Keith Primeau and Kerry Goulet did not take up their crusade to educate people about concussions to make the NHL a safer place.
They are aiming at a much younger audience because they know if children are educated properly, one day the NHL will be a safer place to play. Much safer than it is now, with more than 80 players diagnosed with a concussion in this season alone, and safer than it was in 2005, when Primeau's NHL career ended at 34 after yet another concussion.
"I told Kerry when we got into this, don't plan on having that kind of impact [with the NHL]" Primeau said Wednesday at the launch of stopconcussions.com, an educational resource about concussions for athletes at all levels and all sports.
"The fight is a good fight at the youth level," Primeau said. "Whatever happens at the National Hockey League level happens there, it's not for me to say. But what we have is the ability to impact our children and that's important."
Primeau and Goulet, who played professional hockey in Germany, already developed a program called Play It Cool Hockey, which works with minor hockey groups to reduce concussions and spinal injuries. Their goal is to create education and prevention programs for football, soccer, baseball and lacrosse.
"Just consider us the 7-11 of concussions," Goulet said. "We're going to be 24-7 on concussions."
Much of the education will be aimed at parents, Primeau said. His own experience in coaching his 11- and 13-year-old sons in the Philadelphia area shows that too often it is the parents pushing to have their children put back in the game after suffering a head injury.
"What becomes difficult at that level is the parent," Primeau said. "They grew up in the same frame I did. It's just a bump on the head, you'll be okay, get back out there."
The biggest problem with concussions is simple ignorance, he added. Even doctors admit they know relatively little about them, so it was no surprise to him when the NHL's biggest star, who missed the rest of the season after suffering a concussion on Jan. 5, called him for advice.
"Basically, what I told him was make sure you are 100 per cent before you go back," Primeau said, recalling his advice for Sidney Crosby.
Former NHLer Mike Van Ryn is now an assistant coach with the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League. He says junior players are slowly changing the way they play, looking less and less to make hits to the head if only because the OHL has a stiff penalty against them.
However, much work needs to be done in minor hockey, Van Ryn says, because he sees too many players come into the OHL conditioned to make big hits. Part of it is a legacy of the improvements in equipment in the 1970s that made players feel invincible and part is the increased speed in the game that followed the NHL's move to a faster game after the 2004-05 lockout.
"I don't know it's so much that [the players]are looking for heads," Van Ryn said. "But there a lot of arms up high, sticks up high. They're definitely hitting high. The athletes are like missiles now. They're so much faster, so much stronger. Everybody is hitting with such velocity injuries are bound to happen."
Like Goulet and Primeau, Van Ryn believes educating the youngsters will pay off at higher levels of hockey.
What troubles Primeau is that the attraction of playing in the NHL is such that athletes are still willing to risk their brains to make the big time.
"I'm most upset with myself," he said. "Even if I knew then what I know now, I can't say I would change my course."
That course left him with a legacy of pain and fear. Primeau said it took five years for the symptoms of his last concussion to ease and it was only in the last three or four months that he could enjoy long stretches without headaches and exercise again. But he still wonders about the possibility of dementia or Alzheimer's disease and a premature death.
"The last four or five months I'm in a much better place than I was the last five years," he said. "But even now, not a day goes by when I'm not reminded I damaged my brain."