Marty McSorley played 17 hard NHL seasons, someone who made a living with his fists as much as his hands. He started as an enforcer, gradually evolved into a day-to-day regular and now, some 10 years after his career ended, can see the first worrying signs that all is not right with his health.
"I know myself, there are times when I shave, I have trouble seeing the right side of my face," said McSorley. "That's just from head injuries, or what have you, but when I try to shave my right sideburn, I have trouble focusing on it.
"Then there are times when I'll walk into a room and I'll stand there and go 'Why am I here again?' - and you just don't know. You don't know if it's from all the contact you've had over the years or what.
"With everything that's gone on, with so many of the guys. … I mean, we had serious concussions and you'd sit on the bench and the trainer would keep asking if you were okay to go.
"So I keep an eye on it, on whether there are some things I've slipped on or whatever. It's very, very real."
McSorley still lives in Los Angeles these days, but went home to Ontario for Christmas and took in three or four minor-hockey games during that time. The always chatty and occasionally provocative McSorley said he was "shocked" by how poorly equipped the players were to protect themselves; and how vulnerable they were on the ice.
"I don't know how many kids were there, facing the forwards, or going to the boards and spinning, where they put their backs to the other players. I think that has to be addressed."
McSorley thinks the problem can partly be traced to coaches that aren't always putting safety first.
"There are coaches that teach their kids to turn their backs to the players to protect the puck," McSorley said. "They'll say, 'If you're on the boards and you bobble the puck, just turn your back - they can't hit you and they can't get to the puck.'
"The one thing I'd like to see - you know how they penalize kids when they hit someone from behind? Well, I'd like to see them penalize a kid who turns to the boards to protect the puck."
McSorley is on the stump these days in support of Alzheimer's research, through an NHL Alumni Association initiative that will barnstorm Canada later in March to raise funds for the Gordie and Colleen Howe Fund for Alzheimer's. In conjunction with Scotiabank, the NHL alumni is holding fantasy-camp events in all six of Canada's NHL cities, starting in Calgary on March 18. Recreational hockey players can enter the event by raising a minimum of $25,000 for the charity.
Their reward is a three-day event that features a draft-day party and then two days on the ice with a selection of former NHL greats and near greats. Alzheimer's research is a particularly inspired choice for the NHL Alumni Association, given all the emerging evidence that links multiple concussions and other head injuries to various forms of dementia and/or early-onset Alzheimer's.
"It is a pretty good fit," acknowledged Mark Napier, executive director of the NHL Alumni Association. "There's a number of people affected by it, including some of our own members."
Interest in the event is on the rise, said Napier, who noted that, "The tournament kind of sells itself. A lot of people are used to writing cheques to charity, but here you can write a cheque to charity and also have some fun with it. Our guys are part of the team. They dress with the guys, they go out and have beer and chicken wings after the game with them. They spend all day with it."
As for Alzheimer's and its effects on an aging population, McSorley said the disease hit his family close to home. "My wife's dad suffered from a degenerative brain disease," he said. "One day we lost him and it happened so fast. It was shocking to see how it shook everybody up. My wife would go in and see him and he wouldn't know who she was. To see him, completely functional in some ways, but frustrated, because early on he'd be trying to tell a story and couldn't, it was almost like being trapped inside himself.
"There has to be an answer."