Hockey training camps are in full swing, and jobs are on the line. The rewards for cracking an NHL roster are great, but the long-term consequences may be dire. How many players take to the ice with full knowledge that, when their talents are exhausted, they could be facing a lifetime of pain?
A lawsuit brought against the NHL by former players, now working its way through the U.S. court system, is a reminder of the lingering harm that can come from excelling in a fast, tough sport. The group of 60 players, which includes Bernie Nicholls, Gary Leeman and Reed Larson, alleges that the league did not do enough to protect them from neurological damage caused by repeated blows to the head. Icons we remember as dominant masters of the ice now suffer from memory loss, depression and anger issues – the result, they say, of concussions that were overlooked or underplayed.
It's tempting to see this lawsuit as a relic of the past, given the medical community's much-improved understanding of sports concussions, and the care with which they should be treated. The NHL, in tandem with its players' union, has crafted protocols that require anyone who exhibits signs of a concussion to be examined and tested immediately by trained personnel. This wasn't the rule 30 years ago.
In reality, competitive players (meaning pretty well everyone who's made it to the NHL and wants to stay there) will do everything possible to return to the ice after a big hit. In the heat of the moment, no athlete is inclined to think 20 or 30 years down the line, when memories (however foggy) are all that remain. The NHL still allows team employees too much leeway in identifying potentially concussed players – which they may be reluctant to do. Injured players often return to the game too soon as well.
But even with these concussion protocols in place, the damage of the initial impact has already occurred. Over a career, this constant pounding takes a toll. The sudden death earlier this year of 35-year-old retired defenceman Steve Montador caused a stir among those who had played with him. Mr. Montador struggled with concussion issues as well as depression – an autopsy of his brain revealed extensive chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that medical experts believe is concussion-related.
Earlier this month, the New Jersey Devils' Ryane Clowe stopped playing at 32 with three years and $14.5-million left on his contract because he was declared medically unable to play, due to repeated concussions. It's a sign of progress, sadly, when doctors get to determine that a concussed player is finished.
Yet if the NHL believes that enough has been done to protect players' brains, and their futures, it is wrong. Despite a series of well-intended rule changes that limit hits to the head, concussions remain a constant presence in the game. Anyone concerned about the welfare of the athletes we claim to admire should consider this situation intolerable.
The system has to change, and not through the incremental tinkering preferred by the league's decision-makers, who still have a soft spot for crowd-pleasing belligerence, prefer to give referees wide discretion in deciding whether a hit to the head is permissible, and often blame the victims for putting themselves in a vulnerable position.
All hits to the head should be outlawed, and heavily penalized, at the team level as well as at the individual level. But that's not enough, because neurological damage can also occur with the whiplash effect of a jarring check to the body. If the NHL is serious about player safety, it's time to start thinking about outlawing bodychecking (as is already done in women's hockey), or reducing it to the low-impact levels of old-time hockey, as well as preventing hits against the unforgiving boards and glass. Ice surfaces need to be made bigger and the number of skaters reduced, which would cut down on harmful collisions. The dangerous body armour worn by modern players has turned protective padding into an offensive weapon. Obviously it should be softened.
Fighting is a guaranteed cause of brain damage, yet it survives as a score-settling method of intimidation. It must be banned, if only to stave off the long-term physical and emotional damage evidenced by tough guys such as Bob Probert and Derek Boogaard, who died prematurely and whose autopsied brains showed evidence of CTE.
Traditionalists will complain, as if the primary hockey skills of skating, puck-handling, passing and shooting were lacking in entertainment value. But if the sport became soccer on ice, would that really be so bad? The streamlined, beautiful game exhibited at the Olympics every four years proves that a purer version of the sport can exist, once the will to adapt is there.
Professional sports remake themselves all the time, despite their reputation for unchanging continuity. It was once considered an essential part of baseball that players could crash into an unsuspecting catcher as he fielded a throw and knock him senseless – with the hope that the ball might be jarred loose. As we learned more about concussions and their consequences, this display of toughness became indefensible, and Major League Baseball banned it.
The NHL was once notorious for spearing – using the stick as a lethal weapon. The stylish Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate wrote an article in 1960 titled Atrocities on Ice in which he stated that "unchecked brutality is going to kill somebody." Hockey changed its norms and found a way to get rid of stick attacks before someone died. But the killer mentality survives in a more sophisticated hockey world. It's time to recognize concussions as the insidious peril they are, and end the pointless brutality that makes them an inevitable part of the game.