Students Trade Sticks and Skates for Dental Tools
Students Trade Sticks and Skates for Dental Tools

Brandon Parrone never found his No. 9 central incisor on the ice. And he looked. It was his front tooth, after all.

Parrone was spending his first few years out of high school playing in the Canadian Junior Hockey League. He had just been traded to a new team, and on the second day of practice, he took an errant stick to the mouth. A huge chunk of the tooth, in his words, “just popped out.”

“That first cold breath of air from the ice rink,” striking the exposed nerve, “almost knocked me on my butt,” Parrone says, laughing about it now.

So Parrone paid a visit to the team dentist. And then he got curious.

Today, Parrone, recently retired from professional minor league hockey, is completing his first year at the School of Dentistry. He’s one of at least two former hockey players currently studying dentistry at Creighton; Emily Snodgrass, a third-year student, played Division I hockey at the University of Connecticut and later spent a year playing professionally in Italy.

Aware of the irony, both Snodgrass and Parrone say their dental studies have been bolstered by skills they learned playing hockey, a sport that’s notoriously hard on teeth.

“Being a (professional) athlete gives you a head start on the aspect of time management,” Snodgrass says. “I think I was well prepared … simply because I’ve juggled big obligations before.”

Also, she says, “a little competition and a little grittiness don’t hurt.”

Hockey’s danger to teeth stems from its raw physicality and the fact that most professional players wear little face protection. The half-length visor worn by most leaves the bottom half of the face exposed to flying sticks, pucks and fists.

“You have to protect yourself. It’s just how the game’s always been played,” Parrone says. “I’m really fortunate to have just lost the one tooth, but I’ve had multiple teammates lose more. I know one guy who, this past year, took a slapshot to the mouth and he lost eight. All eight of his incisors. It was a mess.”

In the U.S., college players are required to wear a full face mask. But many professionals balk at the idea, Parrone says.

“You’re going to get pushback from the people playing at the high levels, because it’s weird for someone who hasn’t worn a mask,” he says. “Your vision’s impaired. It’s almost claustrophobic. With some of them, you feel like you’re encased in a cage, and a lot of guys don’t like that.”

Still, in recent years, the sport has eased its assault on its players’ pearly whites, according to ESPN. There are fewer fights and fewer head shots than there have been in the past. Combined with stricter officiating and rule changes, the result has been more high-level players with intact smiles.

But most who play the sport, it seems, would love the game regardless. Enter Snodgrass and Parrone.

“I’ve been in skates since I was 3 years old,” Snodgrass says. “And, honestly, the majority of my childhood was either spent on an ice rink, or in the car on the way to one. It was a great thing for me, because it was a way for me to let out my competitive side.”

Growing up in a hockey family in Minnesota, the game felt natural to Snodgrass from the beginning. She played for four years as an undergraduate in Connecticut, and, after graduating, “wasn’t ready to hang up the skates yet.” So she headed to Italy to play a professional season.

After returning to the states, she started looking at dental schools. She was drawn to dentistry, she says, because she “liked the combination of health care, arts and science. And I really liked the idea of being able to be my own boss.”

“I like that you’re able to create your own team, as a dentist,” Snodgrass says. “I think that’s the biggest thing hockey gave to me in terms of being a good dentist — you don’t win a game unless everyone is working toward the same goal.”

Snodgrass eventually settled on Creighton. The prospect of attending classes in the then-planned 200,000-square-foot dental school building won her over, along with the University’s spiritual mission.

“I really liked the Jesuit ideals. I think it aligns well with something like dentistry, where taking care of people is important,” she says.

Parrone, who grew up in Arizona and started playing hockey when he was 5, began his own journey toward dentistry soon after taking that stick to the face. He’d always been drawn to the sciences, particularly biology and chemistry.

“Here I was, with a good chunk of my tooth gone, looking like a stereotypical hockey player, and once I got to the team dentist I started asking him some questions and started shadowing him a little bit,” Parrone says.

After playing in Canada, he returned to the U.S., accepting a hockey scholarship to The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. Upon graduating, he returned to Arizona and played professionally in the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes minor league farm system.

It was in Arizona that he began to seriously consider a career in dentistry.

“I really started shadowing, and I fell in love with it,” he says. “I hadn’t really recognized the creativity and the artistry behind dentistry. I always thought it was so cut and dry. Fill this thing, take that thing out. I didn’t realize every single patient’s different, and (dentists are) making tiny tweaks to each tooth to make it as natural as possible.”

He began attending dental school this fall. He chose Creighton, he says, because of his experience with Jesuit education; he attended Brophy College Preparatory School in Phoenix.

“I’m very familiar with what the Jesuits are about, and I firmly believe in the commitment they have to helping others,” he says.

Parrone says he’s not done with hockey quite yet. After finishing dental school, he’d like to take his degree back to the ice rink as a team dentist.