Jess Myers

The fog of injury has lifted for North Dakota’s Chay Genoway

by Jess Myers January 27, 2011 in Hockey


Ice hockey, especially at the college level, is a game played with the hands and the legs and the body. But mostly, it’s a game played with the head.

The lightning-fast on-ice action requires the reflexes of a cat, and the ability to think fluidly, and make decisions that can change the nature of a game in seconds, and mean the difference between winning and losing.

So what is a student-athlete to do when the doctors tell a thinking man’s hockey player to stop playing hockey, and, for the most part, to stop thinking? That sums up the long, cold winter University of North Dakota senior defenseman Chay Genoway struggled through a year ago.

What was expected to be his final season of college hockey was going great, with him moving the puck and garnering attention for national awards, while the Fighting Sioux were winning games. Then, on a November night during a home game, everything went fuzzy for Genoway in the blink of an eye. While corralling a loose puck against the end boards, Genoway was hit hard from behind by a much larger opponent. His helmeted head hit the glass and Genoway crumpled to the ice.

“Everything went foggy, and right away I knew something was wrong,” said Genoway, a business management major who hails from Morden, Manitoba. The concussion Genoway suffered was so severe and the after effects lingered so long, that his hockey season was over right then and there.

Some student-athletes, when injured, take the time to re-focus on academics while their body heals. But Genoway and his doctors quickly learned that the injury was of such severity, this would be a long a difficult recovery, and reading textbooks or trying to concentrate on a computer screen would only make it worse.

“The first couple months were terrible. Anything I did would spark a migraine,” Genoway said, after facing the only kind of injury from which you cannot work your way back. Even watching his teammates play caused pain, as the speed of the game was more than Genoway’s injured head could process and focus upon. “I did a whole lot of nothing. I’d start to get stressed, and that would make the migraines worse. I went on a lot of long walks.”

Sioux coach Dave Hakstol remembers many weekday afternoon practices last winter when he’d glance up to the top row of the team’s cavernous arena and see Genoway, sitting as far away as he could to balance being with the team while trying to avoid the migraines that have become a part of his daily existence.

“Literally and figuratively, he was at a distance,” Hakstol said. In March, when the Fighting Sioux won their conference’s post-season tournament, the WCHA Final Five, Genoway came out on the ice in a Sioux jersey and street shoes, and celebrated with his team, despite not getting a chance to play. “For a player with the natural competitiveness that Chay has, that was one of the most difficult things he could go through.”

The hockey season was over by the time Genoway felt good enough to resume his studies. Given incompletes in his fall and winter classes, he took a full credit load in the spring, and added on the makeup work from earlier in the school year to his daily schedule, meaning there was little time for anything but cracking the books.

At some point, he applied for a medical hardship from the NCAA and was granted another year of eligibility, meaning that if he could get back on the ice, he could end his collegiate hockey career on his own terms.

By June, he started skating a little bit, but admits that the workouts were still very difficult, and the fog of the concussion returned, in some form, when he’d push himself on the ice. But this is the part of the story where sheer dogged determination took over, and the competitive streak that Sioux fans got so used to seeing during sold-out games became evident, even if it was just one man skating in an empty rink. Something had been taken away from Genoway, and through sheer force of will, he was going to get it back.

Despite his average size, Genoway’s skating skills and smarts have made him a solid professional hockey prospect, but losing his starting defenseman to a pro contract was a secondary concern for Hakstol. Getting Genoway back onto the ice in good health, free of the migraines that plagued his life for much of last winter, was the only goal.

On the first Sunday in October, Genoway came down the tunnel from the locker room and stepped back onto his home rink, wearing a Fighting Sioux hockey sweater and all his gear, for an exhibition game with the University of Manitoba. Surely some in the near-sellout crowd had their eyes trained on the kid wearing No. 5, wondering how he’d play, what impact he’d have, and how he’d react the first time he took a hit from an opponent.

“I knew going in that you can’t play tentative,” Genoway said. “I’m the type that’s going to compete no matter what.”

He was credited for nothing more than a third period penalty that night but by the end it felt like a major step forward toward re-claiming a hockey career.

“I always get butterflies and goose bumps before a game, but that time they were even bigger,” Genoway said. “I love to play the game, and I’d spent a long time not knowing whether I’d have a chance to do it again.”

By the middle of the season, Genoway was playing at a level that would make one not believe that he’d ever missed time with an injury. While the Sioux flirt near the top of the national polls, Genoway leads the team in assists from his perch on the blue line, and is routinely mentioned as a candidate for major post-season honors like the Hobey Baker Memorial Award and the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award. He’s back to playing a thinking man’s game, putting those skating skills and innate knowledge of the game to good use.

“Chay is an ultra competitive athlete, and he’s the kind of player that just has a certain presence to him,” Hakstol said. “That’s a very special attribute.”