The bond shared between athletic therapists and young Major Junior players transcend the game.
From the off-season grind, to the regular season and beyond, therapists and all the support staff work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure young aspiring players are healthy and ready to perform at their highest level.
The work and dedication of athletic therapists often go unnoticed, they are the unsung heroes of every hockey club.
We all see the players perform on the ice and the coaches on the bench, but the spotlight never seems to shine bright enough on the glue of any hockey team.
We see glimpses of them in action when the camera pans to check on an injured player bent over in pain on the bench, but we never see the endless hours of work behind the scenes they spend rehabbing and helping players get back on the ice.
That’s where the authentic connection is made.
Athletic therapists go above and beyond their role and not only rehab the injury, but empower and motivate.
They are there for every player every step of the way.
Halifax Mooseheads Athletic Therapist Robin Hunter has always been there, but that took on entirely different meaning on a December night in 2019.
Highly touted Mooseheads defenceman Justin Barron felt a strange sensation in his arm during the 2nd intermission of a game versus the Blainville-Boibriand Armada.
Barron immediately turned to Hunter and as they say the rest is history.
“It was curious, because there was no real mechanism,” Hunter said when asked about that night.
“Justin told me his arm felt tingly and that there was pressure.”
“There’s usually always a mechanism along with symptoms like that, like maybe there’s swelling because he got slashed or maybe he got hit causing local inflammation or whatever the case may be, but there was nothing like that,” explained Hunter.
With no mechanism Hunter’s concern grew.
“Justin couldn’t remember or single out anything that happened, so that kind of made it conerning.”
“With the lack of mechanism and even just the appearance of his arm in size and colour by the end of the game there was only a few things that it could be at that point,” said Hunter who has been a therapist in the QMJHL for seven years.
Hunter had witnessed the signs and symptoms a year before with Mooseheads forward Samuel Dube.
“We decided to treated it as a worst-case scenario that being a clot and thankfully we did,” admitted Hunter.
Barron was taken to a nearby hospital after the game.
“As soon as Justin got to the hospital they did the ultrasound and found the clot and he was able to start blood thinners right away.”
If it wasn’t for the quick thinking of Hunter, things could have gotten extremely serious or even deadly.
Justin Barron’s long road to recovery started that fateful night in Blainville.
The incredibly modest and humble athletic therapist is quick to downplay her impact with the Mooseheads organization and being considered an unsung hero.
To her it’s all about the job.
“It’s a very special and incredible job,” Hunter said.
“We are in a lucky position to be able to see the guys in the developing stage before they move on to the bigger leagues.”
“It’s always fun to see how these boys grow up,” she said.
“Whether they go to university or to the AHL or NHL, no matter what or where it is, it’s always an interesting and fun aspect to see,” explained Hunter.
“You know the players from a young age and at sixteen they can go in several different directions.”
“It’s a lot fun, especially when they apply and appreciate the suggestions you make it.”
“I think all those things are definitely rewarding, especially when they have successful comebacks after surgeries like Justin’s,” Hunter said.
“It’s a lot of hard work on their end and for myself and our strength and conditioning coach, everyone invests.”
“It’s never an easy process for a player to go through a major injury or a major condition like that of Justin, but he has been very mature and patient,” stressed Hunter.
“He put all the hard work in and stayed patient with everything that was going on and followed the process,” Hunter said.
“My job was pretty simple at the end of the day, I just recognized it and the doctors took care of the rest.”
Spoken like a true unsung hero.
“We had a quick discussion on the phone after I picked it out and all the doctors agreed.”
“One would be there at the hospital when he arrived and the others were there to support the decision and make all the appointments afterwards.”
All in a day’s work for Hunter.
The long and winding road to recovery came to an end last February when the pride of Halifax, Nova Scotia suited up for what ended up being the Herd’s final four games before the horrific COVID-19 pandemic ended the season.
What made matters worse for Barron was that all of this occurred leading up to the most important year of his hockey playing life, his NHL draft year.
All the work and dedication behind the scenes had paid off for both of them.
“It was very special,” Hunter said seeing Barron return to the ice last February.
“It always means a ton to us, that’s our goal at the end of the day to get these guys back on the ice so they can do what they love to do.”
“I think it meant a lot to Justin to. It’s been a huge year for him so far in a positive way and it’s very rewarding to see given the tough year he had prior to that.”
There’s nothing like a great comeback story.
“He had a good comeback and is stronger than ever right now, it’s impressive to see.”
“A lot of that wouldn’t be possible if he wasn’t as determined as he was.”
“Justin put the work in and deserves everything he’s getting,” Hunter said proudly.
Barron was selected by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, 25th overall in this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
The Avs Prospect underwent a small procedure before the start of this season, but has quickly returned to incredible form thanks to amazing work and unwavering committment of Hunter and the rest of the Mooseheads support staff.
One can only imagine the emotional rollercoaster he and his family have been on the last twelve months.
Nevertheless, Barron’s latest chapter in the game has taken him to the Edmonton bubble and the 2021 World Junior Championship.
“It’s great to see him out there on the ice,” Hunter said of Barron playing with Team Canada.
“It was kind of a drawn-out process with everything, especially with COVID, it kind of slowed everything down.”
“It wasn’t easy for Justin, but he did an incredible job at following the process and being patient.”
“Justin has been a great individual to work with, he took everything in stride, he went from playing one day to being on blood thinners and with the rehab process that took three months without skipping a beat.”
“Justin didn’t complain, he rolled with the punches and did what he had to do and it’s been great to us and makes the process easier when there’s not much kick back from the player.”
“Justin is incredible kid, very mature for his age and very respectful to everyone around him.”
“Even though he wasn’t playing he was a respected leader within our group so I think that’s speaks worlds for the people around him.”
“Justin is very determined, hardworking and perseverant, I have nothing, but great things to say about him,” Hunter said.
“It’s incredible to have him back on the ice and feeling healthy and I’m just really happy, it’s a very happy ending.”
There’s no question Justin Barron has what it takes to be a long time pro and NHL defenceman.
The Halifax Mooseheads like no other organization have a rich tradition of developing NHLer’s, perhaps Hunter is next in line.
“I wouldn’t say no if that opportunity was to arise that’s for sure, but we will see what comes of it,” Hunter said when asked about her future and the NHL.
Hunter among others in the business are certainly blazing the trail for other young women that want a career in the game of hockey.
How empowering is it to be working in the game and does Hunter see the landscape changing in the world of hockey in the years to come?
“Absolutely,” she said.
“It’s been gradually growing and in my seven years in the league there seems to be more women that come through and it’s wonderful.”
“It’s a great job and should be available to us as it is for everyone else.”
“The Mooseheads have been great to me, I believe they would treat anyone the same way.”
“It’s nice to be welcomed and involved with it as a woman,” Hunter said proudly.
Hunter believes the opportunities for women are endless in sports.
“It’s going to be exciting to see how things grow, especially in the higher levels, to see if more opportunities come up for women in the NHL.”
“The future is looking bright for women working in the sport.”
“It’s great to see so many women breaking into the NHL from a Coaching and Development Coaching perspective.”
“There’s definitely been some woman breaking in Major League Baseball lately which is a huge step.”
“In the NFL, there’s been a couple of women coaches that have been integrated slowly, so it’s exciting, I think the future generations should have a pretty bright future for themselves and lots of opportunities.”
Does Hunter consider herself as a trailblazer in the profession?
“Not exactly,” she said.
“I wanted to get involved, it’s what I enjoyed doing and this was the way I could do it on a full-time basis.”
“A lot of people going through athletic therapy do a mix of clinical and covering a vast array of sports at different levels, which is fun, but I really wanted to do it as a full-time gig.”
“I was very fortunate and lucky to get an opportunity in the league with Cape Breton and then Halifax.”
“I’ve been very fortunate with my career path so far,” explained Hunter.
Robin Hunter’s passion and dedication to her craft and the game of hockey is unparalleled.
We all see the players perform and excel under the bright lights, but the real spotlight should always shine brightest on the unsung heroes of the game, the support staff and athletic therapists like Robin Hunter!