from scratch on the ice. When you’ve been stuck in a bed for two months and haven’t been able to work out for three, you are pretty much an out of shape, 19 year old, bantam player, trying to get back to playing in one of the best junior hockey leagues. The physical stuff I could handle. I enjoyed grinding it out and getting back into shape both on and off the ice, but it was the mental side of things that I struggled with. I heard a lot of things like “once you get one concussion, it’s easier and easier to get another”. Well shit, I’m almost 19 years old and I’ve had seven. The thought of me being stuck in a bed for months again absolutely terrified me. Plus, there’s all the stuff about the brain disease, CTE, which is very common in people who have suffered concussions. This is still one of my biggest fears to this day. I think the fear of lying in bed was the factor that pushed me so hard physically. I felt like if I was stronger, I could take the hits better, if I was faster, I wouldn’t be in positions to get hit or I could move out of the way, and if I was just overall better, it would help my injury management. I want to be very clear here though, I have never been scared to get hurt in hockey. Once I got on the ice, the fear was gone. Hockey was my release from anything and everything. I kept thinking if hockey was worth putting my health on the line, but I just couldn’t hang the skates up yet. I loved the game. So, I got into the best shape so far in my life, and I felt like my game was WHL ready.
I think the fear of lying in bed was the factor that pushed me so hard physically
Just when I started feeling like I was ready to make a comeback, everything was put on hold. Vancouver’s staff wouldn’t let me play for them. I was a 19 year old kid who just wanted to play hockey. The organization had told me over and over again that the next time I play hockey, I would be in a Giants’ jersey. However, that seemed to change while I was kept in the dark. Less than a week before I was supposed to head back to Vancouver, I received a call from them saying they won’t let me play. I hadn’t played a game since September, and now it is mid-August and they are just telling me now. They had almost a year to make a decision. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate everything the Giants did for me, but I felt like this situation could have been handled a lot better. Now, I don’t have a team to play for, so I stayed at home and kept trying to stay in shape. I was lucky enough to be able to practice and eventually play a game with the Okotoks Oilers while a trade was put in place. I want to thank the Okotoks coaches, staff and players for letting me be a part of their team for a short while. They really didn’t have to do that, but they are truly a top notch and professional organization so a big thanks to them. While I was with Okotoks, I was traded to the Calgary Hitmen. I wasn’t with them that long, but I practiced with them for about a week and a half and right before I was about to get back in the lineup for a game at home against Everett. I got hit in practice and was concussed again. So, a couple weeks after the hit, I get called in to their office and they tell me I can’t play anymore. I want to make this clear that this was not my decision. People always say to me “oh that must have been such a hard decision”. I didn’t choose to retire, but just like that, hockey was taken away from me. No matter how hard it was to hear, I do not blame them for making this decision. If I were in their shoes, I probably would have made the same call for a player. In saying this, I would also like to thank the Hitmen for taking a chance on me and giving me another shot at my dream. Very classy and professional organization.
My recovery this time was a lot different. I was introduced to a doctor in Burnaby, and his treatment was life changing for me. So much of the time I worried that I was never going to feel normal again, but after Dr. Sigalet’s treatment, I finally felt like myself again and got back to feeling 100%. I could never repay him for all that he has done for me. People who struggle from concussion problems realize how big of a deal just feeling normal is, and I was lucky enough to get back to that feeling. I am currently going to University and am an assistant coach for the Midget AAA Calgary Northstars. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t wish I was playing again, but I have come to terms with it and started a new chapter of my life, with new goals and aspirations and I am excited to see my concussion free future.
So much of the time I worried that I was never going to feel normal again
In closing, for anybody who has or currently is struggling with concussion problems, feel free to reach out to me and I will try and help in any way I can. The only advice I could really give is that if you are struggling and seeing a “specialist” and things aren’t working out, don’t be afraid to change it up. For me, the traditional doctor treatment didn’t work, so I kind of said screw it, I can’t get much worse so let’s try something different, and it ended up changing my life. However, if the traditional doctors are working for you, than stick with that. Everybody is different so everybody needs different treatments.
I just wanted to take this time to thank my family for all the time and money they spent to support my dream. Not many people would do the things you guys did for me and I can never thank you guys enough. Also, I would like to thank Blair Courchene for everything he has done for me. I have learned so much from him as a player, a person and a coach. Truly one of the best hockey minds and more importantly, one of the best people I’ve met in my life. Thank you for bringing me on to your coaching staff and letting me be a part of the game I love, and also thank you for letting me share my story.
Thanks for your time