Keith Primeau has never had a chance to address the National Hockey League's board of governors, to appear at one of their meetings and tell them about the concussions that ended his career.
But if he could talk to the game's decision makers, he would tell them they could do more, adopt better rules, pay heed to the warnings found in the brain of his former Detroit Red Wings' teammate Bob Probert, who at the time of his death suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.
"This isn't going away," Primeau said Thursday after Boston University researchers confirmed Probert had CTE as did another former NHLer, Reg Fleming, who was diagnosed with the same condition in late 2009.
"This is not like the ACL (knee ligament) issue of 15 years ago. It's not like the sports hernia issue of 10 years ago. Players today hear about older players (battling with concussion issues) and say, 'That's so sad. But it's not me.' I'm here to tell them it's true. I am that guy."
The medical readings of Probert's 45-year-old brain have added fuel to a raging fire. Already this season, the league has lost its biggest star, Sidney Crosby, to a concussion while the Toronto Maple Leafs were called into question for their treatment of forward Mikhail Grabovski, who returned to action after being knocked woozy during a game against the Boston Bruins. As one team source put it: "The awareness of blows to the head has reached a level where no one can ignore it any longer."
In that context, Donald Fehr, executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association, issued a statement Thursday describing the Probert diagnosis as "an important piece of research that the players, along with everyone else interested in the safety and well-being of hockey players, should consider seriously."
The NHL, while expressing its interest, was quick to slow any rush to conclusions. Its general managers meet later this month and will discuss concussion protocol and potential changes to Rule 48, which penalizes players for lateral or blindside hits that target an opponent's head. The league will talk about banning all contact to the head, including fighting, which many in the hockey world deem an essential aspect of the game.
Commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged during the recent all-star break the number of concussions had increased this season and attributed that to accidental incidents. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was asked about the Probert findings and replied via e-mail that while they "add to a much broader body of knowledge … we're not going to react or make changes based on findings related to one player …"
Daly didn't mention the Fleming data. Fleming died at 73 but was bothered by long-term health and mental issues.
The NHL's measured response to the Probert findings was echoed by some GMs while others declined to speak on the matter. Detroit's Ken Holland said he wanted more information.
"A year ago, the managers ruled that we put the onus on the person giving the hit instead of the player not protecting himself when he's in a vulnerable position," Holland said. "Obviously, the hope would be, in a perfect world, we'd have rules that allow for competitive hockey and protect our players to the max. Is it possible? I don't know."
Ray Shero, general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is dealing with the concussion dilemma on several fronts. Not only is Crosby sidelined by postconcussion symptoms, so is Crosby's sister Taylor, a goalie at Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school, and so is Shero's son, Chris, who suffered a concussion weeks ago playing Tier 1 junior hockey in Pennsylvania.
"I'll make the same analogy with my son to Sidney Crosby or Eric Tangradi or Nick Johnson or Arron Asham or whoever," Shero told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Hockey is not important. This is their health and, in my kid's case, schooling. You don't want them to play before doctors deem them ready to be cleared to play."
Probert died of heart failure last summer but had agreed to donate his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute, which is working in partnership with Boston University researchers. Although he fought regularly and totalled more than 3,000 penalty minutes in his NHL career, Probert also had issues with drugs and alcohol and was in a major car accident.
That Probert was suffering from brain damage did not shock those who played with and against him.
"What he's given us is a platform for change," said Sheldon Kennedy, another former Red Wing. "We can look at the research done, but what are we going to do about it? How many more guys or star players have to be hurt and retire for the game to change?"
"The Probert finding doesn't surprise me because of his physical style and physical nature and the job description that he carried," added Primeau, who retired in 2006 and now works with Play It Cool, a program that teaches parents, coaches and kids how to prevent injuries. "My biggest fear is when I do begin my demise that it's drastic and that it's fast. It's not the finality of it but the progression.
"We have to make the head off limits. It's just too important an organ to mess with."