You can tell that the NHL hasn’t quite come to terms with the word “concussion” just by scanning the daily injury reports, such as they are.
Two examples from weekend action in L.A.: On Saturday, Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog returned to the lineup after missing 11 games because of an injury officially described as “head/leg.” The next day, the Anaheim Ducks’ Cam Fowler returned after missing eight games from the now ubiquitous “upper-body” injury.
Similarly, it took the Pittsburgh Penguins several days from the time Evgeni Malkin was injured (on a check from the Florida Panthers Erik Gudbrandson) to confirm that his injury actually is a concussion. Malkin will miss a week; the Penguins hope it won’t be any longer.
Part of the issue is the difficulty in making an exact diagnosis when it comes to concussions, which brings us to Ian Laperriere, the former NHLer who on Saturday, was feted by the Los Angeles Kings as part of their “legends” series. Even Laperriere joked about that – how players of his stature rarely get the red-carpet treatment.
But he was a unique player in terms of his popularity with teammates – small and utterly fearless, willing to do whatever it took to win. Despite a limited skill set, Laperriere managed to play 1,083 games over 17 years and accumulated just under 2,000 penalty minutes. He is now getting a chance to learn the front-office ropes with the Philadelphia Flyers, which was the fifth and final stop on his NHL tour, and where his career came to an end in the spring of 2010.
It began in a first-round playoff series against the New Jersey Devils, where Laperriere stopped a slap shot with his face, enduring massive damage. He missed the second round against the Boston Bruins, but when the Flyers kept their improbable playoff run going that spring, he miraculously talked his way back into the lineup for the third round against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Flyers eventually lost in the Stanley Cup final that year to the Chicago Blackhawks and Laperriere spent the next two years trying to work his way back, without any success. He officially retired in June of 2012. Now 39, Laperriere still experiences blurred vision and freely acknowledges that he held back information from team doctors so that he could return to play in the playoffs for the Flyers.
Laperriere had a lot to say Saturday – about his cameo in the Judd Apatow movie This Is 40; about his health; about the NHL’s concussion protocols, and most interestingly about the mindset of the professional athlete, and how some are prepared to do whatever it takes to stay in the lineup, even if it means playing hurt.
Laperriere prefaced his remarks by suggesting concussion awareness has improved dramatically since his career began, noting that: “My first concussion, I missed a week and I had a bad one. I had a seizure on the ice. In a week or two, I was back.
“I think the league is doing a great job. They are doing the best they can. I don’t think anybody knows of a big miracle test – and I think the big problem with the concussions is the testing. You’re asking a young kid who’s been playing through so much pain all his life to get here to tell the truth about how you feel. And you’ve been rewarding that kid for years because he’s played through injuries.
“I felt like that. I played in the final with concussion syndrome, but I’d been brainwashed all my life – and it’s nothing against anybody. I was just brainwashed like that, and that’s why I made it (to the NHL). Now you’re trying to change that philosophy and way of thinking for those kids – and it’s tough.
“I don’t think concussions are going to go away. Yes, you can help the kids feel better before they go back, but … it’s a physical sport, big guys, with a lot on the line. It’s the same problem with football – and it’s worse there because they don’t have guaranteed contracts. It’s like, ‘thanks a lot, have a good life.’ ‘But I’ve got four years left on my deal?’ ‘No you don’t, ‘you’re done.’ Well, I would play through it too. Call the guys crazy or stupid, but that’s why where they’re at.”
Laperriere never did make a full recovery from the injury that ended his career and says now: “My eye worries me a little bit, because of the blurriness. Hopefully, it won’t get worse. But other than that, I’ll deal with whatever happens to me down the road. I had a blast doing what I did. I took pride in it. I might have a different speech in 20 years, but now I’m proud of what I did.”
Laperriere was in L.A. on Oscar weekend and joked that for whatever reason, his invitation to the ceremonies hadn’t arrived. He, along with a handful of Flyers’ teammates including Scott Hartnell, plus former junior goalie Wyatt Russell – son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn – had cameos in This Is 40. Previously, Laperriere played Boom Boom Geoffrion in a 2005 film about the legendary Maurice Rocket Richard. Because of the saucy nature of some of the material in the Apatow film, Laperriere wouldn’t let his children, Tristan and Zachary, see the movie.
“They’re 10 and eight,” he said, laughing. “They saw the part I’m in, that’s it. At first, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it, but my wife said, ‘how many chances do you get to be in a Hollywood movie, do it for your kids.’ I said all right – and it was a great experience. Judd Apatow was unbelievable, he took care of us.
“I’m in for every experience. I don’t want to be an actor, but it was fun to see how they do it behind the camera. Dancing with Megan Fox? None of you can say you did that.”
A final question to Laperriere dealt with skate cuts – and specifically the two serious ones that recently sidelined both the Ottawa Senators’ Erik Karlsson and the Winnipeg Jets’ Zach Redmond. Laperriere’s theory is that “with as many games as we play, in the NHL or at any level, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen that often.”
But he noted there’s an element of risk in hockey that you assume when you lace on the blades – and that will never change, no matter how much time or energy is devoted to injury prevention.
“It’s a dangerous sport,” Laperriere concluded. “If you’re afraid, don’t play hockey – or don’t play at this level.”