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Originally published November 15, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified December 14, 2011 at 11:41 AM

How acupuncture helped get young hockey star back on ice

Ancient Chinese remedy helped Branden Troock's headaches after they threatened the Seattle Thunderbird's career.

Special to The Seattle Times

quotes Where and how has acupuncture been thoroughly debunked? In fact study after study have... Read more
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KENT — An ancient Chinese remedy has helped solve what appeared to be a modern sports problem for Branden Troock and the Seattle Thunderbirds.

Troock, 17, was considered a can't-miss scoring prodigy from Edmonton, Alberta, when he was drafted by the Thunderbirds with the 12th overall pick in the 2009 Western Hockey League bantam draft.

Playing for Team Alberta in an all-star tournament on Oct. 31, 2009, Troock was knocked unconscious from a hit he never saw coming.

The blow to the head — now specifically outlawed in the WHL to cut down on concussions — caught Troock on the helmet and under the jaw. He remembers little about it and refuses to watch it on tape.

That devastating blindside hit did not draw a penalty, but did cost Troock his rookie season. Now the 6-foot-3, 203 pounder is in a race to catch up because this is his NHL draft year.

He sat out all of the 2010-11 season while the T-birds faltered and missed the WHL playoffs for the second straight year.

"It was tough," said Troock, who has three goals and three assists in 12 games this season. "Some days I couldn't even get out of bed without throwing up."

On other days, he was in too much pain even to watch his teammates, let alone play.

"I was told maybe I needed to find another career, but there is nothing I'd rather do than play hockey," Troock said. "It killed me to watch, and I never even thought about giving up."

Neither did Seattle general manager Russ Farwell and team athletic therapist Phil Varney.

"Every time he had a headache, we went down the concussion road to make sure," Farwell said. "He went to three different neurologists who all did full workups with two MRIs and CT scans. They all said it wasn't a concussion."

So Troock's debilitating headaches became a medical mystery.

"We could always get him symptom-free, but we couldn't keep him symptom-free," Varney said. "The headaches were severe and his eyes would be dilated."

Troock went to the Seattle Sports Concussion Program at Harborview Medical Center and then was evaluated by a headache specialist at the University of Washington. He was eventually diagnosed with a neck injury. Although the concussion had healed, a nerve that travels from his neck to his eyes was causing his migraines.

"The neck injury was mimicking concussion symptoms, and that made it very difficult," Varney said. "He'd get dizzy when he did activity."

Troock was also treated by a Vancouver, B.C., chiropractor favored by many NHL players before being taken to the Vina Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Clinic in downtown Seattle.

Acupuncture is known to break pain cycles, and Varney said all Troock's doctors were supportive of the treatment.

"I was at the point where I would have tried anything," Troock said.

So in went the needles. And out went the headaches. There has been no recurrence since the beginning of training camp.

Troock is now on a twice-a-week acupuncture regimen. Sometimes he has as many as 50 needles inserted into his body, sometimes fewer than 20.

"It all depends on how I'm feeling," Troock said. "Sometimes the needles are in my ankles and hands. I don't know how it works and I don't ask questions because I don't think the doctor speaks English."

He also takes Chinese herbs to increase circulation. The T-birds had the herbs analyzed to ensure they would not violate the WHL's drug-testing program. Only one didn't make the cut.

Troock's neurologists told him he is no more likely than anyone else to get a concussion.

"The nerve problem was genetic and one I had before the hit. That was just the straw that broke the camel's back," Troock said. "I don't worry about it happening again."

Troock is learning to become a complete player, one who not only makes plays but can stop them.

T-birds coach Steve Konowalchuk, who has 15 years of NHL experience, has been patient helping Troock become a well-rounded player.

"All the scouts are here because he has high-end talent, but there are a lot of skilled players out there," Konowalchuk said. "When the scouts evaluate high-end talent, they are looking at all the other things — the compete level, what they do away from the puck, things that enhance those elite skills."

An NHL scout agrees.

"I'd be surprised if all 30 teams weren't looking at him," said the scout, who requested anonymity. "He has size, skill, hockey sense and an instinct to score, but he also has a lot of catching up to do. There are inconsistencies because of not playing. As long as the effort, the grit and determination to battle and compete are there, he should develop."

Farwell estimated it will take until the Christmas break for Troock to adjust to the WHL game.

"I do see him as a major talent," Farwell said. "His experience was as a dominant player. He's getting there, but he hasn't played enough hockey at this level to get to that point. I don't think it will take him long."

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