Thursday, January 05, 2006

Concussions end Swarthout's career

Faced with the potential for long-term health problems, Traverse City North Stars forward Tony Swarthout made what amounted to an empty-net goal: Ending his junior hockey playing days.

The lanky forward, still feeling the lingering effects of his eighth concussion suffered Dec. 4 at Cleveland, said goodbye to staff, coaches and teammates on Tuesday, and headed home to Hartland, where he plans to take up coaching.

“I want to be able to speak, to walk, to talk for the rest of my life,” Swarthout explained. “Those things are even more important than playing hockey.”

The 6-7 winger sought the advice of numerous doctors before coming to his decision to give up junior hockey. Stars head coach/GM Scott Gardiner says he supports the decision.

“It absolutely was the right thing to do,” said Gardiner, who coached Swarthout as a youth, as a member of the now-defunct Traverse City Enforcers junior club, and as a charter member of the North Stars. “If you’re in coaching long enough, you come across a few people who are truly special, and Tony is one of those guys. He isn’t a guy who is going to score a ton of goals, but he makes his impact both on the ice and in the locker room. He’s just a great guy – and one of my favorite players ever.”

Swarthout, who had two assists in his 15 games this season, says he had to leave Traverse City in order to come to terms with his decision.

“I love it here, it’s like a second home and the best hockey town I’ve ever been to. But I don’t think I could be here and not play – I think it would drive me crazy. I’ll be back to watch the weekend games, but I’ve been skating since I was two years old, and it’s very hard to just … stop.”

Swarthout’s height – he was the tallest player in the North American Hockey League – actually made him prone to concussions. Several came when shorter players stood erect and struck Swarthout under his chin with the tops of their helmets. North Stars medical director Eric Niezgoda says the phenomenon was a chronic one.

“Multiple concussions came from shorter players impacting him under the jaw due to his height, and that was the biggest problem,” Niezgoda explained. “Myself and the medical staff think he made the proper decision. With further concussions, he really would risk more permanent damage.”

While Swarthout says he is going to direct his energies toward coaching youth and high school hockey, he expressed sadness at walking away from the many friends he made in Traverse City.

“One of the things you miss is just being around the guys, and these are great guys on this team,” Swarthout said. “This was a hard decision, but one I had to make. I’ll miss the fans, the town, the people – the whole thing.”

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