Last year at this time, returning to a hockey career in a University of Maine jersey was one of the furthest things from Kelen Corkum’s mind.
Numerous concussions and excruciating headaches had left his future in limbo. All he wanted was to be pain-free so he could lead a normal life.
To play hockey again, he would have to get healthy first.
In early July, he received the official news that he could resurrect his hockey career at UMaine this fall.
Dr. Micky Collins, a Hermon native and sports concussion specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, gave Corkum the green light to resume hockey after running a battery of tests on him.
“He passed the tests with flying colors,” said Bob Corkum, Kelen Corkum’s father and the assistant head coach at Maine, where he was a standout winger. “Micky told us he had no reservations about allowing him to play.”
Kelen Corkum, 20, hasn’t played in a hockey game since October 2008.
He was playing for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs in the Eastern Junior Hockey League and was off to a red-hot start with nine goals and four assists in 13 games. He suffered whiplash from a hit in practice, and headaches he suffered after his first concussion flared up again.
Corkum left the team and suffered bouts of depression, debilitating headaches and sleeplessness.
The Corkums eventually sought out Collins, and Kelen began the long road to recovery.
He had hoped to start his first season with the Black Bears last fall. Now, he has been symptom-free for 11 months and said he felt “relieved” to get the green light from Collins.
“The past three times I had a concussion and went back to play, I had never received a clearance from [a specialist] like Micky,” said Corkum. “This time I know everything that happened is over with and I can move on.
“My dad and I were very comfortable hearing that. There was no doubt in our minds,” added Kelen.
“If Micky said all the tests were good and that if Kelen were his own son, he’d let him play — I’m confident he’s ready to step back on the ice,” said Jessica Corkum, Kelen’s mother.
Corkum has taken a couple of classes at Maine preparing for his return and has been working out diligently for nearly a year.
“He is in real good shape. He has been working out like a madman,” said Bob Corkum.
Turning a corner
Kelen Corkum, who is from Newburyport, Mass., and now lives in Bangor, said he knew he had finally turned the corner a year ago.
“I like to work out hard and I was finally able to work out for a week without feeling any symptoms afterwards,” he said. “I knew I could go on from there.”
He had skated a little last year but resumed in earnest a week ago after the ice was put back in at Alfond Arena for summer hockey clinics.
“It was great. It’s like I had never left it,” he said.
Because of doctor-patient confidentiality rules, Collins couldn’t talk specifically about Corkum’s case. However, he did say, “I can tell you with confidence that if a person is cleared by me to play, they had to pass some very specific criteria. I’m not going to allow someone to play unless the criteria was met.”
He also said, “Usually when you have an injury and manage it well, things are very cool. It’s when you have an injured patient who isn’t fully recovered [when they return to play] that can lead to more serious problems like post-concussion syndrome.”
The University of Maine has been a leader in head-injury awareness, according to Collins.
He said Maine is one of the first two or three universities to use the computerized Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing — or ImPACT — program. Collins helped design the program, which helps medical personnel and athletes assess and manage their concussions by gauging the severity of the concus-sion and establishing a timetable for recovery.
“And now every major program has it,” Collins said.
Collins said another important component of an injured player’s recovery is the care he receives from a trainer or team doctor. And Collins feels Corkum is in good hands with Maine trainer Paul Culina.
“When you clear an athlete to play, the person involved in overseeing the care that person receives goes a long way toward building confidence [in the player’s recovery maintenance], and I can’t think of anyone better than Paul Culina in overseeing return-to-play issues,” said Collins. “Paul is top-shelf. He does a great job.”
A difficult recovery
Corkum’s path to recovery was a difficult one.
“There was an eight- or nine-month stretch where you couldn’t even recognize him,” said Bob Corkum. “He wasn’t the same kid. He was depressed and angry. His quality of life was terrible.”
“I was definitely having a tough time. I was depressed and miserable and in pain 24 hours a day,” said Kelen,
“It wasn’t easy,” said Jessica Corkum. “Kelen did a lot of writing and reading. He read something he had written and mentioned how dark it sounded. He struggled, but he found ways to cope.”
Kelen Corkum is much happier these days.
“Now that the pain is gone, I can think straight and be happy. I’m going to play hockey and that’s what makes me happy,” said Corkum.
“Playing hockey is what he loves to do,” said Bob Corkum.
His parents and Maine coach Tim Whitehead are proud of what Kelen has accomplished.
“I’m very excited for him. He has worked long and hard and has been very patient throughout the whole process,” said Bob Corkum.
“It has been a long road,” said Jessica.
Whitehead said, “He has been through so much mentally and physically over the last two years and to rise up and be ready to compete again is quite an accomplishment for him.”
Kelen Corkum has been working out with some teammates as well as by himself at the university and he says being a part of a team again will be therapeutic.
“I’ve definitely missed the camaraderie of the hockey life,” Kelen said. “Working toward a goal with a group of guys you like is tough to be away from. Everyone on the team supports you.”
A physical player
Corkum, who formerly played for the United States National Team Development Program’s Under-17 and Under-18 squads, said he isn’t “too worried” about absorbing hits.
“That’s the furthest thing from my mind. If I think about it and have it on my mind, that’s when I’ll get hurt,” said Corkum. “Preseason is the key. That’s when I’ll get tested by taking hits.”
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Corkum has always been a physical player, and that won’t change.
“That’s my personality. That’s my favorite part of the game,” said Corkum, who can play center or wing. “However, I’ll need to be smart with my body. I don’t always have to put somebody through the boards when I hit them.”
“At this age, players think they’re invincible, and if they see a hit coming, they try to reverse the charges,” said Bob Corkum, a hard-nosed player at Maine and during his 720-game NHL career. “But you’ve got to get out of the way sometimes. He’ll have to learn to avoid hits [from time to time] instead of always taking them on.”
Bob and Jessica Corkum admit they will be a little on edge when the second of their four children endures his first contact or plays in his first game.
“I don’t want to see him get hurt and go back to where he was, struggling with the side effects of a concussion,” said Jessica Corkum.
For the time being, Kelen Corkum can’t wait to play for a Black Bear team that could very well be a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender.
“This is the most excited I’ve been before any season. We’ve got a great group of guys. I’ve played with more than half of the kids on the team already,” said Kelen. “We’ve got a bunch of kids coming back and two new goalies [Martin Ouellette and Dan Sullivan] coming in who will be fighting for ice time.”
As for his individual expectations?
“I just want to play a full year without injuries and play the way I can,” said Kelen.
Whitehead said Kelen could fill an important void.
“We lost three key power forwards in David deKastrozza, Kevin Swallow and Brett Carriere and that’s what Kelen is. They killed penalties, were consistent hitters and were strong defensively, and Kelen fits that mold. The timing couldn’t be better [for Corkum’s return],” said Whitehead, who added that Corkum also could serve as a net-front presence on the power play as deKastrozza did.