“The effects of concussions are often long lasting and occasionally permanent, as they take place when a blow to the head causes the brain to make a sudden shift inside the skull, damaging it and ultimately changing its normal function.
We’ve witnessed this happen time and time again. We’ve seen them decimate the play of athletes like Eric Lindros, we’ve seen them sideline players like Sidney Crosby for obscene amounts of time, we’ve seen them force players like Keith Primeau into retirement, and we’ve arguably even seen them claim life.
The recent deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak have left hundreds of questions unanswered. The fact that three professional hockey players, all who took punches to the head for a living, passed away in a few month’s time must be more than a coincidence. At least Primeau believes so.
“I don’t want to speak hypothetically and create hypotheses that are totally speculative, but in my own personal opinion, do I believe that there is some form of correlation – whether subtle, indirect or as an extenuating circumstance? Yes. Of course I do,” the ex-Philadelphia Flyers captain says. “I believe that head trauma can make you depressed, can make you emotional, can make you unsettled and can therefore make you do things out of the ordinary.”
Primeau is a huge advocate for raising concussion awareness. In fact, alongside retired German Premier League player Kerry Goulet, he helped establish the ever-growing stopconcussions.com. The website is dedicated to finding a resolution for head trauma in all walks of life, despite both Primeau and Goulet coming solely from hockey backgrounds. And why not? Concussions are ubiquitous in almost every sport – not just hockey. Whether played recreationally or professionally, all athletes are at risk of suffering a concussion.
Take baseball, for example. With players like Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins missing considerable playing time from serious concussions, the MLB faces the same scare that the NHL does. The league recently implemented a new series of protocols in an attempt to commence an anti-head trauma movement. Part of the new policy was the creation of a seven-day disabled list specifically for concussions – a precautionary measure that will prevent players from returning from a head injury too early.
Football is even worse. Six former players (Jim McMahon, Gerry Feehery, Mike Furrey, Steve Kiner, Ray Easterling and Wayne Radloff) as well as one current player (Joe Thomas) have actually sued the NFL for their handling – or, erm, mishandling – of its unhealthy athletes. This class-action lawsuit accuses the league of training its players to hit with their heads, failing to properly treat them for concussions and attempting to conceal known links between football and brain trauma.
If that’s not bad enough, the condition of retired fighters is downright frightening. Case in point, Muhammad Ali. The People’s Champion currently lives life in a punch-drunk, brain-damaged state. He suffers from dementia pugilistica, a type of neurodegenerative disease that boxers often get, as well as Parkinson’s disease – both of which were brought on by his time in the ring. With mixed martial arts – UFC, specifically – only becoming mainstream in recent years, it’s probably a matter of time before we begin hearing about those fighters and their post-career tribulations.
All of these reasons and more equate to why, together, Goulet and Primeau hope to find resolve by whatever means necessary, be it via education, prevention or cure.
The 15-year NHL veteran’s passion is fueled by his own bouts with the injury. Throughout his playing career, Primeau attained four documented concussions, but it was that fateful day in 2005 that Montreal’s Alexander Perezhogin forced him out of the game for good. He has lived with post-concussion syndrome (PCS) ever since.
“It’s an emotional rollercoaster,” Primeau says. “The first thing you do when you wake up is ask yourself how you feel. ‘Am I going to have headaches? Am I going to feel pressure? Am I going to be irritable? What are today’s symptoms going to be?’ It’s weird, really. You’re inside of your head, wondering about your head.”
PCS, also known as shell shock, is a series of symptoms that a person who has suffered a concussion will experience for multiple days, weeks, months and sometimes even years after the original impact took place.
“It’s a constant,” Primeau says. “You basically live with it and it can take its toll on you emotionally.”
But it’s because of PCS that the current influx of concussion-related panic is happening. It’s the horror stories of those who have lived it and those who are currently living it – like Primeau – that have spurred the sudden interest. The battle-weathered voices of head trauma victims are slowly raising awareness on the consequences that come with ignorance. In a sense, they are the sacrificial lambs.
“Our heightened awareness of concussions has obviously made us much more understanding of what is actually happening when these types of injuries take place,” Primeau explains.
At the same time though, the frequency at which concussions occur has increased, making them more prevalent today. This prevalence is also bringing awareness to new heights.
“In the past 20 years or so, players have gotten bigger, faster and stronger while the playing surface has remained the same,” Primeau elucidates. “The velocity at which impact occurs today has gone way up.”
It’s because of this change in pace that Sidney Crosby has been sidelined for so long. Two harmless-looking plays – the first being a freak collision with then-Washington Capital David Steckel and the second being a hit along the boards by Tampa Bay Lightning defender Victor Hedman – have rendered the NHL’s brightest young star a mere spectator.
But, as they say, ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall.’ And Crosby’s fall has been a hard one for any true hockey fan to swallow. Good news surfaced last month when he broke his media hiatus to address his health, stating that, barring any major setbacks, he is on the road to recovery. Even despite this good news though, he was still not able to pinpoint a date on when he is expected to rejoin the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Obviously he’s holding onto hope – and the team is as well,” Primeau says. “I certainly know that road from my own experiences and just how long a full recovery can take.”
Since the incident, Crosby has been very verbal in challenging the NHL to rethink its rules in an attempt to oust head hits from the game. And, since then, many other players – past and present – like Keith Primeau, Paul Kariya and Mike Cammalleri have hopped on 87’s coattails. They’ve all come out and stated publically that it is indeed possible for the league to remove hits to the head without hindering the integrity of the game.
“The league needs to ban head shots entirely,” Primeau says adamantly. “Somehow, there seems to be a conversation and a debate surrounding this, but I’m not sure where it’s coming from. I simply cannot see how this is at all a debatable subject. Just make the head off limits. Whether the contact is intentional or unintentional, there should be repercussion for the action.”
Primeau feels that this would also benefit the league in terms of player and fan perception.
“For the league’s perspective, I think it would show that they are actually taking its players’ health and well-being into account,” he justifies. “It would be good for everybody.”
And it would. The fact is, head trauma in sports is a matter too immense for three pages of text. We could go on debating and discussing concussions forever. Or at least for four more issues – which we plan on doing. So, be sure to follow our investigative report on the historical, medical and cultural aspects of concussions, as well as a summative piece that will provide instruction on how to manage life after suffering the trauma.
Concussions are a threat not only to the quality of life of players, but also to the game itself. More and more, parents will avoid registering their children for hockey in fear of subjecting them to violence. It’s a downward trend that will only hurt the sport. Between athletes speaking out and organizations like stopconcussions.com, the right initiative is being taken. But the road to stopping the silent killer is still a long one. Although it starts with the proper education, it also means making some substantial changes to some very rigid games – Canada’s game, in particular. Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s new VP of Player Safety, is certainly getting the ball rolling with said changes, but a few questions still remain. Will discipline be enough? Will the changes be too drastic? And will concussions kill our game? Only time will tell.