As Concussion Lingers, Frans Nielsen Fighting Urge To Return

"You can play with sprained ankles and half a shoulder. That hurts way more than this does."

Will Burchfield
November 07, 2018 - 7:24 pm

© Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

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Frans Nielsen has been down this potholed road before, so he knew almost immediately after he took a blow to the head last month against the Stars that he was in trouble. He got back to the bench and that blurriness set in, the same blurriness he first experienced several years ago during his time with the Islanders. 

"I kind of felt it, and then it went away again, and then after the game it kind of came back again. And that’s where I took the test," Nielsen said. 

He failed that concussion baseline exam the night of Oct. 28 on the heels of Detroit's 4-2 win over Dallas, and he's failed another one since. He took a third one on Wednesday in hopes of returning Friday night against the Rangers, his absence now stretching to five games. 

Nielsen terms it a mild concussion, just like the ones he's had in the past. The most time he's missed prior to this year was four games at the end of the 2010-11 season. He's never been knocked unconscious on the ice. He's never taken a hit and then immediately forgotten the play. He's endured headaches in the past, but none so crippling he's had to sit in silence in the dark.

His symptoms this time, which he said on Wednesday are mostly behind him, were "more fogginess, kind of lower energy." They were most noticeable when he was completely unoccupied, "just sitting around doing nothing," he said. As soon as he did something active -- most often playing with his two-year-old son -- the clouds would clear. 

Nielsen, who had six assists in 11 games at the time of his concussion, returned to practice last week. He's felt fine the past few days, both on the ice and in everyday life. He was ready to play in each of Detroit's prior two games, only to be ruled out by team doctors. That's been hard for him to accept, especially in a sport where playing through pain is the norm. 

"It’s just so different when it comes to the head," he said. "You can play with sprained ankles, you can play with half a shoulder. That hurts way more than this does, and you feel normal, so it’s weird not being out there." 

Part of Nielsen wants to argue with the doctors when they tell him he's out. This is a veteran who prides himself on durability, having suited up for at least 78 games each of the last seven seasons (excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, when he appeared in all 48). Nielsen signed a $31.5 million contract two years ago. He carries one of the largest cap hits on the team. It kills him to watch games from the press box. 

The other part of Nielsen understands that, well, he doesn't really understand the scope of what he's dealing with. This isn't a broken bone or a torn ligament. It's not something surgery could fix. This is his brain that's at stake, which inextricably involves the people around him. Nielsen's wife reminds him, from time to time, of the larger picture. 

"We’ve seen the effect on some other people. For sure, she’s said she doesn’t want me to come home one day and not be able to play with my kids," Nielsen said. 

Ultimately, said Nielsen, his wife trusts in the doctors to make the right decision for him. So does he. As badly as he might want to play right now, he has to be mindful of everything that lies ahead. The doctors know his brain better than he does. 

That's one thing he can accept. 

"If I got a sore shoulder, I can argue and tell them I want to gamble with it. But when it comes to your head I think you have to listen to what they say. We don’t really know anything. We’re still searching to figure out how concussions work and that kind of stuff, and we as players definitely don’t know too much about it," Nielsen said. "There’s experts we have to listen to. With injuries like this, it’s important that we do exactly as they say."

It's the rare case where Nielsen yields to the doctors' advice, even as yielding goes against every fiber in a hockey player's body. Either he'll return on Friday having cleared his baseline test, or he'll wait until the results indicate he's ready. That's the rule, one that Nielsen knows is for the best. 

"You do argue with the doctors to come back and play, but I’m sure it’s one of these things later on in life you’ll probably be thankful, actually, that they talked you into not coming back too early," he said. 

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