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Toughness, Respect, and Injury in a So-Called “Man’s Game”

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Concussions continue to be a point of contention in the NHL, and the concept of the league’s toughness isn’t doing anyone favors.

Gary Bettman, right, has repeatedly denounced the evidence linking concussions from repeated head trauma to CTE.
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The NHL has dragged its feet maddeningly slow in regards to admitting the effects of concussions on the brain. The NFL has made advances on this front by acknowledging the link between football and brain diseases caused by repeated traumas. But the NHL would have you believe that they’re the toughest league, the most honorable. While they’ve inched forward in trying to reduce head injuries with the introduction of concussion spotters, they’re still stubbornly refusing to give into the fact that their sport also poses risks to its players, its moneymakers, that can be life-altering or, in the worst cases, fatal.

That’s the thing with neurodegenerative diseases such as PCS (post-concussion syndrome), TBI (traumatic brain injury), and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). All are caused by blows to the head that cause concussions; the latter a result of repeated hits to that degree, but which can only be diagnosed after death.

Concussions, for the record, are when the head is hit so hard that the brain literally bounces off the inside of the skull. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a direct hit to the head, as whiplash can also cause all that squishy thinking-matter inside your head to act like a rubber ball against unforgiving bone. The Mayo Clinic defines a concussion as a mild TBI.

That can cause some serious damage, obviously. Depending on the number and severity of the injuries, symptoms such as constant headaches and migraines, anxiety, depression, dizziness and balance disorders, mood changes, and memory loss can persist for weeks, if not months and years after the affective traumas. In the case of CTE, it can cause dementia in populations much younger than those usually affected.

These symptoms can be utterly overwhelming to deal with, especially combined, and with no respite. When someone is going that long with constant pain, they may turn to drastic measures to find relief. Anything and everything they can get their hands on — pills, alcohol, harder drugs, you name it — and if that doesn’t work, they may eventually see only one option left. In their eyes, only one way remains for them to escape the shell they’ve been reduced to — suicide.

It’s a scary thing that no one likes to talk about, I know. But I’ve faced that reality more times than I can count in the last two years working in an Intensive Care Unit. I can’t tell you how many patients I’ve seen come to our floor for overdoses and attempted hangings. I’ve seen patients as young as 18 and as old as their mid-seventies and eighties. Children, spouses, parents, grandparents. Most have some sort of mental illness underlying it all. Many are addicted to pills after years of chronic pain, be it from an accident or a lifetime of strenuous work taking a toll on their bodies, and it is these medications they take in excess to try and end their lives.

I have sat with these patients as they contemplated the gravity of what they’d done. I have seen people deeply regret their actions and others that I know will try again.

I have seen people succeed, and had to witness those left behind deal with that reality. There is nothing like the anguish of families in those situations.

In a span of a few months in 2011, three noted “tough guys” of the NHL were found dead of suicide or overdose: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak. Boogaard is the only one of the three to be confirmed to have CTE, but each player had a history of concussions, earned from their roles as so-called “enforcers,” as well as substance abuse and depression. Other CTE cases in the NHL have cropped up over the last several years. Famed “Bruise Brother” Bob Probert died in 2010, and CTE was later discovered in his brain. The same was true for former Sabre Rick Martin, who also died in 2011.

On Monday, former Avalanche player Marek Svatos’ death was confirmed to be an overdose of pain and anti-anxiety medications.

Hours later, Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid was pulled temporarily from a game against the Minnesota Wild by the NHL’s concussion spotters. McDavid hit his mouth on the ice, but the young phenom didn’t understand why he got the yank.

Fellow Oilers forward Patrick Maroon was a little annoyed that the star player had been removed from the game. Maroon thought it important to reiterate that hockey is a “man’s game,” to play it off as no big deal. Players fall down all the time, right?

Not even diving into the underlying sexism in this comment (which Maroon denied in a hilarious-if-it-weren’t-so-dumb non-apology later Monday night, which has since been deleted), there is so much to dissect in so few words.

It’s a symptom of the tough-guy culture that hockey continues to foster, this idea that NHLers can play through ailments and injuries that would fell lesser athletes and mere mortals. The league’s talking heads propagate it, fans revel in it, players absorb it into their very definitions of themselves.

There is pride taken in staying out on the ice after injury. Gregory Campbell’s infamous broken leg incident in 2013 proved that — even while hobbling on a broken bone, he was being lauded for his toughness for staying on the ice. That was a true hockey player, they said. It was the playoffs, after all. Sacrifice your body for your team and the win.

This happens in the regular season with alarming regularity. How many times has a player returned to a game after taking a knee-on-knee, an awkward fall into the boards, or catch a rut and twist an ankle? They get credit for returning, because the injury must not have been that bad if they can still play, even though that’s what they’re supposed to do for their teammates.

Players receive hits to the head at an even more disturbing rate. Jostling each other around the rink, battling in the corners, that’s all normal. High-sticking is a penalty for a reason, right? You’re a little woozy now, but you’ll be fine in a minute or two. Here’s some smelling salts, shake it off and get back out there, your team needs you.

The truth is that head injuries make no more sense to play through than broken bones and sprained or dislocated joints. There is never any honor in risking further harm.

You’ll get pats on the back from the old-time hockey guys, those ones that crow about the toughness of the league way back when. Congrats, you’re a “real” hockey player in their book.

But where are they when you’re concussed out of the game? Where are they when you’ve become addicted to painkillers or antidepressants? Or hospitalized for trying to kill yourself so it’ll all just be over?

And where are they when you succeed? When your spouse or child or friend finds you and you’re far too gone to help? Those old-time hockey guys aren’t there. They turn the other way, offer your loved ones condolences and talk about what a shame it is that you’re gone. If you’d only known that you had people that cared and could have helped you.

Fellow players offer similar hollow words in the immediate aftermath of bad (read: potentially suspension-worthy) hits. You hear the same canned responses after games where someone’s been badly injured.

“I have total respect for all the guys in this league. You never want to see a guy hurt like that.”

Yet when the players themselves internalize and publicly reinforce the idea of the NHL being a “man’s league” when it comes to risking injury, those words start to take on a different meaning. They belie a true respect for opponents as fellow humans.

“Well, I hurt a guy, but he shouldn’t be such a wuss. Play through the pain, you’re a man!”

Ask Patrick Eaves what it’s like to live with debilitating migraines. Ask Johan Franzen. Or Joe Vitale and Marc Savard, whose careers are over. Ask Sidney Crosby.

Are you comfortable enough in your assertion of a “man’s game” that you’re willing to say to them that their suffering makes them lesser men? Because yes, that is what you’re saying.

Go to the best player in the league and tell him his lost season means he’s a big ol’ wuss. Tell him to suck it up, and when he takes extra precautions when he gets hit in the head again, call him “Cindy” and “Princess,” demean and feminize him because he doesn’t fit your toughness standard.

Go to Franzen and tell him and his wife and young children that the months he spent in isolated darkness in order to survive makes him a bad father. He already thinks that, after all, because his post-concussion depression and anxiety makes him truly believe that he’s a bad father and husband for suffering from things he can’t control. He’s trying to work through that, having finally given up the sport he loves in order to be there in five, ten, twenty years for his sons.

Go to Eaves and tell him that in his months of constant migraines and pain, he should have been present with his three kids and pregnant wife. Guess what? He too already knows that. But he couldn’t, because he was essentially non-functioning after a serious brain injury. A puck to the face shattered his jaw, and for 14 months, his life. Go to him and tell him that he failed his family.

When players ignore all this evidence for the sake of “manliness,” when the NHL sits and lies to everyone’s faces about the connection between their sport and terrible, oft-debilitating injuries, we will continue to see injuries that end careers. We are seeing the generation of players that will serve as the cautionary tales for the up-and-comers. The examples that will be talked about delicately lest their suffering be minimized for the sake of proving a point.

It’s tiring, it’s horrifying, and yet it’s still happening.