Rourke Chartier is finally coming out of the haze that he’s been in for the last three years.
It’s been 18 months since Chartier’s last hockey game. 18 months since that last concussion, the one that caused the 24-year-old to miss the entire 2019-20 season.
It’s been 39 months since Chartier’s first concussion in the San Jose Sharks organization. 39 months since that first concussion, the one he’s finally recovered from.
From the first concussion on May 2, 2017 to the last concussion on February 21, 2019, Chartier played, despite headaches. He played, despite never feeling 100 percent. He played, despite another concussion.
And he played, despite passing every concussion protocol test — except the most important test, the one in his own mind.
“I’m finally feeling better now,” the free agent told San Jose Hockey Now from Saskatoon last week. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
May 2, 2017
It was the deciding game of the San Jose Barracuda’s first-round match-up against the Stockton Heat. Chartier was putting the finishing touches on a solid pro debut campaign.
“Got hit by Matt Frattin after a whistle to the head,” Chartier recalled. “My head hit the glass as well.”
Frattin wasn’t penalized.
Three days later, Chartier was in the Barracuda line-up for a Game One loss against the San Diego Gulls. The next night, he added an assist in a Game Two victory.
“It’s the hockey player mentality. You play through all these other injuries. You grow up, everyone’s hurt all the time. You’re playing through playoffs, everyone just wants to play,” the 2014 Sharks fourth-round draft pick said.
“It’s a double-edged sword. The warrior mentality, it’s the mentality that makes you successful in a game of aggression, a contact sport,” Chartier’s agent Timothy Hodgson offered. “It’s also a mentality that can create other dynamics, not necessarily healthy.”
Chartier would go to the trainers after Game Two.
November 22, 2017
The 5-foot-11 center sat out Sharks development camp in July 2017. He sat out training camp in September. San Jose sent him to concussion specialists.
But that wouldn’t prove to be enough, even when he returned in November.
Five games into his comeback, San Antonio Rampage defenseman Mason Geertsen viciously elbowed Chartier’s head.
Geertsen was suspended for three games. Chartier would miss three months.
“I should have never been playing in that game when I got hit in November,” he acknowledged.
According to Chartier, he passed every concussion protocol test before every comeback.
“Those tests — as good as the tests are — I think there’s a long way to go. It’s very easy to pass, even when you’re symptomatic,” he observed. “If you want to pass, you can pass.”
The second-year pro, trying to justify his entry-level contract, rushed back to action again in February 2018.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to be your call,” Chartier noted. “At the end of the day, I was the last one, I could have always said no.”
February 21, 2019
At the beginning of the 2018-19 season, however, the pending restricted free agent appeared to be back on track. He broke camp with the big club, making his NHL debut on October 8th. Three weeks later, he collected his first NHL goal.
Looking back, Chartier acknowledged, “I was never actually fully back to normal.”
Since the Geertsen elbow, Chartier had amassed 22 points in 28 regular season and playoff Barracuda games. He was now living out his childhood dream of being an NHL’er.
From a distance, he looked like Rourke Chartier. But inside, he knew there was still something wrong: “You’re not going to see it from the outside. But I just knew in my head, a little bit of hesitation here and there.
“When you’re dealing with headaches and stuff, the last thing you want to do is go head down to the net. When you’re playing with headaches, you’re just not yourself.”
After 13 games, the Sharks sent Chartier back to the AHL. He continued to produce for the Barracuda, notching 18 points in 24 games.
But then came the February back-to-back in Iowa that would end Chartier’s make-or-break season.
It was an innocent-looking play.
In the second period of the opening game in Iowa, Chartier headed toward the high slot, hoping to provide traffic or deflect the incoming Nick DeSimone point shot.
“They weren’t crazy blows by then,” Chartier said of the Hunter Warner slap. “Most guys would have been fine. But I wasn’t right.”
Chartier did not leave the game.
“I just started feeling worse and worse and probably should have said something the next morning,” he remembered.
Chartier stayed silent, no one around him noticed, and he suited up the next night.
“As the game kind of went on, I didn’t feel right,” Chartier revealed. “You’re kind of anxious being what I’ve been through. I never want to sit out again. The last thing you want to say is you got this going on.
“It just got to the point where I knew something was really wrong.”
February 22, 2019 would be Chartier’s last hockey game. But this time, he didn’t hurry back.
“I had to look myself in the mirror after that last game,” Chartier said. “I just said I’m not playing again until I feel 100 percent.”
A Hard Lesson
“He has good days and bad days,” Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer acknowledged a month later. “We’re just waiting for him to have more good days than bad.”
More good days never came, at least in San Jose. On June 25th, the Sharks declined to give Chartier a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent.
Chartier reflected: “I don’t blame the organization. It is what it is now. I won’t be back in San Jose. What’s gone is gone. I try not to look back at what happened.
“Knowing what I’ve been through, I didn’t take the right approach. I’m not going to point fingers at anybody.
“It was my fault. I don’t blame anyone specifically. Just end of the day, it wasn’t done right.”
Chartier set out to get back to how he felt before his first concussion in the Sharks organization, seeing a bevy of private concussion specialists. According to Hodgson, they’re working with the San Jose organization on reimbursement of medical costs.
“Unfortunately,” Chartier said, “I’ve learned everything about concussions and every different person’s point of view on them.”
Meanwhile, other NHL organizations kept tabs on Chartier, reaching out to Hodgson. But Chartier had learned his lesson, resisting the urge to rush back into action too fast again: “It felt like I just kept putting a Band-Aid on an issue. It wasn’t a Band-Aid fix.”
The days turned to months, the months turned to a year away from the game for Chartier.
“It’s a really scary and lonely place. I think it’s worse for athletes. You just take your body for granted,” said Medicine Hat Tigers GM Willie Desjardins, a family friend who’s been advising Chartier. “You grow up, you think it’s going to be there. It’s always there, never let me down, it’s never going to let me down. All of a sudden, when it’s not there, you really don’t know what to do.”
There started being more good days than bad for Chartier. He powered through the bad days.
“Even if I was feeling bad, you have to try to keep everything as normal as possible,” Chartier offered. “The minute you go into the darkroom and you’re sitting there by yourself, that’s where your mental health can take a really bad turn.”
Chartier skated with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades. He fished at Clam Lake. He worked out five days a week.
“Feeling how I felt for so long, you forget what normal is,” he acknowledged. “For me, it’s getting to that point where I feel confident this is how I should be feeling.”
Slowly but surely, 18 months after the February 2019 concussion, Chartier has turned the corner. The UFA hopes to get a second chance at the NHL: “I never got to show what I have. I’m feeling better than I have since my first year.
“No one wants to sit out. But if I would have made the choice to sit out longer earlier, I don’t think I would have had to sit out this long this time.”
Despite the “hockey player mentality” that led Chartier down this wayward path, he still believes in playing through injury. That is, most injuries.
“Your brain is your number-one priority,” Chartier stressed. “You can’t do much without it.”
It took some hard lessons for him to learn that. And frankly, the sport is still catching up. In the past year, when Chartier sought out other players to talk to about their concussion experiences, he often discovered a still-pervasive culture of silence.
“I think a lot of guys don’t want to talk about it, which is fair enough,” Chartier said. “It’s one of those things you get, you want to put it behind you.”
Of course, Chartier tried that. But it wasn’t until he admitted the significance of the concussion problem, that he could truly tackle it.
“Hopefully, it makes me a better person and player down the road,” he offered.
And hopefully, hockey learns the same lesson.
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