It’s late September in 2020, so naturally the Stanley Cup Final is in full-swing. The Tampa Bay Lightning have just won game three as the road team in a series taking place entirely in Edmonton, giving them a 2-1 series lead over the Dallas Stars. I’m not writing this now to remind you how weird things are in this moment, but rather as a hopeful way to remind myself when internet archaeology turns up this article as an interesting look at “the old times.”
One thing that hasn’t changed in all of the horrible flux of 2020 is the culture of hockey. Among the storylines from the most-recent Cup Final game is the return of Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos from injury for his first NHL action since February. Stamkos, in his return from injury, played just 2:47, but he scored a goal that spent 29:51 of game time as what would have been the game-winner if not for a meaningless Stars goal in the third period.
As our sister site over at Raw Charge describes, this is “something you’d expect to see in a movie.” The piece’s author Matthew Esteves isn’t wrong. There’s an undeniable magic to this narrative and it’s one that cannot and should not be extricated entirely from our sport. However, there’s a darker side to this as well.
Just two days ago, the NHL attempted to capitalize on the magic of this feeling with a promo dramatically showing a series of players blocking shots, going down in pain, and gingerly skating to their bench. The promo was loudly criticized for glorifying injuries. In response, the NHL has pulled the video, but I’m not aware of any statement from the league addressing the controversy stirred.
To be honest, I would guess that the reaction from inside the league is more likely shock and anger at being called tone-deaf on a video that I feel they actually tried to make more-appealing along the Stamkos lines while avoiding showing clips of dirty hits, which have featured prominently in past promotional videos highlighting the “toughness & sacrifice” angles of the sport.
On the same day as the now-removed NHL promo, TSN released a much longer video titled ‘The Problem of Pain’, which is currently on their site and available to viewers outside Canada.
I can’t recommend highly enough that you watch this for the examples of the darker side of this narrative the league tries to push. In it, you hear from former players Kyle Quincey, Ryan Kesler, and Zenon Konopka, as well as from current player Bobby Ryan. The 30-minute video mostly explores the use of Toradol, a powerful anti-inflammatory pain medication whose use in the league is known to us, but the extent to which it is used is not.
Kesler, Quincey, and Konopka all speak to the culture of the league both inside and outside the locker room and how the bravery of “playing through pain” is used to motivate both internally and externally. This motivation leads to use of pain medication beyond its recommended purposes and to the long-term detriment of the people taking it.
What I want to focus on (because one could easily spend another 5,000 words expounding on this topic) is Kyle Quincey’s role because there is a troubling charge from Quincey that is widely assumed and another more-specific charge that is deeply upsetting.
The first portion leads off the video entirely, in which Quincey is asked what he is asked remembering about what he was told about the potential consequences of the medications he was given. We’re 23 seconds in when the former Griffins & Red Wings defenseman scoffs and says “Never... never. Zero education and zero knowledge. No one is telling us what this pill does.”
This is hinted at several times throughout the video, as is the mitigating argument made by all three of Quincey, Kesler and Konopka that, in both the heat of the moment and the drive to even stay in the league or around your teammates, that these long-term ramifications would be dismissed anyway.
Therein lies the key to the entire discussion: to what level should NHL players be protected from their own drive to endanger themselves long-term for the short-term benefit? What responsibility does the league or the Players’ Union have to balance this? The answer and the problematic disconnect here is that yes, you do need to allow people to take risks they are willing to take, but there’s also a responsibility to ensure that these are the most-informed decisions possible.
I believe it goes beyond that too, though. Informed consent is not “hey I can give you this shot and you can get back on the ice for the third period, but here’s a 30-page pamphlet I have to give you before I can do it. Also if you don’t agree, the talking heads on the network will call you a malingerer, you’d be letting your teammates down, your coach is going to replace you and you’ll never get another contract. Your call!”
Tied to the transactional malpractice of laying all of this weight on a player’s shoulders and then pretending like him “making the final call” is a job done, there’s an even-more disturbing revelation from Quincey later in the video.
Again, watch the whole thing, but for this portion, I’m jumping to 18:52, where Quincey reveals that in 2008 while in Grand Rapids, we was not given an MRI that would have revealed a herniated disc because of a games-played bonus for the training staff that could have been endangered by Quincey missing time. Quincey, who was 23 at the time, admits to naiveté in dealing with the situation, and the Griffins outright denied the allegation to TSN. AHL Commissioner Scott Howson also says he’s never been aware of any such bonuses and would be looking into it.
The Griffins at the time were led by GM Bob McNamara and, depending on the timing of it, were either coached by Mike Stothers (2007-08) or Curt Fraser (July 2008-2012). This was a time where the Red Wings renewed their relationship with the Griffins and were moving to install more organizational control over their prospect pipeline.
Regardless of the fingers to point at individuals, here we’re left to simply believe Kyle Quincey or not believe him. There’s no way he’s going to have receipts on such a conversation, and anybody with anything to lose would not willingly admit to such a blatantly dangerous conflict of interest in financially motivating medical personnel to refuse reasonable medical diagnosis.
Unfortunately, the charge is easy to believe from within hockey culture. Mike Babcock was the coach of the Red Wings during the season in which Kyle Quincey recalls this story, and he’s gone on record to talk about the pressure on team trainers to have players ready to go:
The trainer and the doctor are under unbelievable pressure from the player and the coach when these things happen. And we can all live in a fantasy world and think that we don’t want them to keep playing. When a player is hardly bumped at all, and you think he shouldn’t be going to the quiet room for 15 minutes because you need him in the game, in the heat of the action you want him to play. I think that’s a pretty normal thing. And the player wants to play.
We all know we have to protect the players. But we have multiple people do to it...because I’d have everyone out there playing all the time. Because I’m the coach. We have people to do that so guys like me are protected from myself.
That was a clarification of earlier comments Babcock gave to reporters in 2016 after backlash about comments Babcock made in regards to concussion protocol.
It’s disturbing as a Red Wings fan to see and to know the part this organization has played in this system and worrisome to think about what part(s) they continue to play.
The thing is that having players play is in itself a financial motivation for the teams. The reason they would even consider passing forward a monetary bonus to keep players playing is because those players drive the gate. There’s a conflict of interest baked into the entire culture and it’s the heart of the entire problem, from the teams, to the doctors, to the coaches, to the fans and even the players themselves.
So, what can be done? To start, for the last time, I’ll tell you to spend the 30 minutes watching the TSN video. I do like the discussion about players and second opinions. I believe that mechanism needs to be more strongly codified and promoted. I think the NHL and NHLPA should consider the formation of an independent group of team doctors who are paid centrally and do not answer to the coaching staff. I believe that individual counseling sessions should happen outside of game days for players who take prescriptions. I believe that any number of players larger than 5 who take painkiller and/or anti-inflammatory medications throughout a season should warrant the public release of those numbers (but never any names associated).
Fortunately, it does seem that there may be some changes in the works:
Responding to ‘The Problem of Pain’ feature by @rwesthead, the Canadian Athletic Therapists Association (CATA) plans to form a task force to better educate members about the issue of painkillers and informed consent in both amateur and professional sports: https://t.co/eAMAwGtlfM pic.twitter.com/5RJCXMdIr7— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) September 24, 2020
Most importantly, I believe that all of us from fans to media can continue to work a better balance between appreciating the physical sacrifices and glorifying them. Stamkos playing last night was indeed a cool story, but I’d like to leave it as just that rather than using it to amplify a narrative that perpetuates unmitigated risk-taking.