At the age of 36 and after taking a full year away from the NHL to try and recover from the effects of multiple concussions, Paul Kariya retired Wednesday after a distinguished 15-year career.
And on the day he did so, Kariya had sharp words of criticism for a league that he believes still hasn't done enough to address the issue of head injuries.
"The thing that I worry about," Kariya said in an interview, "is that you'll get a guy who is playing with a concussion, and he gets hit, and he dies at centre ice. Can you imagine what would happen to the league if a guy dies at centre ice?"
Kariya said that if the NHL wants to get serious about reducing the number of concussions in the game, it needs to introduce harsher penalties, in the same it did to eliminate the bench-clearing brawls that were so prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, but are completely absent from the game now.
"If you want to get rid of it, I'm a believer that you don't go after the employees, you go after the employers," said Kariya. "The first concussion I had, on a brutal, blindside hit, the guy got a two-game suspension. That was in 1996. The last one, from (the Buffalo Sabres' Patrick) Kaleta, was exactly the same play, and he doesn't get anything.
"If you start at 10-game suspensions and go to 20, that sends a message to the players. But if you start fining the owners and suspending the coach, then it's out of the game."
Kariya went on to say that every hit that ever knocked him out came as a result of an illegal hit.
"Every single one," he reiterated. "I'm not saying you're going to ever eliminate concussions completely because it's a contact sport, but if you get those out of the game, then you eliminate a big part of the problem.
"A two-game suspension? That's not enough of a deterrent."
Last summer, Kariya issued a statement through his agent Don Baizley that he was planning to take the 2010-11 season off in the hopes that he could be fully recovered in time to sign for the start of 2011-12. And while he is now symptom-free, and says he "feels great," his doctor advised him that the risk of re-injury was too great.
Even 12 months ago, concussion specialist Mark Lovell warned Kariya that this day was likely to occur. After the Kaleta hit, Kariya said he hoped his symptoms would go away over time, as they had before.
"Instead, they just kept getting worse and worse. My doctor said, 'there's no one in my profession that could clear you to play in this condition.' Even last summer, he said, 'even if you recover 100 per cent, I would advise you to retire.'
"I knew I was bad, but I didn't know I was that bad. But they had concussion data on me all the way back to 1996, and then from the (Gary) Suter hit (just before the 1998 Winter Olympics), so they could track my results from one concussion to another.
"The drop in my brain function, the doctor said, was down by 50 per cent. At that point, I wasn't thinking, 'Am I going to play again?' I just wanted to get healthy."
To that end, Kariya began a five-month rehabilitation process that involved multiple activities - weight lifting, yoga, surfing, ballroom dancing - all designed to enhance his neural responses. He also started receiving treatment in a hyperbaric chamber and began taking supplements - primarily high doses of fish oils - and eventually began to see some improvements.
"After two-and-a-half months, I saw a 40-50 per cent improvement, but the scans were still showing braining damage. After five months, I was up to 80 cent. As spring came around, and teams started calling, I went back to the doctor, but he said, 'Paul, there's just no way you can play again. You're still too vulnerable to another concussion.'"
Kariya believes that because there are no visible outward symptoms of concussion, NHL teams tend to play them down to their players. He contrasted it to the treatment levels accorded to a player who suffered a major knee injury.
"If it's an ACL/MCL tear, right away, the doctor, the player and the management, they all know he's out for six-to-12 months. There's no question about it. There's a rehabilitation protocol that you follow and that's what they do.
"With concussions, the guy walks into the dressing room the next day and they ask, 'how are you doing? Are you okay to go tomorrow?' It's totally backward. I had (two major hip reconstructions) and I'll take that any day over a concussion."
Though he didn't watch a lot of games this past season, he stayed in touch with Teemu Selanne, his close friend with the Anaheim Ducks and thus was aware of how concussions and illegal hits to the head were a hot-button issue in the NHL this past season. Only last week, the NHL board of governors approved a change to rule 48 - the head shot rule - that broadened its parameters and eliminated the language "blind-side or lateral hit to the head" from its wording.
From now on, "any hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is no longer permitted."
However, the rule also includes language that permits a referee's discretion, where "the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was unavoidable, can be considered."
According to Kariya, the concussion that sidelined Pittsburgh Penguins' star Sidney Crosby halfway through the season is an example of how far the league still needs to go in order to alter its mindset.
"Crosby is a perfect example," said Kariya. "You have the best player in the game playing on a the same team as a guy (Matt Cooke) who is ending guys' careers with those kinds of hits.
"Hopefully, things will change."
Kariya will finish his NHL career with 989 points in 989 games. He was a two-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly conduct and sportsmanship, and was selected to the NHL's first all-star team three times (1996, 1997 and 1999) and the second team twice (2000, 2003). Kariya played for Canada in the 1994 and 2002 Olympics, and was chosen to play in 1998, but couldn't compete after suffering a head injury on a crosscheck from the Chicago Blackhawks' Suter just days before he was supposed to head overseas.
One could argue that Kariya's most memorable NHL moment came in the 2003 Stanley Cup final between the Anaheim Ducks and the New Jersey Devils when the Devils' Scott Stevens laid him out with a crushing hit, leaving him motionless on the ice for several minutes with what was undoubtedly an undiagnosed concussion. Kariya returned to play after a short absence and later scored the decisive goal that permitted Anaheim to force a seventh game in a series that was ultimately won by New Jersey. It was the closest he ever came to winning the Stanley Cup.
"I feel very fortunate for the 15 years I spent in the NHL," said Kariya. "At some point, whether you play 10 or five or 20 years, you have to retire eventually - and no matter what you do afterward, you need your brain to be functioning."