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Niclas Wallin: “I hit a wall. I don’t wish that even on my worst enemy.”

The former Hurricanes defenseman and Stanley Cup champion tells a Swedish newspaper about the concussion that ended his career and how he is getting better day by day.

Jamie Kellner

This is a translation of the original article by Henrik Danielsson in NSD. Translated with permission. Translation in cooperation with Samuel Nieminen.

You know what? I’m really tired of reading about concussions.

When I open a newspaper, I want to read that Luleå won. I don’t want to see an article about a nasty hit, or similar. That’s only frightening. The concussion talk has become such a chatter. It is what it is, and I understand it has to be. But it has gained too much focus. I don’t want to tell a story, if it drives the youth away from the ice hockey rinks. It just became the way it is.

This is Niclas Wallin, who doesn’t want to scare the youth into leaving the hockey rinks. He’s a Stanley Cup winner and a former defenseman star. More specifically, he’s a player whose career ended prematurely on the basis of concussions.

After the 2011-12 season, Yelverton Tegner, the former doctor of the Luleå Hockey Club, presented a paper to Wallin. What was written on the paper? “It was the end of my career.

“Right now, I think that life is good. I have a job that I like, and all of the people close to me are doing well. Sometimes the sun shines, sometimes it doesn’t. But for me, everything’s as good as ever. If things don’t get worse than this, it’s going to be great,” says Wallin.

Photographer Petra Älvstrand’s pictures show Wallin on his new job.

“We’re building a brand new psychiatric ward at Sunderby hospital. We’re going to be here in 27 months, and 23 months remain. We have a lot to look forward to. We’re young guys and gals in the mix with older folks. It’s very nice.”

One thing has had to take a back seat after his [hockey] career.

“For training today? I go walking. I’m outside a lot, go out to a forest, take hikes, and things like that. But I’m not working at a gym, not doing a bench press, like before. That stuff doesn’t exist.”

There’s certainly an explanation for this. Yes, the concussions - exactly.

“I’ve chosen not to give a lot of public comment on the matter. How am I today? It goes up and down, but it can be controlled.”

Wallin says that he can still be sensitive to sounds and light.

“It can often lead to depression. I’ve been through that myself, too. But I’ve learned what all that entails in the long run. Let me explain. Sleeping is very important, as is nutrition. If I go to watch hockey some evening, I will notice it. The first year it was just howling in my head and my ears, if I went to a hockey game.”

Wallin doesn’t have any regrets looking back on his career.

“I couldn’t have had it any other way, than to be a part of a team and a locker room. I don’t have the technique, nor a robust split vision. I’m big and strong. I’ve taken a lot of hits. When I was involved in those, totaling a thousand games, including in junior hockey, it leads to a walloping. Whiplash injuries and the like can occur.”

The resident of Boden [Sweden, Wallin’s hometown] continues.

“I live a full, normal life today. Everything isn’t black. At the same time, I also know that the game led into my hitting a wall. I don’t wish that for even the worst enemy of mine. It was hard as shit.”

When was this?

“It was right after the season. I was looking forward to it (the season) coming to an end. I barely have any memories from my final season. You can ask anything. I know that we were damn good in the regular season, and we were a hard working team, playing tough hockey. But when it comes to the things around the hockey games and such, everything has been awfully blurry.”

Those blurred images result from the concussion that occurred in a European Trophy game in September of 2011.

“We met Sparta Prague in the Czech Republic, and I took a real ugly hit. It was a clean elbow hit on the neck. My chin was battered. I woke up at a hospital. I was unconscious for quite long.

“Then we met Växjö in [the season opener] on home ice. It felt like I had spaghetti legs the whole game. I certainly was nervous before the home game, just coming home from the U.S. and stuff. But my body never could pull it together, after that.”

Wallin goes on. “I went through a concussion or something. Then it happened again before the Christmas break, and I wasn’t back until February. My body just stopped functioning.”

“I wasn’t familiar with my body anymore. Not within the game, nor on ice. Mostly, it had to do with the recovery. Following one shift, I had gelled legs. It hadn’t happened to me ever before. I haven’t played Nicklas Lidström minutes, but I have, nevertheless, played a lot of PK and gotten those shifts that cause real acidic legs.

“That was the moment, when I encountered the biggest difference (compared to the past). I wasn’t able to recover. I was like: “What’s the deal, is it ever going to turn?”

After that season, Wallin had two years left on the contract with Luleå. He would have liked to continue playing, but it didn’t work out.

“Hockey-wise, I would have wanted to put two more years in. I’d lie if I said anything else. But it didn’t do. Yelverton (Tegner) signed a paper, and said that it’s the termination of my career.”

So, was that the summer you hit a wall?

”Yes, my whole life turned upside down. When you go on a pension, it just ends one day. Sure, there are other possibilities. You can do consulting, and work anyway. But, as an ice hockey player, one has been on a certain level, and has been training accordingly. The body is more accustomed to training than to resting. Then, one day, all that comes to an end. The body changes. I believe it happens to all of the sportsmen and sportswomen, likewise. Of course, there are those who can handle the situation just fine.

“I miss the feeling of winning and battle, and to be a part of a team. That’s what I miss. I don’t miss running inside a locker room only to have a job. The winning is absolutely the thing I miss the most. I’m not going to get to win anymore. I feel like it’s the biggest loss in my life.”

After his last season as an active hockey player, Wallin developed problems with one of the things considered of high importance today: sleep.

He describes how it was: “You go lay yourself down. You fall asleep and sleep for a while. Then you wake up, and cannot do it over. It feels like you would’ve slept forever, but the time is only 1:00 a.m. How does one get rid of that problem? I was sleepless for 21 days.

“We had a real fun ending of the season with Luleå. But when I came home from that, it was like it never ended. It felt like your backpack just kept piling on. I didn’t sleep, had stomach pains, took sleeping pills, trying to catch some sleep. But I didn’t fall asleep. Then you lay there and think. That becomes a real mess in the end. It was frigging hard.”

It also led into Wallin hitting a wall.

“I hadn’t understood before, the thing with being burned out. It had never existed for me, until it happened to me. But I can say, I fully respect that the things are as they are now. I’ve been there, I have many friends who have been there. It isn’t nice.”

When this interview took place, Niclas Wallin wanted to address several times, that he’s leading a good life today. He doesn’t want to grumble needlessly. And, like mentioned before, he doesn’t want to scare the young athletes.

“I try to see the positive. I was 37, after all. I’ve gotten to win a gold medal in the Swedish league, won a Stanley Cup, lost in a Stanley Cup Final. I’ve played in nearly 90 playoff games in the NHL, and went far in the most of the playoff games. I have gotten to attend the World Championships. I’ve gotten to take part in damn everything a hockey player can dream of. Just think of those players who need to quit at 21. I see such things, and try looking at the positive side.”

You had a long career, after all.

”Yes, it was fantastic. But it isn’t so easy, but rather a poison. The body’s used to training and routines. The awareness, to what to do going onward. That part I don’t have anymore.

“But now I work and I know what to do at work. We’re a team out here. We’re 18-20 men who work in this barracks. For me, it’s my hockey, and I’m feeling really comfortable right now.

“And you know what? I haven’t ever begrudged a single second about the things that I’ve done in hockey. Even though I’ve felt like I may have done so, it’s been worth it. Every second I’ve gotten to train and be with the guys has shown that it’s worth it. It’s been so fricking fun.”