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10/14/2011 12:25 AM -

The Griffins’ new athletic trainer is glad to be back in his home state; concussions will be just one of his concerns.
Story and photo by Mark Newman

John Bernal is in a unique position.

As an athletic trainer, he is responsible for helping players feel they are ready to perform at their peak capabilities. It is an assignment that is primarily physical – preventing and treating injuries – but it is partly psychological, making sure a guy’s head is screwed on right before he gets back on the ice.

It’s not an especially easy job, particularly when you’re working with big, tough guys who aren’t always willing to go to the bench, even for their own good. Bernal, however, thrives on the challenge.

He is thrilled to be working for the Griffins this season. Not only is he excited about being employed by a first-class organization, but he is also happy to be close to family and friends.

A native of Pinckney, near Howell, Bernal said it was important for him and his wife Susan, a pharmacist, to return to Michigan to raise their two kids, Madison, age 4-1/2, and Jackson, age 3.

“Being back in Michigan was the most important thing for me and my family,” he said. “This job’s awesome and the opportunity to be close to the kids’ grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins at the same time was too good to be true.”

Bernal earned his bachelor’s degree in sports medicine at Central Michigan University in 1999, then earned his master’s degree two years later at Arizona State University, where he was head trainer for the wrestling team and one of the assistants for the football team.

After finishing school, he headed to Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, where his wife has roots. He spent two seasons with the Upper Peninsula school before moving into the pro ranks with the ECHL’s Texas Wildcatters.

Bernal spent the past three seasons as the assistant athletic trainer for the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, following a four-year stint as head athletic trainer for the club’s AHL affiliates in San Antonio (2005-08) and Utah (2004-05).

“It was awesome being in the NHL – it’s everybody’s dream to get there – but with two little kids, we’re looking to finally settle down,” Bernal said. “We felt like, ‘Let’s grow some roots here.’ That means a lot to us now.”

Bernal had originally dreamed of working in the National Football League, but his exposure to the USA Hockey’s development program while a student at CMU led him to fall in love with the sport.

“I get to work with a great group of guys in a fun, family atmosphere,” he said. “Once you’re in the hockey community, it’s really a small world and you get to know a lot of players and coaches as you travel around the leagues.”

He also enjoys the unpredictability of his work. When he comes to the rink, he never knows what to expect from one day to the next.

“When something happens and somebody gets hurt, it could be anything, from a pulled muscle to a broken bone, which means you have to be prepared. Anything can happen, so you’ve got to be ready.”

And that brings Bernal to the topic of concussions, a growing concern not only in hockey but in all sports.

“Players today are bigger, faster, stronger,” Bernal said. “We have a lot of equipment to protect the body, but it’s very hard to protect the brain. There have been great strides in helmets, and we’re making progress, but there’s still a ways to go.”

A concussion is a mild to traumatic brain injury that commonly occurs in contact sports like hockey and football. Effects of a concussion – problems with headaches, dizziness, concentration, memory, judgment, balance or coordination – are often temporary, but may become troubling if another concussion occurs.

Second-impact syndrome, in which the brain swells dangerously after a minor blow, can develop if a person receives a second concussion days or weeks after an initial incident and before the original symptoms have cleared.

“It’s the little ones that add up and become a problem,” Bernal explained. “It’s the impact of repetitive brain trauma that is raising concerns.”

Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau and, more recently, Sidney Crosby are examples of excellent players who have had to deal with the devastating effects of concussions.

According to Bernal, the difficulty lies in determining when a concussion actually occurs.

“You can see the ones when the player is laying on the ice, knocked unconscious and taken off the ice on a spine board,” he said. “It’s the ones that you can’t see and guys ignore that may cause problems.”

Athletic trainers do their best to check out players whenever there is a concern, even if the players don’t want to acknowledge that they may have suffered an injury.

“These are tough guys who are used to being bumped in the head. They’ll say they’re fine – the cobwebs can clear pretty quickly – and it’s no big deal. But if a player shows even the slightest sign of anything, we try to get them somewhere they can be checked out.”

The NHL developed a neurological baseline test to help trainers and physicians determine whether there are any changes in cognitive function following a concussion.

League protocol, meanwhile, requires players to sit until they have proven themselves to be symptom-free both at rest and at exertion for at least 24 hours.

The process starts with the trainer’s initial evaluation. Players are asked a number of basic questions: Where are we? Who are we playing? What just happened?

“It goes back to basic first aid,” Bernal said. “We’re performing triage on the ice, not a complete evaluation. We’re trying to determine whether we need the medics or a physician. We want to diagnose things quickly so they can be treated promptly.”

If a physician suspects the player may have suffered a concussion, the player will undergo extensive testing. If cleared, the player will go through workouts that will gradually increase in intensity.

Variables such as the severity of the injury and whether the player has suffered concussions previously will determine how soon he might return to action.

Trainers will always err on the side of caution. Players, by their very nature, insist on throwing caution to the wind. “These are guys who don’t want to come off the ice for anything,” Bernal said.

In the meantime, hockey leagues are making strides to reduce the number of head injuries. Most circuits are cracking down on headhunters and doling out punishment in the form of lengthy suspensions to serial offenders.

“There’s a greater awareness of concussions throughout the NHL as well as through the minor leagues,” Bernal said. “The more awareness, the more likely it is that we can do something about it. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

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