They’re not as frequent as they were in the spring, but they’re no less intense.
As recently as a few weeks ago, a minute or two on a stationary bike made Shea Howorko feel like he was going to pass out.
And then there’s the lack of self perception.
“I really don’t know how close to normal I am,” the Swift Current Broncos forward said Sunday, 365 days since his last Western Hockey League game.
Yet none of this, on its own, scares Howorko.
It’s what these lingering symptoms represent.
“The only thing that’s scared me is if it could be permanent, if I could never play hockey again,” he said. “That’s my goal, is I want to come back and play. What’s scary is that it could take out my career. I try to keep hope every single day.”
Finding background on Howorko’s concussion is a bit like looking for Bigfoot. Verifiable information from media reports is non-existent and the answer may lie in the Pacific Northwest. But even Howorko himself isn’t sure of the details. It may have been friendly fire too. A freak accident last season.
“It was the weekend before we left to go off on our United States road trip,” he said. “I was just in practice and I was talking to Andy Schneider along the boards. Josh Derko stepped on a puck and lost his balance. His knee took out my leg and I went back and hit my head on the ice.”
Howorko vaguely remembers feeling, deep down, that something didn’t quite feel right. But in Crosby-esque fashion he told everyone he was fine and played anyway.
He took a big hit in Spokane Nov. 23, 2011. He fought Nov. 25 against the Tri-City Americans, and again in a line brawl with the Portland Winterhawks Nov. 27.
He suited up again Nov. 29 in Seattle and Dec. 3 at home against the Vancouver Giants.
And then he was gone, listed the next night as “sick/injured.”
The rest of the winter was a blur.
“I’m doing a lot better than I was the first four months,” said Howorko. “Those first four months I didn’t know where I was. It was just complete dizziness and constant, shooting headaches all day.”
He began seeing a battery of specialists — reflexologists, chiropractors, massage therapists to name just a few — and slowly but surely began to see improvement.
These days he’s working one day a week at the Callie Curling Club in Regina (“just to not feel like a bum all day”), taking an online class and doing his best to eat healthy since physical activity is tough to come by.
He’s also found a support group in Broncos teammate and fellow Notre Dame Hounds alumnus Brent Benson, who is currently recovering from a concussion of his own.
He keeps up with the rest of his team too, though from a safe distance as much as possible.
“I see the scores then text the boys after the game asking how they did,” said Howorko. “But I try not to watch.
“There are times where I’ve came down on weekends and it’s just so hard for me to watch because I want to be out there so damn bad. Seeing the team and how much fun they’re having, like now when they’re on a run getting a few wins, it’s kind of a sad feeling.”
With the benefit of hindsight and knowing what he knows now, Howorko would have listened a little closer to his body after his initial fall and skipped the U.S. road trip.
He blames no one. When he knew something was wrong, he stopped playing.
“But playing with it, I think it got progressively worse,” he said. “My memory fails me, but I feel like I would have known I did have a concussion right when my legs got taken out in practice, in my opinion, I could have been out a week to two weeks, tops.
“I knew my bell got rung. I saw stars but I figured I was fine. I felt like I’d hit my head harder before, but maybe it was just the way I hit it on the ice.”
Howorko’s first year of eligibility for the NHL Entry Draft — he started 2011-12 on Central Scouting’s pre-season watch list — came and went, and the odds of him returning in time to reintroduce himself to the pro scouts this year get slimmer by the day.
But Howorko says he’s far from finished and that The Dream is still as healthy as it’s ever been, even if he’s not.
“I’m not just hoping to be back,” he said. “I will be back. Hopefully soon.”