June 7, 2011 – Growing up in sunny South Florida, Benjamin Shaffer, M.D., never thought one day he’d hit the ice as head team physician for the Washington Capitals, Washington D.C.’s professional hockey team.
Nor did the 1984 UF College of Medicine graduate imagine he’d serve as a National Hockey League physician at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, rubbing shoulders with the Canadian prime minister and international hockey superstars.
“I never really knew a lot about hockey,” said the 53-year-old orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine and arthroscopy. “It wasn’t really a sport I grew up with… I played tennis and swam.”
But Shaffer, who is currently going into his 12th year as medical director of the Capitals and serves as president of NHL Team Physician’s Society, now knows plenty about the winter sport.
“It’s the most exciting sport to watch,” he said. “And the players are great – they are low-maintenance, they are appreciative and are generally smart guys.”
Shaffer also serves as assistant team physician for the Washington Wizards, Washington D.C.’s professional basketball team and practices orthopaedic sports medicine at Washington Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. He joined the practice, which has offices in Washington D.C. and Chevy Chase, Md., in 2005 and his expertise is in problems of the shoulder, elbow and knee.
Shaffer loves the excitement of being at the games caring for top national sports teams. He also has been head team physician for the Washington Nationals, the city’s professional baseball team, the Washington Freedom women’s professional soccer team and the Georgetown University Hoyas athletic teams.
But overseeing such high-profile patients also has its challenges and pressures.
“The excitement comes from being on the sidelines and taking care of some of the greatest players in the world,” Shaffer said. “The challenge is that you are responsible for their outcomes and getting them back on the field quickly but safely.”
Growing up in Hollywood, Fla., Shaffer was admitted to the Junior Honors Medical Program as an undergraduate at UF. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology but took at year off to study art in Washington D.C. and spend three months on an archeology dig in Israel, before starting medical school at UF.
A big sports fan, he attended every Gator game during his years at UF, but his personal interest in orthopaedics and sports medicine came from working with UF College of Medicine faculty. The orthopedic surgeons he met appealed to him – he liked their outgoing personalities and was interested in their work, especially their advances in joint replacement and arthroscopy.
UF had “tremendous faculty,” he said, and two professors that especially made an impact on him were Peter A. Indelicato, M.D., and Bill Enneking, M.D., Currently, Indelicato is the Wayne Huizenga Professor of Sports Medicine and head team physician of the UF Athletic Association, and Enneking, is a distinguished service professor of orthopaedic oncology.
Shaffer recalled Indelicato, who headed up the sports medicine department, as smart, fun, personable and a leader in orthopedics who “kind of turned me on to sports medicine because he took care of all the athletes.”
Enneking, the founding chairman of the department of orthopaedics and rehabilitation, was imposing and demanding, but with a fun side as well, said Shaffer.
“He was a very intense blockbuster of a guy,” he said. “You knew you were in the presence of what was a legend in orthopedics.”
After graduation, Shaffer left for New York City for a residency in orthopaedic surgery at the Hospital for Joint Diseases and Orthopaedic Institute. He then began a fellowship in sports medicine at the Kerlan Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, where physicians cared for numerous Los Angeles professional sports teams, including the Lakers, Rams, Dodgers and Kings.
“That’s where I kind of cut my teeth in the sports medicine training,” he said.
After practicing for two years in Los Angeles, Shaffer was recruited by Georgetown University to start an orthopaedics sports medicine program in 1992 and care for the university’s athletic teams.
After being contacted by the Capitals for a second opinion about one of their players, he was asked in 1999 to become the head team physician for the professional hockey team.
Life is busiest for Shaffer from September to May, when he juggles time at his private practice and covering the Capitals’ 41 home games, plus one or two exhibition games. He gets to the ice an hour before the game and each one lasts about four hours.
Hockey is probably the sport that keeps a team doctor busiest every game, tending to players’ frequent gashes, dislocated shoulders and fractures. And professional athletes aren’t your typical patients – they tend to be an extremely determined, driven group of individuals who are keenly motivated to get back to playing. So being their physician can be very gratifying but also stressful, Shaffer said.
For example, in his first year as team physician for the Capitals, the playoffs were approaching and the team’s starting goalie had symptoms of his knee locking up. Shaffer performed a successful knee surgery on the goalie and he was back on the ice in 10 days, which helped propel the team into the second round of the playoffs.
But he’s also had some “scary moments,” including a time when one of the players fell, hit his head, lost consciousness and suffered a neck injury, and Shaffer had to go out onto the ice to evaluate him. After a series of tests at the hospital, the player was found to have suffered a significant sprain, but fortunately his spine was fine.
“He suffered a concussion that kept him out the rest of the year, but he was lucky,” Shaffer said.
His family shares his enthusiasm for the winter sport – his son Noah, 10, plays hockey and his wife, Jill, and daughter, Emma, 12, are avid spectators.
”My buddies are out on the golf course and I’m on the frozen tundra—I prefer my choice,” Shaffer said with a laugh.