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Slipping Down the Drain

Rochester PostBulletin Brett Boese, bboese@postbulletin.com Jun 16, 2017

Ex-Ice Hawks head coach Nick Fatis suffers from the effects of several concussions from his hockey playing days.

Last weekend was a somber one for Nick Fatis.

The 41-year-old former Rochester Ice Hawks head coach traveled west to attend the funeral of one of his best friends. It’s the third time he’s confronted the suicide of a former teammate.

Fatis declined to discuss details, including names, but, in his heart, he believes those three suicides can be traced to one common cause: concussions. He watched those friends — all of whom suffered multiple concussions through their semi-pro hockey careers — fight depression, a common side effect of post-concussion syndrome.

Those details echo research published this spring by neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, who diagnosed four junior hockey players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy following their suicides younger than 30. McKee, director of the CTE Center at Boston University, previously diagnosed Minnesota Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard with CTE.

It’s an emotional topic for Fatis, who stepped away from coaching last fall after suffering a debilitating concussion — at least the 15th of his life — that sent his life into a tailspin. For months, he thought his funeral might actually be next.

“I thought I was in a downward spiral that I was never going to come out of,” Fatis said before the funeral. “You hear about CTE and I had every symptom. For a month or two, I was telling people I was slipping down the drain.”

Michael “Doc” Fatis, the Ice Hawks owner, said he had an eye-opening conversation with his son following the sobering sojourn.

“He told me he had a rough time at the funeral,” Doc said. “‘This was a guy like me — the only difference is I have so many supports.’ He focused on that, but I did see periods where things looked almost hopeless.”

While he’s now making progress toward normalcy, the details of Nick Fatis’ struggle are jarring.

Following a freak concussion during Ice Hawks training camp, Fatis spent 12 hours a day locked in a cool, dark bathroom with earplugs in to dull his senses. His three kids were allowed in for quick hugs, but their dad was often unable to string words together to verbalize his affection. He was barely sleeping and constantly irritable.

The recovery period — that depression, those mood swings — lasted for months. And it cost him his marriage.

While his personal and professional life crumbled, Fatis said he was fighting simply to perform mundane tasks. Uncontrollable fits of anger — “rage reflex,” he says — soiled his personality. That’s a far cry from the happy-go-lucky youngster who embraced stand-up comedy for fun.

Doc recalls one postseason banquet where his son spent two hours locked away in a dark room before emerging to emcee the Ice Hawks event flawlessly, then immediately retreated back to darkness to relieve post-concussion syndrome symptoms.

That balancing act created a love-hate relationship with a game that once consumed his life.

“It was becoming a fight just to be a real person each day,” said Nick Fatis, who’s been managing persistent headaches for more than a decade.

That personal struggle with concussions highlights what’s become a popular buzzword across many athletic venues in recent years, including the NFL, NCAA and NHL. Professional hockey is now in that uncomfortable spotlight in a Minnesota courtroom.

Months after the NFL’s $1 billion concussion settlement was finalized by the U.S. Supreme Court, the NHL is facing a concussion lawsuit of its own. Some have even characterized it as an “existential threat to the league.”

The lawsuit, joined by more than 100 ex-players, accuses the NHL of neglecting their safety, while the NHL has fired back by calling the plaintiffs “puppets” looking for money. The NHL also disputes the existence of CTE, the controversial 2002 discovery by Dr. Bennet Omalu while studying the brains of former NFL players. That drama was recently depicted by Will Smith in the movie “Concussion.”

The lawsuit could actually head to trial this fall in Minneapolis at the same time Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine hosts “Ice Hockey Summit III: Action on Concussion” in Rochester. Dr. Aynsley Smith and Dr. Michael Stuart recommended that hockey — at all levels — eliminate head shots and fighting following the 2013 summit.

Four years later, those action items remain a work-in-progress.

“It’s important to set lofty goals, to prioritize action, but it might not happen overnight,” Stuart said. “It doesn’t mean those efforts are without merit. Sometimes change is slow.”

With the Fatis’ blessing, Mayo Clinic has partnered with the Ice Hawks for ongoing concussion tests and monitoring in recent years. Their ultimate goal is to create an objective test that eliminates subjectivity, which athletes can manipulate to stay eligible while putting themselves at greater risk. It would also prevent leagues from influencing the health and welfare of their athletes.

Fatis understands those competing interests all too well, having played and coached at various levels. While coaching offers continue to come in, concussions have created mixed emotions.

“Hockey has given me everything in my life, but it’s also taken everything away,” said Fatis, who was recently hired as general manager at Dunkin’ Donuts in downtown Rochester. “I love hockey. I love the game. When it comes to head injuries, that’s one of the few things that stops me in my tracks. It’s so emotional.

“People want to be out there for their next shift, their next game. I just want to be there playing with my kids 15 years from now. I wish I could take back every shift I played after getting a concussion. It can’t cure me, but it could keep me from going down those dark paths.”