Unforgiving final line change: Former Minot NHL linesman Nelson living with post-concussion syndrome
MINOT, N.D.—In the middle of a National Hockey League game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Philadelphia Flyers, linesman Thor Nelson looked across the ice and was unable to see his officiating partner.
The game was rushing by and his concentration and vision couldn't keep up. As much as he resisted the notion, this was his sign to finally step off the ice. His undeniable passion for hockey wasn't going to overcome this unnoticeable injury.
Throughout his entire life, hockey had been a constant. But, in 2013, post-concussion syndrome permanently ripped away the game Nelson loved the most.
The road to the NHL
Growing up in Minot, Nelson played on the Minot High School hockey team and graduated to play in the United States Hockey League and the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. He then went on to be a walk-on at the University of North Dakota.
After his time at UND, Nelson had hit a wall in his hockey career.
"Eventually, you hit a level where you're not good enough to play anymore," Nelson explained. "I love the game of hockey and I coached for a year, but it just wasn't what I was looking for."
Nelson wanted that same thrill he got when he was playing hockey. A local friend, who was refereeing hockey at a high level, pointed Nelson in the right direction and told him that hockey officials were always in demand.
"Luckily, in Minot, we had junior hockey. So, instead of learning to ref at the 9- and 10-year-old level, I got to learn to ref with the 19- and 20-year-old young men playing," Nelson said. "The learning curb was pretty steep, but at the same time, I was working levels that most first-year officials wouldn't work."
After his first season with a whistle, Nelson applied to a USA Hockey development camp, but was denied due to his lack of experience. However, a week before the camp started, one of the participants blew out his knee and the camp had to go through their list of alternates.
They ultimately found a willingly replacement in Nelson.
Nelson finished the three tiers of the USA Hockey development camp—Regional, National and Select—in three summers. During the Select camp, Nelson was in Colorado Springs and the NHL had come to see the officials work. Nelson stood out and got invited to a NHL "Rookie Camp" in Toronto.
A successful showing in Toronto got Nelson a job offer in the minor leagues, but that meant a move to the East Coast. He declined the offer and opted to stay in North Dakota with his wife of three months.
Nelson still spent his weekdays working junior hockey games and would travel on the weekends to officiate games in the Western Hockey League in Canada or would stay in the states to work NCAA contests.
A year later, in the summer of 1994, Nelson accepted an invite to the U.S. Olympic Festival in St. Louis and ended up reffing the gold medal game.
"The boss from the NHL was there and ended up giving me a job in the parking lot," Nelson said. "He said this job is with the National Hockey League and I said yes."
Life as an NHL linesman
Nelson's first official season with the NHL started with a lockout that lasted into January of 1995. Biding his time, Nelson reffed in the minor leagues before getting his first NHL game.
"It was a whole lot of travel for a whole lot of years, but I enjoyed it," Nelson said.
One of his many highlights was working the 2006 Olympics gold medal game in Torino, Italy, between Finland and Sweden. He also traveled to Vancouver, Canada, for the 2010 Olympics.
"We brought the whole family and the kids got to experience the Olympics," Nelson said. "What a great lifetime experience for them."
Working the game he loved also meant spending a lot of time away from his family. Nelson said the hardest part was being away from his wife, especially once they added four children into the mix. Yet, having opportunities for the family to go to different events with him made the distance worth it.
Through it all, Nelson remained a "Minot guy," despite the NHL begging, ordering and mandating that Nelson had to move multiple times.
"I just wasn't willing to (move)...," he said. "I love it here. This is home, it always will be."
The invisible injury
Nelson had worked his way up to a dream job, but it began to chip away at his health.
"Back in the day, you toughed it out," Nelson said. "I would get hit in a game. Whether I was breaking up a fight or getting hit by a puck, then the concussions just added up and it was to a point where I was taking 26 Advil (pills) a day."
Dealing with the pain was something that became a part of Nelson's every day routine. And, with enough experience, Nelson found ways and little shortcuts to be able to continue working games without being fully aware on the ice.
But Nelson was finally sidelined with concussion-related symptoms after breaking up a fight early into the 2013-14 season. He returned and was playing through the discomfort in December of 2013, and got to work his 1,000th game in Winnipeg.
He wasn't going to hang up his skates until his body physically told him it couldn't function any longer.
"I remember I was on three games in three nights going from Edmonton to Calgary to Vancouver, and I'm in the Vancouver game and I can't see my partner [Don Henderson] across the ice," Nelson recalled. "(After the game) I called a neurologist out of the University of Michigan that I was working with."
The neurologist warned Nelson that his body was hitting its breaking point and he needed to go home. Nelson's final NHL stop was in Vancouver on Dec. 30, 2013.
Too much to bear
Leaving the rink wasn't enough to ease Nelson's suffering.
"It just never went away," Nelson said. "Still to this day, I battle headaches daily. The sunny days are tough for me and I still miss a lot of my kids' activities because of the headaches. I just can't be out doing the things I would want to do."
Nonetheless, Nelson wishes he could be back on the ice. At 50 years old, Nelson isn't ready to be retired, but returning to the NHL isn't feasible any more.
To stay active in the hockey community, Nelson volunteers as a referee-in-chief for the state of North Dakota. It gives Nelson the opportunity to give advice to younger officials and he gets to evaluate situations from games that younger officials might not know how to handle.
Still, that hardly fills Nelson's urge to lace up his skates and be back on the big stage again.
"Every day I wake up hoping today is the day it all changes," Nelson said. "It's been over three years now and every day I wake up thinking that and every day it doesn't change."
Given the way his professional NHL career ended, Nelson didn't get any closure. His wife has told him that perhaps reffing one last game would help him get past some of the resentment he holds onto.
One last game, knowing it was his last game, could be enough. But, he will likely never find out.
Even now, years later, Nelson can't watch NHL games. Since he left the NHL, he's only watched two games because they were big milestones for an official he trained back in the day.
"I just miss it too much," he admitted. "I guess someday I'll come to grips with it, maybe once I get to an age where I would've retired anyway, but emotionally it just really bothers me to watch it."
What Nelson can do now is spread his message to provide awareness to parents and players about the dangers of concussions. His message is simple: "When in doubt, sit them out."
He wants to be used as an example that it's not worth it. The personal safety of the athlete, no matter what the age, has to come first.
"You've got the rest of your life to live and you don't want to do it with a headache," Nelson said. "On a daily basis, my head is a six or seven on a pain scale of 10... I'm living proof that it's not worth it."
While the medical community is constantly looking at ways to help people with post-concussion syndrome and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), something Nelson hopes is accomplished within his lifetime, the former NHL linesman is left to reminisce about his glory days while still enduring the pain that came with it.
"I got to live the dream for a while," Nelson said. "I wasn't playing, but the rush of going on the ice was pretty special."