During the first intermission of any San Francisco Bulls home game – when most people are walking down the stairs to the concourse level – a lone figure in an obscure corner of the Cow Palace is heading up the stairs. Whereas most folks use the time between hockey periods to grab another beverage, relieve themselves of their last beverage or check out the latest orange and black swag, Doctor Patrick Carter heads to the dressing rooms to see how much damage one period of hockey as inflicted on his hockey team.
The term ‘team doctor’ is often bandied about in professional sports conversations. Injuries are part of the game – any game – and the team doctor is often on the front line when determining if an athlete can or cannot play. At the highest levels of professional sports those decisions can mean millions of dollars and entire careers. And while careers are still at stake, at the ECHL level the team doctor plays a more humble, human role.
Dr. Carter, who admits he watched at best a Stanley Cup final game or two before working for the Bulls, recounts how he became involved with the team. ”A friend who had been hired by the Bulls to do some marketing called and asked if I would be interested in being the team physician. I thought about it briefly and because of my interest in young people and athletes I decided well, it might be a fun thing to do.”
The doctor, who is part of a small medical team, is required to attend all home games. They provide the initial care and medical assessment for both the home and visiting teams. Dr. Carter’s experience confirms that hockey players are willing to play through most anything, although at this level it’s even more of a matter of survival.
“They certainly are willing to put up with pain, and play through pain. And I’m not so sure it’s just craziness as it is survival. There is always somebody right there willing and ready to take your place. This (NHL lockout) year more so than others because not only is there pressure from the bottom, there’s pressure from the top pushing down on them as NHL players go to the AAA, AAA players going to the AA and AA players … I don’t know where they go.”
“You’re only as good as your last game” was how Kris Belan, San Francisco Bulls forward, once explained it.
But to what lengths are these players willing to go to get back into the game?
“One night, … the other team … he had an injury to his right eye – the upper lid – and we put about six stitches in, in the first period, and we did an eye exam and … he had blurred vision, and he had evidence that his pupils were unresponsive to light and unequal.”
“We said we’d watch you for a concussion and both the player and the trainer said ‘Well, you mean he can’t go back in and play?’ He can’t see straight, has blurred vision, but he wanted to go back and play. The orthopedist was there with me, we sort of laughed to ourselves ‘What?! Is that really a question?!’”
Stories of stitches and lost teeth are part of hockey lore, but something far much less dramatic is typical in the hockey dressing room.
“Generally it’s gastrointestinal issues. The way they eat, play, sleep – they have much greater incidence of gastrointestinal (issues). They’ll come in in an intermission and they’re slugging Pepto-Bismol I’ll say ‘wait a minute, what’s going on?’”
At the end of the day Dr. Carter and the medical staff have the last word. “If we don’t say they can play, they can’t play”.
Dr. Carter is very generous when asked to assess his decision to work with the team. ”I’m very pleased with the men that I’ve met, and consider it an honor to be associated with these young fellas as they start their careers and try to establish the Bulls here. It’s a good, pleasant place to work.”