Suffering a concussion is usually a bad thing for a hockey player. But for Kaliya Johnson, it proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Johnson, a defenseman on Boston College’s women’s hockey team, suffered a concussion with debilitating symptoms that lasted beyond four months.
An MRI done before the start of BC’s 2014-15 Hockey East season revealed the true source of Johnson’s problem: a Chiari malformation, a structural condition of the brain and spinal cord that contributes to a smaller than normal space for the brain, pressing it downward. In many cases, people aren’t aware they have the ailment.
“Basically, my brain was sitting below the base of my skull. It was something I was born with,” Johnson told me recently. “I had symptoms all my life – little things like pressure headaches, getting migraines. I thought it was normal for me.”
In September, doctors performed surgery that “opened up some space and removed the first vertebrae in my neck, so there was more room to breathe back there,” Johnson said.
Given the physical nature of hockey, Johnson’s condition was discovered in the nick of time.
“It could have been a lot more damaging if I would have continued to keep playing and I got hit in the head wrong, or my back,” she said “It would have been permanently damaging. I feel great now.”
Johnson, a junior, was back on the ice in November and has been a stalwart on the Boston College Eagles’ defense ever since.
The Eagles, the nation’s top-ranked Division I women’s hockey team, suffered a 3-2 defeat to fourth-ranked Harvard University Tuesday night in the championship game of the 37th annual Women’s Beanpot Tournament at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Hockey Center.
Still, it seems fitting that Johnson plays for a hockey team nicknamed after a bird. She has logged a lot of frequent flier miles traveling for the love of hockey.
She got interested in hockey after watching “The Mighty Ducks” movie when she was two years old and living in Los Angeles. And after learning how to skate at the Culver Ice Arena and developing some serious hockey skills, she joined the Anaheim Lady Ducks, a program that has sent several players to the top NCAA women’s hockey powerhouses over the years.
Like ducks and eagles, Johnson knows a thing or two about flying. As Johnson’s youth hockey career was taking off in Southern California her mother, Kellie, decided to relocate the family to Arizona.
“I think she just wanted to change and where I was, the school system wasn’t the greatest,” she said.
Even though Arizona had the National Hockey League’s Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes, various incarnations of the Phoenix Roadrunners in various leagues, club hockey at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, the state still wasn’t a youth hockey hotbed while Johnson was growing up.
“They had a boy’s league and I played in it for a year,” she told me recently. “It was the year I went from squirts to pee wee and they started checking. It got too physical and I broke my arm. I got hit pretty badly and I landed on my elbow. So after that, I decided that I would stick to girl’s hockey. But there wasn’t a team competitive enough for me in Arizona or one that had a well developed program where I could go out and play other competitive teams.”
So she kept playing with the Lady Ducks. Every other weekend Johnson’s mother would drive her 12-year-old daughter to the airport and watch her board a plane to Anaheim by herself.
“It was about a 1 1/2, 2-hour flight,” said Johnson, now 20 years old. “I went by myself and one of my good friends’ mother on my team would pick me up at the airport and I’d stay with them.”
“It was a big sacrifice for my family,” she added. “I’m sure it was hard on her to have her daughter leaving that young almost every other weekend. But she was very supportive and encouraged me to follow my dream. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Johnson earned even more frequent flier miles in high school when she was recruited to attend the North American Hockey Academy, an elite girl’s program in snowy Stowe, Vt. – nearly 2,800 miles from her family’s home in sun-drenched Chandler, Ariz.
“They had two hockey teams there, all girls, and there were about 40 of us,” she said. “We would move up there in late September and we would play the season. They had a league and everything established. We lived in an old resort ski lodge and there was private tutoring. We would travel almost every weekend to play league games and tournaments. When the season was over, I’d fly back to Arizona and finish the school year there.”
Johnson’s hockey prowess caught the eyes of USA Hockey. She was a member of the development program’s Under-18 team that won the Silver Medal at the 2011-12 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship.
At Boston College, Johnson has tallied one goal, five assists, and six penalty minutes in 20 games this season.
She’s hoping that her her strong defensive play, and the Eagles making a run for their first NCAA Division I women’s hockey title, will catch USA Hockey’s attention once again and lead to more flying: to PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018 as a member U.S. women’s Olympic ice hockey team.
“I’ve always wanted to go to the Olympics and be able to represent Team USA,” she said. “My goal is to get back on their (USA Hockey’s) radar.”
In the meantime, Johnson is focused on helping the Eagles soar to an NCAA hockey title.