It’s been a long nine months for Winnipeg Jets forward Bryan Little. Since going down with a head injury that resulted in a perforated eardrum, 30 stitches, and a promise to always wear ear guards, the 32-year-old centerman continues to take life day-by-day while slowly adding more complex tasks to his life, post-surgery.
“Basically, this just goes with the whole 2020 theme: Everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” Little said in his year-end media availability Wednesday. “It was definitely the toughest year of my career, physically, and just trying to stay positive through the whole thing was tough as well. It was good to have the support of the team and my family through it all. That definitely helped keep the spirits up. There weren’t a lot of positives for me. I just watched a lot of hockey and did a whole lot of nothing. Definitely frustrating. It was a tough year.”
Currently situated in his family home in Cambridge, ON. the 13-year NHL pro has undergone significant testing over the past nine months. Regularly scheduled visits with ear specialists, vestibular therapists, concussion experts, and neurologists continue to take up the majority of his time.
“Some of the things the doctors were saying scared me a bit, and they still do,” the 6-foot-1, 190-pound forward said. “The biggest thing I’m thinking about through this is having a healthy and long life and being cognitively ‘all there’ when this is all over. Until I am told there’s not a lot of huge risk in coming back, it’s kind of just waiting and hopefully a good amount of time will change things. I’m actually feeling pretty good. That’s kind of been the hardest thing through this whole process. I feel good, I feel fine. The recovery? There’s not much I can do, except time. You’ve just got to wait it out and see how you’re going to react.”
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Although able to recall the incident from November 5, 2019 in precise detail, in which he took a Nikolaj Ehlers slap shot to the head, Little is unable to predict when his own personal ‘return-to-play guideline’ will be available to follow.
“There’s a lot of things that have to happen. After the last tests, we basically all agreed that I needed more time and more time to re-evaluate at a later date. We don’t know when that will be yet. It could be a bit down the road still. I think the biggest thing is just getting the all clear from the doctors. When I get tests done and they go through it with me and kind of give advice, I want to listen to them.”
Battling dizziness, ear pain, and balance issues are not enjoyable symptoms for someone who makes a living skating around a sheet of ice at high speeds for long durations of time. Thus, Little understands the lengthy process in his hopeful recovery.
“Other than the ear for a while and the balance issues for a bit, I’ve been feeling pretty normal for the past few months. It’s just a matter of the risk with coming back,” he said. “The eardrum thing was, I think I had a pretty big hole in my eardrum and that affected my hearing and balance for a bit. Then I got the surgery done when I decided that I probably wasn’t going to come back for the rest of the season. That took a while to heal up, but that feels a lot better now. No balance issues, nothing like that. It’s just the head. I’m kind of at the mercy of what the doctors advise and kind of also thinking about my future outside of hockey, long-term.”
Most know Bryan Little the hockey player, or most recently, the injured hockey player. Only those closest to Little know him as the husband to wife Brittany and father to daughter Parker. Despite wanting to come back and play the sport he loves, Little had been unable to drive and was driven around by his wife, while also strictly prohibited from lifting up his two-year-old daughter – a motion that doctors suggested would be hard on the head.
“I’ve tried my best to stay positive through this whole thing, but it hasn’t been easy,” Little said. “There’s definitely been a lot of ups and downs; a lot of bad tests. It’s hard to stay positive through all of that. But it definitely helps coming home and seeing my daughter and spending time with her, kind of taking my mind off everything. It’s nice being back home right now. Like I said, I’m not really training but I’m working out and staying in shape and that helps take my mind off things. Playing with my daughter definitely keeps my spirits higher so that’s been nice as well.”
With no apparent rush to make a decision on his career trajectory, Little continues to play a waiting game, just hoping to see some positive test results soon.
“When that decision comes, I want to make the right decision,” he said. “Until that day, I’m not going to really stress too much or think too much about it. Stay positive and wait until then. But it’s definitely something I’ve thought about a lot over the past year, because you think you have a lot more time left and you always think what you’re going to do after hockey, you have a lot of time to think about that. And sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you don’t have an option. Something I’m definitely going to be thinking about going forward here, thinking about life after hockey.”
Little does know that one thing will certainly change going forward, should he return to the Jets’ lineup for his 10th season in Winnipeg: his use of ear protection.
“I know for sure I’ll definitely have the ear guards in,” he laughed. “I kind of kick myself over how much those could have saved me, having those in. Where the puck hit me, it’s crazy, it didn’t even touch my helmet, it hit perfectly in that ear hole. I would recommend everyone wear them after what happened to me. I know it was a freak accident, but it could have saved a lot of trouble this year, and who knows how much lesser the extent the injury could have been.”