Dr. William W. Schwab M.D., Griffins medical director
Orthopaedic Associates physicians work closely with medical trainer Rob Snitzer to keep the Griffins in peak playing condition.
Story by Mark Newman
They sit near, not on, the Griffins’ bench, but they are no less a part of the team when it comes to efforts to put the best product on the ice.
Like most athletes, hockey players are finely tuned machines; occasionally they may require adjustments to stay in top running condition.
Nothing will slow a player more than a bad shoulder or bad knee, so the doctors from Orthopaedic Associates of Grand Rapids play an important role as the official team physicians of the Griffins.
“It really is a team effort,” said Dr. William Schwab, medical director of the Griffins since the club’s inception. “The orthopedic surgeon and team trainer work together with the athlete to get them back as soon as possible.”
Few things will motivate a hockey player more than an injury. They hate the helpless feeling they endure while watching their teammates from the stands or the press box.
“They want to play,” Schwab said. “They’re highly motivated to get back onto the ice and it’s very gratifying to help them get there. It usually takes everybody working together to accomplish that.”
Schwab works closely with Griffins medical therapist Rob Snitzer on a regular basis as do his colleagues at Orthopaedic Associates, who include Michael Jabara, Thomas Matelic and Peter Theut.
The physicians attend all Griffins games on a rotating basis, sitting in the stands close to the bench so that Snitzer can alert them if their services are needed during the game.
They check with Snitzer and the team before and after every game, as well as between periods. They track ongoing medical conditions, as well as diagnose and treat any acute injuries that occur during the course of a game.
“There is a definite sense of responsibility in what we do,” Schwab said. “We’re essentially on-call, so it’s not like we can sit back and enjoy a beer while we watch the game.”
For the Orthopaedic Associates partners, working with the Griffins is a complete joy.
“Hockey players in general are great guys,” Theut said. “They’re hard-working individuals who are very tough but also very friendly and very enjoyable to be around.”
As orthopedic surgeons, the staff at Orthopaedic Associates is well-versed in the treatment of traumatic injuries of all types, from broken bones to torn ligaments, from shoulder separations to head or neck pain.
“We treat athletes of all types and ages, so it’s safe to say that hockey players seem to have a higher threshold for pain tolerance,” Theut said. “They seem to tolerate minor injuries extremely well.”
A muscle tear that might sideline the average person two or three months might hamper a hockey player only three or four weeks. “The patient’s attitude is very important in the whole recovery process,” Matelic said.
“The hockey mentality is a bit different from other athletes,” Schwab said. “Unless something is broken, there is almost nothing that keeps them from going back onto the ice.”
Schwab recalled the case of an opposing player who was hit in the face by a puck during a Griffins game several years ago. The player’s nose was pushed to the side by a 45-degree angle.
“He had us set it without anesthesia and then had three stitches across the bridge of his nose before going right back on the ice,” Schwab said. “Hockey players have an intense desire to play.”
As further proof, Schwab cited the example of former Griffins center Jeff Nelson, who severely injured his finger to the point where it was 90 percent displaced.
“We manipulated the displaced finger until he could put on his gloves and get back into the game,” Schwab said. “Then he kept playing until the end of the playoffs. When the season was over, we finally pinned the finger.”
While other athletes worry about scars, hockey players are almost the opposite, looking at them practically as a badge of courage. “When they get stitches, they tend to shrug them off as another step toward looking like a hockey player,” Schwab said.
One of the keys to successful rehabilitation is a good rapport among the players with the doctors and the team’s medical therapist. Schwab gives a lot of credit to Snitzer for being the ideal liaison.
“As far as I’m concerned, Rob is heads above any other trainer with whom I’ve ever worked,” Schwab said. “He is remarkably good at evaluating orthopedic injuries and is very protective of the players. He makes sure they get absolutely top-notch care.”
At the same time, the coaching staff is totally respectful of any recommendations made by the team’s doctors.
“If they ask for our opinion, we give them a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ and that’s the end of the discussion,” Schwab said. “We know the guys want to play, but we don’t take risks. If it’s not safe, we won’t send them out to play and they always abide by our decisions.”
The decision-making process has been aided in recent years by improvements in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology.
“We’re now able to provide a better diagnosis,” Schwab said.
For the physicians of Orthopaedic Associations, sports medicine is about more than taking care of shoulders and knees.
“It’s really a philosophy,” Matelic said. “We try to understand the nature of the injury and the healing process. In that sense, working with athletes ultimately makes us better physicians.”
All of the team’s doctors say they enjoy the opportunity of working with professional athletes. In addition to the Griffins, Orthopaedic Associates works with the Grand Rapids Rampage and West Michigan Whitecaps, as well as local high schools and colleges.
“I’m the old guy of the group, but I hope to continue doing this until the day I retire,” Schwab said. “I still enjoy it just as much as I did the first season.”