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OKOTOKIAN: A head for the game

Chris Duszynski's doctoral thesis on concussion research

A former Okotoks Oiler captain wakes up every day with a clear head and clear vision towards obtaining one of his biggest goals.

Chris Duszynski, a co-captain for the Okotoks Oilers in 2009-10, is near to completing and defending his dissertation en route to earning his doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Calgary.

The fact the rugged 6-foot, 190-pound forward did not ever suffer a serious concussion through his career is the motivation of his thesis.

“I got hit plenty of times in the boards and I was fortunate to not have concussions that led to me having to miss time or have a bunch of symptoms,” the 30-year-old Duszynski said. “I was always interested in why don’t we understand why certain people are susceptible to having head injuries and serious symptoms.

“Just being around it all the time and realizing as much as we are learning, there is so much more we don’t know about it.”

He said during his career he saw teammates who suffered concussions.

“It didn’t necessarily have to be the biggest hit or the one that looked the worst, but certain people were more susceptible,” he said.

Duszynski was a player who wasn’t afraid to go in the corners and do some of the not-so-glamourous work for the team. He made the rare jump from Okotoks AAMidget Oilers to the AJHL in 2007. His style helped get him there.

“I don’t want to say that I was one of the tough guys out there, but I wasn’t afraid to go to some of the tough areas,” said Duszynski, a 2007 Holy Trinity Academy grad. “I think I played with a level of recklessness now that I look back on it. I wasn’t so concerned with having to go hard after a guy or having to make a check.

“I prided myself to play a game where I could contribute on the scoreboard and not give up on playing a physical game as well.”

Duszynski went on to play at Norwich College in Vermont where he graduated with a degree in health science sports management. (Norwich would make the Div. III Final Four three times in Duszynski’s career. They would lose out all three years to St. Norbert, led by Nanton’s Brandon Hoogenboom, who was the co-captain of the Oilers with Duszynski in 2009-10).

Duszynski would finish his career with the Colorado Eagles, near Fort Collins, of the East Coast Hockey League.

“That league was kind of a blend of really good young players who could climb up the ranks to the NHL and you have guys who had a drink in the NHL or have had a long career in the minors,” Duszynski said. “Then you had a handful of college guys who wanted to play a couple of years before they move on… but yeah, there were definitely some big mean players that most teams have.

“It was pretty rough.”

He played one season with Colorado before beginning work on his thesis at the University of Calgary, which deals with developing a tool, the near-infrared spectroscopy, to read how the brain is functioning.

“The tool shines near infrared light into the brain tissue, basically through the scalp and through the skin and measures the change and property of the light as it passes through that tissue,” Duszynski said. “That gives us a sense of changes in how the brain is functioning.”

The tool looks like a swimmer’s head cap with lots of lights in it.

“These lights are then able to measure any changes as to how the brain is functioning,” Duszynski said. “It could essentially be used in a variety of settings. It’s non-evasive, you don’t feel any different, there are no physical changes when you do the measurements.”

It’s meant a wide range of testing over Duszynski’s four years at the U of C.

“The first step is to test someone who is post-concussion and has symptoms and compare them to someone who has no concussion to see if there are differences in their brain function or brain activity following that injury that are different from that person who hasn’t had that injury,” Duszynski said.

The next level was following an individual who had a concussion.

“It was to potentially test people – baseline people – before a season or at a certain time and follow them,” Duszynski said. “If they have a different injury (concussion), to be able to say: ‘Are you different now than you were before this injury?’”

Duszynski has been working in the lab with high school athletics in association with sports research medicine.

“Calgary is a bit of a hub for concussion research,” Duszynski said. “We are now at the stage where we have some very early validation information that says we might have a useful tool.

“Now it’s at that stage of applying that tool to different populations and studying those populations.”

At present, the tool is not being used clinically or for decision making, but some of the studies are taking place in an athletic therapist’s office or an athletic training centre – or right on the field of action.

“If we have power at the sideline of a football field, we can do measurements there,” Duszynski said. “But the technology is there for being used anywhere that has the power.”

A long-term vision is to possibly have the cap at an arena, athletic field or other venues – similar to an AED machine at facilities now.

“If this type of technology really turns out to be sensitive to the injury, it might tell you how you look at this athlete or individual, it could absolutely be a very small medical device that could be in any athletic office or a hockey rink that could potentially provide more information,” Duszynski said.

Although he is close to finishing his thesis, he still can’t give a definitive answer as to why he was virtually Scot-free in regards to concussions, while teammates with a less aggressive style were prone to head injuries.

“At the end of the day, we don’t have all the answers, but there are a number of things that we do understand now that we didn’t 10 years ago,” Duszynski said. “The research and literature is continually growing in this area.”

He said the no. 1 risk factor is having a previous concussion.

“That doesn’t mean that every time you have a concussion you are going to have another one,” he said. “But that also doesn’t mean is there something about that person that is prone to the injury or is it the actual injury that contributes to another injury?”

He said genetics could be a factor, slight differences in the types of proteins or molecules one has in his or her brain.

“Also the type of sport you play, some positions in football are more prone (to concussions) than others,” he said.

Although he admits to have playing reckless at times, Duszynski, who got married in the summer, said he would allow any of his future children to play hockey, football or other contact sports.

“One-hundred per cent,” Duszynski said. “I don’t want to pass judgement on anybody regarding what they think is best for their children.

“The health perspective or the learning traits and characteristics you can only really learn from team sports or certain activities, I think that benefit far outweighs any risk of concussion injury.

“If managed properly and the correct awareness around certain sports, if you have an injury, you identify it correctly and do the proper steps — the proper time to recover — the risk of long-term affect is very low.”

He said team sports gave him everything today.

“All the skillsets that I used in everything I have done — including the PhD and the work I am doing now were developed by team sports growing up,” he said.

The Oilers in Duszynski’s era seemed to benefit from team sports. He said on the 2008-09 team, there were 18 Oilers who earned scholarships.


Bruce Campbell

About the Author: Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell is the editor for and the Western Wheel newspaper. He is a graduate of Mount Royal College journalism program, 1991. For story tips contact
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