Concussion keeps DiMaio off ice, often on edge

Ex-Lightning player hopes to return in the 2008-09 season.

Published August 5, 2007

Imagine not being able to watch your kids in a school play because being in a crowd plunges you into a cold sweat.

Imagine not being able to drive at night because shining headlights cause dizziness and headaches, or having to walk away from your children because, for whatever reason, they are on your nerves and the patience of which you always were so proud has just about run out.

Imagine, then, you are Rob DiMaio.

It has been 11 months since DiMaio sustained a Grade II concussion in a Lightning preseason game. Eleven months and he still is waiting for life to get back to normal.

"I don't even know how to explain it properly so somebody can understand it," DiMaio said by phone from his Toronto home. "It's frustration, and it's frustration to the point where you wish you can just take a pill and fix it and it's not there."

DiMaio wanted it clear he is not disabled. He and wife Laura and their 8-year-old twins, Natalie and Julia, just had a great vacation in Italy, and DiMaio said he can exercise as long as he keeps his heart rate below 135, at which point his symptoms spike.

It is the headache, though, constant since the injury, that is most symbolic of DiMaio's post-concussion syndrome.

"It almost feels normal now to have a constant headache," he said. "It's a numbness type of feeling."

The good news: It is not nearly as intense.

"It's like night and day from where I was," DiMaio said. "I was just a mess for a long, long time."

A questionable hit

Guillaume Latendresse threw the check that likely will end DiMaio's career. The Canadiens rookie said at the time he meant no harm, and the Montreal newspapers reported Latendresse was trying to win a job by showing coaches how hard he could hit.

Latendresse lined up DiMaio; caught him from a blind side first with his body and then an elbow. DiMaio's neck bent. His head bounced off the side glass. He crumbled to the ice.

DiMaio said he cannot recall how many concussions he has had but is sure the accumulation of hits over a hard-nosed 18-year career that was more about grit than numbers contributed to the last one's severity.

DiMaio still is not steady enough to be on skates. He said his memory is a problem and a doctor warned that taking another hit could be "dangerous" to his long-term health.

Even so, the 39-year-old right wing said he hopes to play in 2008-09.

"Probably slim and none," he said of his chances. "But I don't want to be one of those guys who says he's retired and comes out of retirement. I'm leaning that way, but it's not 100 percent in my mind yet."

Nick Kypreos, who quit an eight-year NHL career in 1998 because of postconcussion syndrome, said retiring likely would accelerate DiMaio's healing process.

"Once you get over that hump of thinking of yourself as an athlete and start thinking like an average Joe in society, then, believe it or not, it gets easier to deal with," said Kypreos, whose advice DiMaio sought along with that of former Lightning star Brian Bradley, another concussion casualty.

The key, Kypreos added, is accepting a long-term recovery: "I told Robbie, there is going to be a point when he feels like himself again. I didn't start feeling better or like my old self for over a year, and it's frustrating. As athletes, we want results on a daily basis."

"He's just got to take it slow," said Bradley, whose career ended after the 1997-98 season. "I had symptoms for three years. I felt nauseous. I had headaches every day. Time will heal everything."

Daddy has a headache

Worse than dealing with his symptoms, DiMaio said, is how they affect family interactions. He said there was a time when picking up daughters Natalie and Julia pushed the symptoms into the red zone.

His patience is easily tested.

"If you're getting them ready for school and maybe they don't listen at one point, you snap very easily," he said. "It's just an overwhelming emotional feeling that you just got upset and you don't really understand why."

DiMaio said that is when he walks away: "I just tell my wife she has to deal with it. I respect that she is so patient with me when it comes to those circumstances. She has tried to explain to them, and they understand, daddy basically has a headache."

The positive, Laura said, is her husband has time at home instead of with a team.

"We've tried to spin it that it's a blessing in disguise," she said. "If this hadn't happened, he would not have been able to see a lot of things with his children. So you count your blessings."

DiMaio said some days are better than others. Some days he wakes up and says, "Hey, I feel pretty good."

But then he is in a crowd or tries to "push a little bit harder" during a workout, "and it goes the other way and I have to wait a couple of days before I feel somewhat normal again."

"The word this whole thing can be written under is frustration," DiMaio said. "You learn to live with it."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com or 727 893-8622.