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Former NHL defenceman worries about head injuries as feds announces new funding

Rona Ambrose, left, Minister of Health, and former Calgary Flames player Jamie Macoun, meet with minor hockey players at an announcement regarding support for research on injury prevention in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Nov. 4, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

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Rona Ambrose, left, Minister of Health, and former Calgary Flames player Jamie Macoun, meet with minor hockey players at an announcement regarding support for research on injury prevention in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Nov. 4, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY - In the first few years after his retirement, former NHL defenceman Jamie Macoun would talk about the knee, ankle and back injuries he suffered during a rugged 1,128-game career.

But in the past decade, he has become more concerned about the residual effects of head injuries.

"If you talk to my kids, they say I have some damage. I can't remember their names. I can't remember my dogs name for crying out loud," Macoun said Monday as the federal government announced funding for new research on concussions with a focus on improving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the injuries in children and youth.

"If this research had been done 25 years ago where would we be now?"

Macoun was a tough, reliable defenceman throughout his 17-year career with Calgary, Toronto and Detroit. He knows what it's like to play through pain, and also to inflict it. While a member of the Flames, he once broke Buffalo star Pat Lafontaine's jaw with a high stick.

But looking back on his career he wishes there had been a greater awareness of the effects of concussions and injuries in the NHL.

"You'd be icing your shoulder and you'd be icing your hands but rarely ever did we ice our heads and the reality was many, many times you'd get hit and now we know they were concussions," said the 52-year-old. "Back in the day it was almost a badge of honour to get run over and you'd be bleeding out the ears or out the nose and would go out and play the very next shift."

The league changed its rules in the 2010-11 season to outlaw bodychecks aimed at the head and checking from a player's blind side after notable concussions to Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins.

"I think the NHL has been a leader in the whole treatment of concussions and identifying them," said Brian Burke, president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames. "I think we've been a leader and the other sports have followed us."

"It's a full-contact sport," he added. "That's why many of us played the game but that doesn't mean we can't better identify and treat concussions."

The $4.3 million in federal funding will go to 19 separate research projects across the country.

"Injuries are the number one cause of death for Canadians aged one to 44," said federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose.

"It's clear that acting to prevent injuries will make a difference when most injuries are predictable and preventable," she said.

Ambrose told reporters researcher want better information on injuries as well as improved diagnosis, treatments and prevention.

"We all want kids to play hockey and be active but we know contact sports always involve potential injuries. The reality is that injuries in Canada costs the health care system close to $20 billion per year," she said.

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