In Good Hands

U.S. Sled Team Doctor Tends To More Than Just Bumps And Bruises
By: 
Greg Bates

Steve Cash has spent many nights on the road, but there's one hotel stay that sticks with him.

As a member of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, Cash was rooming with teammate Billy Hanning while competing in a tournament in Calgary, Alberta in 2012. When Hanning came down with an illness, team physician Mike Uihlein-who the players dubbed "Doc"-gave his room to Cash so the star goaltender could stay healthy for the tournament.

That's what Doc does best.

"I don't know anyone that would bend over backwards in a situation like that," Cash recalled. "Luckily, he made sure that Billy was feeling 100 percent by the end of the trip. I think that's in a nutshell what Doc's about. You can always count on him."

The Doctor Is In

Uihlein has been the sled team's doctor since 2012 when he was recruited by then-assistant coach and later head coach Guy Gosselin. One problem: Uihlein didn't know anything about the sport.

"I said, 'Don't you want someone who knows what's going on?'" Uihlein said. "And he said, 'Your emergency medicine background would be good for these guys because of everything that they have been through and the different things you can do during a trip or tournament.'"

During his tenure those duties have expanded to everything from nursing a sick player back to health to stitching up a laceration to making emergency wheelchair repairs.

"There's just no one better than him," said U.S. National Sled Hockey Team Head Coach David Hoff. "He's really good at what he does, and he's an even better person-that's what's really neat about him. He's a good doctor, takes his job really, really seriously. I think our players really respect that part of it, too."

Puck Passion

Uihlein is well-versed as a professional. There isn't much he hasn't handled with his day job. The 50-year-old currently works at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee in the emergency department and in the Spinal Cord Injury Center Adaptive Sports Clinic within the same facility.

After working with the sled team for a few years, Uihlein went back for a fellowship in sports medicine with an emphasis in adaptive sports. He had found his passion for helping athletes with injuries.

"What I wanted to learn more of was the ongoing care of these sports injuries and then through my additional stuff at the VA, I learned a lot about disability medicine as well," said Uihlein, who resides in Grafton, Wis., with his wife, Sandra, and teenage daughters, Brook and Zoe.

Always On Call

Uihlein's work in the emergency room gives him quite a bit of flexibility with his schedule. That's a goodthing, because he wouldn't be able to fulfill his sled team duties without spending so many days away from home.

With the sled team needing a medical professional on site, Uihlein attends every practice, camp and tournament at home and overseas.

"It seems like he's non-stop," Cash said. "The fact that he shows up for every trip and doesn't even think twice about the life that he's leaving behind for that period of time, just goes to show that he's fully committed and he's all in with us. I don't think there's anybody that can fill those shoes better than he does."

During a non-Paralympic Games year, Uihlein is away from home about 55 days. On a Paralympic year, that number jumps up to 70 days.

The sled team gets together for practice once a month. The athletes and staff fly in on a Thursday, have a night practice, get in two skates on Friday and Saturday and everyone departs on Sunday.

Jack Of All Trades

Uihlein's duties aren't just confined to the rink. Preparation is a huge part of his practice. 

"Before I go anywhere, I do a medical travel assessment and know where the local hospital is, the ER, the orthopedic surgeons, how far it is from the rink, where it is from the hotel," said Uihlein, who has been part of the staff for the gold-medal winning sled teams at the 2014 and 2018 Paralympic Games. 

"Then I'll reach out to local sports medicine physicians so we have a plan for follow-up, if anyone gets injured. Just have a plan for emergency and non-emergency care and going from there."

And he's never far from his medical bag, which he calls his jack-of-all-trades kit.

"People tease me about this big backpack that I carry wherever, but it's just like any other sports medicine doc's kit that's amassed different things over the years that you needed or could have needed," Uihlein said. "Mine also includes tire wrenches and patch kits for wheelchairs."

When it's time to get on the ice, the sled athletes thoroughly enjoy having a familiar face who knows them and can tend to any ailment.

Best Of Care

As the longest tenured sled team member at 15 seasons, Cash knows he's in good hands if he has any health issues.

"Having that consistency allows you to focus on your game," Cash said. "When we come into these tournaments, obviously there's a lot of butterflies and guys get stressed out. Doc's there at the drop of a dime. Not only that, but he does everything with a smile. The genuine demeanor that he brings with him everywhere he goes-I think of a guy that's just more sincere about the things that he does and the way he carries himself."

Getting to know the athletes and their underlying disabilities is a huge key for Uihlein. Every sled team member has a diverse medical history, whether it be a Marine who lost a leg to a roadside bomb or a guy who had a leg amputated due to childhood cancer.

"He knows some of the things that they deal with. He probably knows what they need to perform well," Hoff said. "He and [athletic trainer] Mike Cortese as a staff, we just sit back and let them handle the medical part of it. They make the decisions that are in the best interest of the athlete, and they help them try to get in the spot they try to be."

With sled hockey being a unique sport, Uihlein treats a lot of upper extremity and hand injuries. Also common are soft tissue injuries and lacerations from the picks from the ends of the sticks. There's always potential for more serious injuries during a sled contest.

"We're always aware and concerned about the potential for head injuries as these guys are going at high rates of speed," Uihlein said. "If they lose control or lose an edge, they're going into the boards. It's like running into a wall at 20-25 miles an hour."

Eye On The Ball

As if Uihlein wasn't busy enough, he has an interesting side job during football season as an NFL Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant working at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

"We review every play for potential head injuries and communicate with the sidelines if we see signs that a player needs to be evaluated or removed from play," said Uihlein, who splits Packers home games with another spotter. "You will never watch football the same way again after the UNC training."

Uihlein enjoys his duties as a concussion spotter, but he's still partial to his role with the sled hockey team.

Whether he's taking in a sled team's game at the end of the bench or in the stands, Uihlein is always involved.

"I love being the doctor for these guys on this team and hopefully they'll be able to call me 'Doc' for the rest of their lives," he said. "I'll help them as long as I can." 

 


 

Greg Bates is a freelance writer in Green Bay, Wis.

 

Issue: 
2020-03

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