OTTAWA — For Jesse Winchester, there is light at the end of the tunnel, light that no longer hurts his eyes.
One month after being slammed head first into the boards by Paul Gaustad of the Buffalo Sabres, Winchester, a 28-year-old Ottawa Senators forward, is taking his first big steps toward recovery from a concussion.
On Friday at Scotiabank Place, Winchester performed 25 minutes of light exercises, mostly balance drills, led by a specialist in head trauma recommended by Senators physician Dr. Marc Aubry, himself a renowned leader in the treatment of brain injuries from hockey. Gradually, Winchester has been building up his exercise tolerance.
“It feels good to have my normal, everyday life back,” Winchester says, a smile emerging from under the hockey cap pulled low over his crop of blond hair. He is sitting in the team’s exercise room, delivering his first interview since suffering the most perplexing injury of his career.
Walking around town “like a normal person” is a leap from what Winchester was capable of in the days following the Dec. 20 hit, administered during the first period of a game in Ottawa. Winchester remembers everything about the contact, the cross-check from behind, how it didn’t hurt much except he couldn’t get to his feet without falling.
“Spaghetti legs” was the term a network analyst used to describe Winchester’s bid to regain his feet. For the next four days, Winchester was sleeping up to four hours during the day, just to escape the headaches.
And they weren’t the worst of it. He would have a conversation with someone, be able to focus for a few moments, and then the background would creep into view, making him feel dizzy.
At the zenith of experiencing post-concussion syndrome, Winchester says, “I’d get up and do stuff, but I was just like a zombie.”
A Colgate University graduate signed by the Senators as a free agent in 2008, Winchester grew up in nearby Long Sault, just outside Cornwall. He spent Christmas there with his family, which was convenient in more ways than one. When he felt weak or if his headaches returned, he would go off to his boyhood bedroom and sleep.
In Ottawa, Winchester shares a home with his girlfriend, Alana, and his brother Geoff. Jesse feels for what those two have gone through. He remembers snapping at his brother for no particular reason, his mood altered by the brain trauma.
“I’ve probably been pretty cranky,” he says. “It can’t be much fun for them, sitting around the house bored. Now, I’m starting to go out, the worst is over.”
And yet, as with all concussion cases, there is no timetable for Winchester’s return to hockey. Give me a torn MCL (medial collateral ligament) or fracture any day, he says, knowing that each day ligaments and bones heal, and he could do rehabilitation soon after surgery. The brain runs a different, more mysterious course toward recovery.
“I’ve made a lot of progress since (the hit),” Winchester says. “I feel like I’m getting better. The most frustrating thing is I don’t know when I’ll BE better.”
He has tried skating, but couldn’t keep his balance. He will try again soon. In the meantime, he is enjoying watching his Senators teammates pretty much wreck the rest of the NHL, continuing their shocking push toward the top of the Eastern Conference.
“The one good thing, with the team winning every game, there’s good TV every two nights when the games are on,” Winchester says. “They’ve been playing awesome. It’s been exciting to watch. Everybody’s contributing and the big boys are all hot.”
Winchester doesn’t feel animosity toward Gaustad, who was not penalized on the play (Google the hit and then explain to me how it wasn’t a cross-check or boarding call).
“I don’t think he really meant it but it’s caused me a lot of frustration,” Winchester says.
On balance, Winchester has little time for self pity. His doctors and trainers tell him stories about car accident victims who will never be able to perform the simple balance exercises he is doing today. Winchester is confident he is on the mend, having made more progress in the past week than in the three previous weeks combined.
“I think I’ll be skating soon, but I just don’t know,” he says.
Having been hit in the head before — what hockey player hasn’t? — though never suffering concussion symptoms like this, Winchester thinks about players like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Boston’s Marc Savard, dealing with symptoms for months at a time. Savard’s career is likely over; Crosby’s severely stalled.
“Look at how much focus is on Sidney, and all the questions he is asked all the time,” Winchester says. “He looks fine in the media. He looks normal, and you see him in a few clips on the ice, but he’s not right. A lot of people can’t understand.
“You read online, people chirping like, ‘Ah, suck it up, wear a cage.’ But he’s just not working right. You can’t tell, but you have to believe him … we want to play. We don’t want to be sitting out.”
In his spare time — sadly, Winchester has plenty of it — he is reading a book he received for Christmas — The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, written by Mark Lynas. The book chronicles the environmental carnage wreaked on earth by man.
Hockey could chronicle a matching document on how the game can survive the age of concussions.
Follow Wayne Scanlan on Twitter. com: @HockeyScanner.