Injuries can rob an athlete of the ability to play the game they love, ending careers in the blink of an eye.
No one knows that better than Colorado College junior Dakota Eveland.
Earlier this year, the 5-foot-7, 163-pound forward was forced to come to the harsh realization that his hockey playing days were over. Eveland suffered a concussion in one of the Tigers’ practices in mid-January, and neck pain led to a CT scan that revealed a surprising discovery.
Doctors diagnosed Eveland with Os Odontoideum, a rare condition in which the odontoid process part of the upper spine is separated from the rest of the spinal column. The defect allows for too much movement of the C-1 and C-2 vertebrae and often is undiagnosed until death or a person is paralyzed.
“When they find it in someone, it’s usually too late,” said Eveland, an Anaheim, Calif., native. “They’re either dead or paralyzed. The fact that I’d been playing with contact since I was a kid and nothing ever happened was pretty crazy.
“You’re not supposed to play anything with (this condition), and I’ve given it a lot of thought. To say this is career-ending would be the most logical.”
Eveland saw a specialist in Colorado Springs, sought second and third opinions in California and decided to undergo surgery in March to stabilize the vertebrae. The procedure was a success, but Eveland — who had three goals and 14 assists as a freshman and three goals and five assists in 22 games as a soph — was finished playing competitive hockey.
Some people would have quit the team, but Eveland is still at practice every day, helping the coaches run drills, giving advice to younger players and enjoying time with his teammates. He may no longer appear on the roster, but Eveland is still a Tiger.
“He’s a great friend and is still a big part of the team,” fellow junior forward Archie Skalbeck said. “The guy is a warrior. He loves hockey probably more than anyone I’ve ever met.”
From helping coaches with film work, practices and administrative duties, Eveland is keeping busy by helping CC prepare each week.
“Obviously, hockey is a big part of his life, and it’s tough to get that taken away,” coach Scott Owens said. “He’s another set of eyes, and he has a real good and down-to-earth hockey sense and common sense. He’s one of the guys, and he always will be.”
The realization that his playing days are over was difficult, but Eveland has handled it as best as he can.
“Mentally, it’s been really tough,” Eveland said. “It’s hard watching games at times, and I’ll leave (the room) because I want to be out there so bad. It would have been easy for coach Owens and the president of the school to be like, ‘Hey, we’re not going to keep you around.’
“The fact that they did that for me is incredible. Nothing’s changed at all, and I’m still one of them. Everything is still good, but I’m just not playing.”
Eveland received a surprise call from Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning — no stranger to neck surgeries — in response to a letter Eveland’s mother had sent the future MVP candidate.
Eveland has also realized that he wants to remain in the game he loves for the rest of life.
“I really do want to coach,” Eveland said. “As bad as it is not being able to play, maybe doing this so early in my life and kind of getting a head start is good. Coaching is something you can do for a long time.”
Eveland views his diagnosis as a blessing in disguise, especially considering what could have happened had he suffered a tragic injury.
“I’m not the most religious person by any means, but it really was a blessing,” he said. “When people say that I’ve got a guardian angel, I think I’ve got to have one somewhere.”