Tucker Poolman’s career trajectory has never been a straight-line ascension.
The Vancouver Canucks’ defenseman didn’t have a single college offer after a strong high-school senior season in his native Grand Forks, ND, a hockey hotbed for aspiring National Hockey League players. He pondered packing it in and concentrating on academics before the Wichita Falls Wildcats tossed him a career life-preserver.
It’s a long way from the North American Hockey League in 2011-12, capturing the 2016 NCAA title at North Dakota with Brock Boeser and Troy Stecher, and then grinding out 160 games in The Show in Winnipeg and Vancouver.
As a 6-2, 200-pound blueliner who must rely on size and strength as a down-low deterrent to remain relevant in an always-changing game, it hasn’t been easy to execute or stay healthy for Poolman.
He has endured a shoulder surgery, concussion, two bouts of COVID-19 and a puck to the face. But the career curveball that continues to plague Poolman are ongoing migraine headaches for which there is no known cure, only medication.
The latest episode occurred Sunday at Rogers Arena. The right-shot defender didn’t play a second-period shift and left the game after logging just 4:25 of ice time. It was later revealed to be a recurrence of what’s been crippling Poolman’s career. He had landed a first-period, defensive-zone hit on Michael Amadio at 3:23 and followed with similar contact on Jonas Rondbjerg at 8:30 in a third pairing with Travis Dermott. He seemed fine.
Poolman, 28, had a similar migraine episode in Winnipeg on Jan. 27. He played 7:54 in the first period of a 5-1 road triumph and didn’t return for the second period. The play-by-play log showed he didn’t take a hit.
Migraines have limited Poolman to 40 games and three points (1-2) this season.
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“He’s big and strong and the one thing he can help us with is protecting the net better than we have lately in the last 10 games,” Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau said Sunday prior to a 3-2 overtime loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. “He was playing well and played good that night in Winnipeg. We were on a pretty good roll (3-1-2) and he was a big part of it.”
When asked about what has caused repeated migraines, Boudreau didn’t have an answer — which wasn’t surprising because they can be hereditary or caused by a number of factors, including concussions. And they can last hours or days.
“I’m not a doctor — I have no idea,” said Boudreau. “I just know he was having them (migraines) and they subsided and he didn’t have them for the last two weeks while he was skating, so we felt comfortable that he could play (Sunday).”
Poolman missed a game with a migraine while with the Jets, who drafted the Dubuque, Iowa native in the fifth round of the 2013 NHL Draft, before recording an assist Nov. 8, 2019 in a 4-1 home-ice win over Vancouver. He was signed by the Canucks to a four-year, $10 million free-agent deal in July of 2021 and his total salary escalates from $1.75 million this season to $2.25 million and then $3 million annually in final two years of the deal (all figures in US dollars).
At his best, there’s no mystery surrounding Poolman’s game. Last season with the Jets, he was paired with Josh Morrissey at one point, but is better suited to a lower tandem.
“Responsible in the D-zone and trying to be accountable,” he told Postmedia of his strengths after joining the Canucks. “And if I’m doing my job right, it allows players to be predictable. I have to make sure I’m staying up in the play and have a good gap.”
Poolman isn’t the only NHL player plagued by migraines.
Nolan Patrick, the second overall selection in the 2017 NHL Draft by Philadelphia, was sidelined 650 days while trying to recover from symptoms that first surfaced in the summer of 2019 while exercising. The Flyers said at training camp that Patrick’s condition was not believed to be hockey-related and that his family had a history of migraines.
Approximately two-thirds of cases run in families and migraine pain is often made worse by physical activity.
“It’s obviously a tough injury that affects you mentally more than other ones would,” admitted the 23-year-old Patrick. He did not start skating again with the Flyers until February of 2020, but he would not play until the following COVID-shortened season. He scored just four goals in 52 games and admitted being tentative to take or deliver a hit because of migraine concerns.
After last season, Patrick landed in Vegas with the Golden Knights following a three-team deal. In the first period of a March 25 game against Nashville, he left the game after logging just 1:37 to spark more migraine speculation. He is still sidelined and has but two goals in 25 games.
As for his odyssey, Poolman put it this way about the winding road that led him to Vancouver.
“When it got to that point after high school, I just wanted to give it my best shot,” he said. “I found a home eventually and you reach a goal and then reset them a little higher and then it snowballed.
“I don’t think about it too much, I just keep moving forward and thought I could be a good player and that’s what I’ve been pushing for ever since.”
He just wants his health and a chance to provide it.
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