George Nagobads: The Hockey Doc
Sunday, 12 August 2007
Originally published in Medhunters Magazine in 2003
By Lucas Aykroyd
The average doctor might balk at a last minute summons to work the week before Christmas in Bled, Slovenia. But Dr. George Nagobads was glad to accept when the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) told him a medical supervisor was needed for the obscure Division I, Group B of the 2002 World Junior Hockey Championships. His advanced age posed no obstacle. “My answer was, ‘Sure, why not?'” says the 81-year-old resident of Edina, Minnesota. “The international field has always been my first love.”
That positive, tireless attitude is just one reason why Nagobads will receive the Paul Loicq Award at the 2003 World Hockey Championships in Finland this May. The award, now in its sixth year, is given annually to an individual who has served the IIHF in an extraordinary manner and promoted the sport worldwide. For this former chief medical officer of USA Hockey (1984-92), it is the culmination of a lifetime of service to the hockey community.
From Jock to Doc
Riga, the capital of Latvia, may not rank alongside Montreal, Detroit, and Moscow in the list of the world’s hockey capitals. But growing up in an emerging post-World War I Baltic democracy would have a profound effect on the life philosophy of George Nagobads. His father, a history teacher and high school administrator, emphasized education. Good grades were a must if Nagobads wanted to pursue his natural bent for sports. Soccer, basketball, volleyball, and, of course, hockey filled the boy’s hours after school. At home, he mastered French and German, broadening his prospects beyond Latvia’s population of two million.
By the time he entered university, the diminutive Nagobads realized he was not cut out to play hockey full-time. Still, he kept playing while studying at the medical school of the University of Latvia from the fall of 1941 onward. “I did not make the first team with our club, University Sports, but I was on the B team just before leaving Latvia,” he says.
His August 1944 departure for Germany came at a traumatic time. As bombing intensified in the final days of World War II, Nagobads sought a safe place to pursue his studies. He was nearly killed by a bomb while writing his physiology and anatomy exams at the University of Giesen near Frankfurt. He eventually made his way to the University of Tubingen in the Black Forest, where he graduated with a medical degree in 1949.
With his MD in hand, Nagobads did not know where to turn. Latvia had fallen under the oppressive yoke of the Soviet Union. He considered staying in Europe with his older sister and younger brother, who had studied dentistry and medicine respectively. But while touring Germany with a mobile x-ray unit in search of TB cases, Nagobads met a representative of the Lutheran Brotherhood in Minneapolis who offered to sponsor him and his family for relocation to the United States. The opportunity was irresistible.
After Nagobads did a general surgery residency with the Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis (1952-55), he started work in student health services at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. At the student clinic, Nagobads came into contact with the school’s hockey players, and developed a special rapport with them. “What helped a lot was that I have suffered hockey injuries myself,” Nagobads says. “I have had a tooth knocked out, a kidney bruised, a stick in the forehead. I know the camaraderie of the team and how much it means. I know how I wanted to get back into the games when I was injured.” Strong empathy would remain a Nagobads trademark.
During his general surgery residency, he had developed his suturing skills, a must when dealing with hockey players. “He put about 250 stitches in my face over the years and he was always really concerned, calling to make sure I was healing well,” recalls Lou Nanne, a former mainstay with the university, the US national team, and the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars.
Protecting Players Worldwide
By the 1960s, Minnesota boasted about 75 percent of America’s top college hockey players, and the university became the headquarters for the national team. As a result, as team doctor, Nagobads attended every World Hockey Championship from 1967 to 1990, plus four Olympics, including the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union. Whenever the team traveled abroad, he doubled as its off-ice ambassador. This wide-ranging experience helped him define his approach toward sports medicine.
“My basic philosophy is that you should apply your knowledge the same way as you would for a normal patient,” says Nagobads. “However, keep in mind that athletes do have better, faster recovery periods because they are in good shape. Also, you must explain to athletes why you don’t want them to play tomorrow even if they have a very high tolerance for pain. Saying ‘just wait’ is no good. You must explain why another day or two is important for the healing process.”
When Nagobads joined the IIHF Medical Committee in 1990, international rules barred him from continuing as the national team doctor. But working with this high-level body, which oversees the safety of the sport through such activities as making recommendations for equipment and setting up doping controls, has enabled him to promote safety for hockey players worldwide.
“The main thing for the Medical Committee right now is injury prevention. We have been making big strides on concussion prevention, and we’re trying to eliminate the head checks. Here with USA Hockey, we got that rule through last June. We are also trying to pass rules to ensure that certain pieces of equipment, like face shields, are worn right.”
Whether decrying how pro coaches like to rush players back from injuries or chuckling over the dinner table blunders of young Americans in Europe, Nagobads communicates with calm precision in his accented English. It is clear he will remain an asset to the IIHF until he steps down in a few years.
“George is ageless,” says longtime USA Hockey director Art Berglund. “If you needed him to go with the team now, he still would, even though it’s become more demanding. He knows how to deal with stress. He is truly an athlete’s physician.”
During the gaps in his busy schedule, Nagobads enjoys downhill skiing, tennis, and trips back to his native country. He stays in touch with Latvian NHL stars like Arturs Irbe (goalie, Carolina Hurricanes) and Sandis Ozolinsh (defenseman, Florida Panthers). He is also writing a book about his years with USA Hockey.
George Nagobads does not hesitate when asked what advice he would give young doctors about dealing with patients, no matter where in the world they live.
“Be positive! Don’t say, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ Say, ‘Well, these things happen. Don’t worry. You’re going to be OK. We’ll do this and this, and it will take a little while, but it will be OK.’ Be positive!”