Athlete / NYJSM Interview / Nick Tarnasky

Interview with Nick Tarnasky

June 28, 2008

Matthew Vasey, MD

Nick Tarnasky was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 9th round with the 287th overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft and plays for them today.

Check his player profile

Watch Nick Tarnasky on the ice:
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Dr. Vasey's Interview with Nick Tarnasky

Dr. Vasey: Nick, it was great to meet you recently. I have been a fan of hockey since the Lightning franchise was introduced to my hometown of Tampa, Florida. I have a lot of respect for you as a professional athlete and I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about one, of what are likely many various types of injuries you have sustained as a professional hockey player. What are some of the kinds of injuries you've had out on the ice?
Nick Tarnasky: The injuries that I have had so far include: breaking my nose six times, which never really seem to have the time to heal, pulled groins, sprained ankles, contusions in my legs from being hit with pucks and one missing tooth. My worst injury however, was breaking my jaw.

Dr. Vasey: That is impressive and certainly a result of the physical nature of the sport of hockey, particularly given your aggressive and physical style of play. I would like to talk a little bit more about when you fractured your jaw. Could you tell me how it happened?
Nick Tarnasky: Well, I was seventeen playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, for the Drayton Valley Thunder. I was just skating down the ice, and must have had my head at a funny angle. I took what seemed to be a fairly typical hit on the open ice. The player's elbow kind of popped up and hit me on the side of my head. To me, it didn't seem that dirty or anything, and then I basically just felt like half my jaw was hanging off. I finished my shift feeling a bit lightheaded, and then left the game. It just felt too uncomfortable and odd to have my mouth feeling like that. I went to the hospital immediately where I found out my jaw was broken.

Dr. Vasey: How would you describe the feeling that came over you as it happened?
Nick Tarnasky: The pain I felt when the injury happened was just a really awkward feeling. It felt almost like an uncomfortable, hot burning sensation as half of my mouth felt like it was hanging off. As I continued, the pain started to increase. I wouldn't say it was the worst pain I've had in my life surprisingly, considering where the injury was. It was a numbing-type, throb with a sting that didn't go away until two days later when I finally had my jaw wired shut to keep the bones in place.

Dr. Vasey: How long did you wait before you and your doctors decided to go forward with the surgery on your jaw and what did they need to do? Were there any other treatment options that you discussed prior to the operation?
Nick Tarnasky: Having a small steel plate to hold the two parts of my jaw together, and having it wired shut for six weeks was the only option I really had to heal my jaw. Once I met with the doctors they knew right away what was going to be necessary. That's the operation we went forward with.

Dr. Vasey: What can you tell me and the readers about what you went through in the early stages after your operation and on into your course of rehabilitation?
Nick Tarnasky: Once I woke up from the surgery, it was one of the weirdest feelings I have ever had. I felt very claustrophobic. I wasn't able to open my mouth or move it even a millimeter. I wasn't able to speak or eat solid food. This put me on strictly fluids for the entire course of my injury. By the time my jaw was finally healed, I had lost thirty pounds. I was very weak. Working out during my injury was really tough do to the lack of air I was able to breathe. So until the wires were finally off, I did very little exercising. I fell very far out of playing shape.

Dr. Vasey: How is your jaw today?
Nick Tarnasky: My jaw has seemingly healed almost a hundred percent. I still have an occasional clicking and grinding, but it never hurts or bothers me in my day to day activities.

Dr. Vasey: You have managed to have a career playing such a physically demanding sport. Despite all the injuries and an operation, how have you managed to keep yourself in the physical shape required to play at the level of the National Hockey League?
Nick Tarnasky: To play at the level I have succeeded to play at, getting into and staying in the best physical condition possible is paramount. During the 'in season', after practices and games, I always do a minimum of twenty minutes on a stationary bike. I follow this with a nice relaxing stretch, and an ice bath. The ice baths really help to heal any sore and beat up muscles or strains that I have at that point. During the 'off season', I spend two hours in the morning lifting weights on a program that my personal trainer has designed for me with usually an additional hour or two in the afternoon doing cardio workouts. It depends on what point of the 'off season' it is and how close I am to reporting to training camp. That is what determines the kind of cardio workouts I will do.

Dr. Vasey: Do you have any advice to both young American and International players just skating onto the ice for the first time with dreams of having a professional career like yours? What would be your advice to anyone dealing with a jaw fracture unrelated to hockey?
Nick Tarnasky: The main thing for me was to never give up, if you want to play hockey as a professional, then even when times look grim look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you're ready to do whatever is necessary to make yourself better. If making it is what your heart wants to do and you are willing to put in the time to train and practice then you give yourself a realistic opportunity to follow your dream and reach your goal. As far as dealing with the jaw fracture, it was not easy. What it came down to was six weeks of misery that you battle through. You come out a person who has dealt with a lot of challenges during recovery. It's important that you work around the challenges to make yourself a healthier person and ultimately gain a more broad perspective on things.

Dr. Vasey: Well, Nick, I want to thank you again for telling me a little bit about life as a professional hockey player and what it is like to deal with a fracture injury and surgical repair. There is not a doubt in my mind, I could never survive as a hockey player let alone even skate out onto the ice. My best wishes to you for a healthy and successful upcoming season and beyond. It is my hope that readers gain a perspective on what it is like to have and recover from such an injury. Also, for those who might be faced with a similar situation from whatever cause can gain strength and encouragement in their recovery from this interview.
Nick Tarnasky: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me, all the best.

Stay tuned for a medical article on jaw/mandibular fractures . . . on Social Media