-by Ellen Etchingham of http://theoryofice.blogspot.com/
Follow her on Twitter here.

I am watching the game with the sound off. Sharks and Oilers, so they’re called, but in the silence they look like birds, like the flocks of pigeons that wheel and whirl between the low-rises down the block, black silhouettes against the white winter sky. Good hockey players move like that. Like flying.

Flying too fast, maybe. So they say. Lately my inbox fills up with articles, a new one every day or so. I am the hockey-person, my friends know, and so when they see an article on the sport they often pass it along. These days, there are a lot of articles about hockey popping up in the general media. It started, as we all know, with the New York Times, but that spawned others, and now it is a flood of editorials, from Timeses and Gazettes and Free Presses, Tribunes and Heralds great and small, from a dozen cities or more. Five years of fanaticism and I feel as though I know most of the professional hockey writers currently working and many of the dedicated amateurs besides, but these pieces carry unfamiliar bylines. The great unhockey world has taken a sudden interest in the fate of my poor little birds.

It is a great irony that hockey, which of all sports began with the assumption of human strength, should end with the realization of human frailty. 

These articles come to me with ugly truths and uglier prognostications. Epidemic, they whisper, tragedy, death. They speak of Boogaard, of the ways the game used him and what it did to his mind and his soul, of exploitations and abuses of teenage players which are new information to them but which I, if I speak truly, already knew. They point to the twenty-some NHLers now on the IR with concussions, and they accuse me. Not me personally, thank God, but hockey, of which I am a tiny one-billionth part. Shame, they say, and I feel ashamed.

But I also feel protective, of me and mine and this game which is not only something we do but something we are. What happened to Derek Boogaard was a horror. But it was not hockey that did it. Hockey is not a person. It has no mind, no will, no agency. There are plenty of these righteous editorials that end with grandiose conclusions about how hockey used him, hockey tortured him, hockey killed him. No. People used him. Some people trained him for his role and others employed him in it and others still cheered him for it, and some precious few saw his damage and saw it grow and gave him drugs and let him keep playing anyway. We do not call out these people in editorials because it seems cruel, given the guilt and shame they must already be suffering, but the literary solution seems to be to throw the game itself under the metaphorical bus in order to protect the feelings of the people who failed Derek Boogaard. One hopes that those people, and the others who read his story, would now rather perform an unanaesthetized auto-castration than use another person in that way again. One hopes that the rest of us will have the courage to speak out and condemn that kind of use of players when we see it in our own communities and on our own teams. There are lessons we need to learn from that story.  Insha’allah, we will learn them. But they are not necessarily the lessons that the editorials are trying to teach.

Linking Boogaard’s sufferings to the current wave of concussions in the NHL, in the way that a good many authors smash the two together and conclude that it means every player is headed for an early grave if we don’t do something huge right this second, is horribly backwards thinking.  This wave of players sitting out with concussions and post-concussion syndrome and concussion-like symptoms? This ‘epidemic’? This is doing something. This is what doing something about head injuries looks like. The watchdogs of the NHL have been calling for a raised awareness about the dangers of concussions for several seasons now, and now that awareness is raised and teams begin to treat them with the kind of care and caution they warrant, still other watchdogs rise up and point to all this doing something and more evidence that something must be done. If this is the logic, there is no possible solution that will satisfy it.

Some argue that there are more concussions now because the game is faster and the equipment harder. This may be true. We can’t know, though, because our knowledge of concussions is a recent thing. We have no idea what the rates of concussion were back in the bad old days, when things such as fatigue and memory lapse and disorientation were no excuse for missing games. I’ve been reading a biography of Eddie Shore recently and the man got knocked out constantly, sometimes two or three times in a game. They’d literally wake up him up by dumping cold water on his face and send him back out.  Sometimes he’d play games and not even remember having played them. Sometimes he’d play in a haze- observers thought he looked lost and confused on the ice- and the team would wave it off as ‘neuralgia’. Think about how Eddie Shore ended, those later years in Springfield. The ‘crazy’ part doesn’t seem quite so colorful, suddenly, given what we’ve learned about CTE and loss of emotional control? And Shore was not exceptional for his day. The only thing that’s new about concussions in hockey is the word itself. The NHL has a long, stupid tradition of mishandling head injuries, of denying and downplaying and sending guys back on the ice when they had no business being there. That is the part that is finally changing, and that is why we are suddenly so uncomfortably aware of how common concussions really are.

What is the solution? How do we make the game concussion-free? Ban fighting?  No more Boogaards then, maybe, but none of the recent spate of high-profile concussions in the NHL have been fight-induced. Stronger punishments for hits to the head? They did that already, they added a penalty to the books and Shanahan is throwing out suspensions every which way. The elimination of hitting altogether? Do a little Google search: there are concussion problems in women’s hockey, which is already non-contact, and kids’ hockey, and beer-league hockey, because hockey concussions are often the result of accidents (see: Giroux). Softer equipment? That might help, but plenty of concussions result from contact with the boards or surface; they’ve already tried to make the glass safer, but even Bettman is not powerful enough to make ice less frozen.

Hockey will never concussion-free. It is impossible. Which means, if we are going to take the dangers of concussions and CTE seriously, there are only two options:  we must accept the end of hockey or we must accept the end of careers.

Some of the editorials veritably weep over the end of careers. It is so awful, they say, that somebody as great as Pronger, as talented as Savard, as precious as The Venerable Sidney, might have their career ended by a concussion. The fact that concussions end careers is, after Boogaard, the second-favorite weapon in the unfocussed reform arsenal.

But ending careers is the price of avoiding more Boogaards. Concussions will always happen in hockey. We can punish head hits, and we are. We can develop safer equipment, and we should. But there will still be concussions, and they will still affect players unequally. Some guys will never get one, others will get several, and for those unlucky ones, yes, their careers will be over before we might like.

And that’s okay. The end of a career is not the end of the world. It is not a great tragedy.  It is a job transition. An NHL player whose career is tragically, prematurely, sadly ended by concussion problems is still a young rich guy with his whole lovely life ahead of him. If Chris Pronger can’t play again, that sucks for the Flyers, but the dude got to play pro hockey for decades, become one of the greatest defensemen of his era, screw over the entire population of Edmonton, win a Cup and make, conservatively speaking, 78 bajillion dollars. He had a great run. It’s over now. To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven and now the long winter of Pronger is over and it’s time for him to figure out who he is in spring. I would wish him good luck, but the fact is the man has already been as lucky as a human being can be.

Nobody gets infinite hockey. It is too good a thing not to come to an end. There is only so much a body can take, and be it knees or brains, something eventually gives out. That a man retires when he’s taken too many hits to the head to keep playing safely is just and right and reasonable. It’s how it should be. If we care about player safety, it must begin with concussion-awareness, even if that means sitting lots of guys far longer than we might like, and it must end with CTE-awareness, even if that means ending careers. It means that some people will get thirty years of pro hockey and some may only get ten and some may have to content themselves with beer leagues their whole long life. Which is, come to think of it, exactly the way things already are.

Comments (19)

  1. A good read, thank you.

    A part of me still thinks that if Sidney Crosby has finished playing hockey at the venerable age of 24, it is still a bit sad for him and for the fans. Is it the end of the world as we know it? No, of course not. But the guy is a joy to watch and I’d miss watching him, and I’m not sure he’s already prepared to do something else, but yeah, he has the money and time to figure it.

    And welcome to BHS!

  2. E., (for this is how I think of you after reading Theory of Ice for so long) I couldn’t help but think about your piece this summer on the idea that hockey is dangerous and that working toward informed consent is crucial for the game.

    I think we need to have more information available to the hockey community as a whole and especially to players, but that kind of data gathering takes money and will, and so far no one’s been willing to do more than write brief articles listing the people who are known to suffer and detailing their suffering. I think that a lot of people think that some fans still need to be convinced that concussions are bad. And maybe some do, if all the “Crosby is a sissy” remarks are anything to go by.

    Until someone puts the money behind it (like the NFL has begun to do) that data is going to be scattered and incomplete and alarmist.

    Also it would help if hockey fans weren’t convinced that the NHL is in a conspiracy against them.

  3. I appreciate when a writer takes the time and goes the extra mile to emphasize the words he or she wants me to know are important..

    Joking aside, its all well and good to recognize that concussions are a part of the game, and that no matter what we do, players – even reeeely good players – will end up losing careers over it. In that regard, concussions are no different than knee injuries.

    So if you’re suggesting that everyone needs to calm down, and not be outraged that we now are coming to the accurate realization that concussions are a problem in hockey, then I cannot agree. Yes, the NHL has taken good steps in implementing its concussion protocol. But it is not doing all that it cant to limit concussions. It is only punishing *some* (oh wait some) hits to the head. And Im not just talking about fighting here. Im talking about the fact that some hits to the head are acceptable “part of the game” and some are not. That is silly. To give just one more example – where is the NHL and NHLPA on discussions about helmet safety?

    Its all well and good to be realistic about player careers, and the sheer unpredictability of the sport of hockey. But its also bad to pretend this is a new problem, or that the NHL and the NHLPA can’t be leading advocates for player safety by trying to be more aggressive in their prevention efforts.

  4. This is such a fantastic piece of writing that I’m jealous I didn’t write it myself. It’s disappointing how rare it has become to hear from people who are at once incredibly concerned about head injuries but respectful of the game as an institution.
    While I agree that eliminating concussions from hockey is an impossible goal, I think it’s slightly reductive to paint the inevitable end of a career as the issue at hand when considering head injuries. My understanding of concussions is as imperfect as anyone’s, but my fear with head injuries isn’t retirement (premature or otherwise), it’s the players’ quality of life once they’ve left the game. I see the call for further precautions against head injuries as less about the Crosbys and Prongers and more about the Proberts and Martins.
    I do love this piece though, and hope that, as you argue, increased awareness will prove to be as good a solution as any. I’d love to be able to stop feeling slightly uneasy or guilty about loving hockey, violence included.

  5. BC- I agree that it would be sad for us if Crosby never played again, but we have to accept that it’s part of the toll the game takes on players. If he had to retire because of knee problems, I think people would be more likely to say, ‘Aww, too bad, but c’est la vie’.

    Clare- I do think we need to give the hockey world some credit for how far they’ve come as far as information and honest conversation on these topics. Sure, there are some people who still aren’t persuaded, but concussions and head injuries are out there in the discourse more than they’ve ever been before. In the past three or four years, the increase in awareness has been huge, and I think it’s continuing to improve, which is why I find all the articles that claim no one is doing or saying anything a little frustrating.

    PTT- The italics aren’t so much to emphasize important words as to mimic the way I would shift the emphasis in a sentence if I were speaking it aloud. I’m sorry you find them irritating and will happily stop using them at such time as you are paying me to write according to your style guidelines. As to your points, other than the implication that people in the NHL/NHLPA need to say more emphatic things about the problem, I’m not clear exactly what additional protocol you think needs to be implemented. If you’re suggesting that some of Shanahan’s judgments have been inconsistent, I would agree, but also point out that since the League is not trying to eliminate contact altogether he is stuck in the unenviable position of trying to tell the difference between incidental head contact on a body hit and intentional targeting of the head, which is a new distinction for the NHL and one I don’t think any of us could make with 100% perfection. As far as punishing head hits goes, he’s certainly being far more aggressive and consistent than Colin Campbell ever was, and I think to trash him for not making the ideal call in every case is to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    Camiz- This is exactly my point: that preserving a man’s quality of life later on will sometimes mean early retirement. One of the things people always say about Boogaard and other enforcers is, How can you expect him to say no to an NHL career, no matter how cruel the terms on which it is offered? Which is why they keep playing and in some cases keep fighting through the kinds of repeated head trauma that lead to CTE. At some point, players and teams need to learn that in order to save memories and minds, sometimes guys have to give up their career while the problem is still relatively mild, to prevent the occurrence of full-blown CTE.

    • Ellen:

      Shanahan has been fine under the circumstances. Its not his fault the NHL decided to try and walk a middle line, when it could have easily said all hits to the head are prohibited. This of course would not solve Shanahan’s (and the NHL’s) problem because some hits are worse than others. Some are “intentional” and some are not. So the NHL would still be tasked with trying to impose discipline on a spectrum. But banning all hits to the head, and erring on the side of safety would send the right message.

      You want to know what I would like the NHL: and NHLPA to do? Just for starters:

      1. Penalize all hits to the head. Make the enforcement problem one of severity and intent of the hit, but all hits need to be punished in some way. We penalize accidental high sticks that cause injury, but not accidental blows to the head?

      2. Continue to enforce supplemental discipline on all hits – whether to the head or not. Give players without a history the benefit of the doubt on close calls, but assume that subsequent events are automatically worthy of more discipline than the first. Require teams and players to contribute significantly more $$ for fines on these hits.

      3. Make all supplemental discipline subject to a 3-member panel. One NHL member, one NHLPA member, and one independent member mutually selected. These people rotate every 3 years. Continue to publicize its reasoning for all decisions (even those that don’t lead to further punishment).

      4. Require all new arenas use an ice size to 200 x. 95. Sadly we missed the boat on this, but there are always going to be new (and renovated) arenas in the future.

      5. Require all NHL teams to contribute more to one or more fund(s) devoted to injury research, injury prevention, and increased funding for post-career pension/healthcare benefits for NHL players.

      6. Require NHL equipment contractors to commit to continual development of equipment, and require ongoing research into how equipment affects injuries.

      7. Ban fighting. Take a stand and say “we know a LOT of people like it, but we think it has no place in the modern game and brings nothing but risk to the players.”

      8. Start holding referees accountable when they screw up. If they make a bad call, or miss a call, start penalizing them as well.

      None of this will be easy. It requires commitment and agreement from the the owners, the players, the officials, and vendors, etc. But people involved in professional hockey have a chance to be a real leader here, and they are not taking that chance.

      • 1. I put up a post about this on my own blog, but short answer: I think supplemental discipline for head-hits should be more about injury and not at all about intent.

        2. Fine by me, but I think that’s the direction things are going anyway.

        3. I’m not sure what this has to do with the issue at hand, but sure, if it means that much to you.

        4. That’s a very, very long-term idea. I’d love to see it looked into, but it’s gonna take decades to implement so it’s hardly going to help this generation of players.

        5. I was under the impression that NHLPA benefits and resources are actually pretty good, although players don’t necessarily take advantage of the available programs to the extent one might like them to. But I will do more research and get back to you.

        6. I will bet you cash money that every hockey equipment manufacturer is doing research right now into concussion-reducing equipment. They know where this is going and whoever can come up with the next big advances is going to make a fortune from it. There’s also a ton of new ongoing research in academic departments on the issue, provoked by concussion problems in football as well as hockey, so I’d expect there’s a lot more minds working on these issues than there were even five years ago. Just because we haven’t seen results yet doesn’t mean work isn’t being done.

        7. I will support banning of fighting when I am persuaded that a majority of professional players support banning fighting.

        8. My impression is that the NHL does do this, but internally and confidentially, which is probably for the best- I don’t think any good comes from publicly censuring officials.

        In short, I think most of what you want is a) already being done, and/or b) will take a very long time to become fully effective as a concussion-reduction measure.

        • If any of this is being done by the NHL, it needs to be publicized. The NHL does not gain points for being secretive. Its one thing to be secretive when it comes to things like franchise health. its another thing to be secretive when it comes to player health.

  6. This is beautifully written, and the language is wholly appropriate for the subject, except one curious decision: nearly that entire paragraph about Boogaard is written in an active voice, positioning him as a passive, even helpless, victim. Do you really see him that way? You don’t assign him and his decisions an ounce of hubris or ego, you just render him at the mercy of the influences surrounding him. Was he really so pathetic, or might he have contributed to what happened to him?

    • It’s partly because that’s the way he’s often characterized in the articles I’m citing, but it’s also because in cases like his I’m not entirely sure how much free choice he had. It’s clear he was groomed for the role from a young age, when we as a culture tend to define people as incapable of informed consent, and encouraged to continue on it even after the point when it was clear that his mental faculties had been compromised. Additionally, I’d say that I think this is one area where non-players- teams, families, doctors- need to step in and take some responsibility for making sure a player knows when he’s done, because it’s not something the man himself will always be able to see clearly.

      • It’s much easier for me to accept your first defense, in the first sentence, than the remainder of the response. Either way I do appreciate you taking the time to respond and I appreciate the spirited responses throughout the comments section. If every writer on the internet did this there would be so much less crap out there because writers would feel accountable. Thanks for a great piece.

  7. I never really put two and two together on Shore, possibly because he seemed like such a crazy bastard the whole time, but that’s an excellent point. The sheer bloody irrationality of his reign of terror in Springfield is the stuff of legend, and while we’ll never have evidence one way or the other, anecdotally, it is compelling.

    • The book I’m reading is really hagiographic and doesn’t make the connection explicit, but given the current discussion of CTE in the news the pattern really stands out. The man took a TON of knockout blows on the ice, and by the time he got to Springfield it wasn’t just weird training regimens and OCD regulations and cheapness. There are trainers talking about how he’d call them up at 3 am in tears over something that had happened during the day.

      A lot of the old-time guys were proud, stoical men, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them experienced more psychological deterioration in their later years that hasn’t been publicized. I can see families preferring to preserve the man’s legacy rather than turn him into a sad cautionary tale.

  8. Great piece, E. I’ve already read Theory of Ice with equal parts interest, enjoyment, and envy. This piece was no different.

    I was surprised at one aspect of your argument, though. Namely, you mention that hockey can never be concussion free and cite the incidence of brain injuries in lower level and non-contact hockey. Obviously you’re right about that on some level. Still, the fact that concussions are much more likely in high-level, contact hockey played on N.A. sized ice makes me think the ‘baseline’ rate of incidence is much, much lower than currently seen in the NHL. I think we agree on that point. If so, my question is this:

    Do you really think it’s fair that we sacrifice the health (even non-permanent, retire before CTE health) of those high level athletes over and above that baseline level of unavoidable injury to create the specific type of NHL hockey we currently enjoy as fans?

    I’m not sure it is tautological (as I think you imply) to say that improved testing, awareness and reporting is evidence that something has to be done. I hear you that it is something being done, but even if we determine 5 concussions to be the most a brain can handle without developing CTE (for rhetorical example), is our only option really to just cancel hockey or just count concussions?

    I realize this isn’t great evidence, but as someone who has had a serious concussion, who has spent day after day after day sitting still in a dark room with a splitting headache and ringing ears, I can tell you that it’s nothing like a knee injury. More to the point, the awareness of the fragility of the knee joint is not at all similar to making knee-on-knee collisions a punishable offence and a socially reviled type of check. This awareness campaign is one small part of making head-hits a socially unacceptable (aka ‘dirty’ in the parlance of hockey) act within the game. I think fans should take responsibility for our role in creating the circumstances in which Boogaard and even Crosby play hockey (we as parents, players, and even just fans often define how hockey is played and what a hockey player IS to ourselves and others). In trying to take responsibility, I’m heartened that fans and pundits alike are demanding larger ice surfaces at the expense of physical chairs in the building, better rule enforcement, changed rules, equipment etc. so that fewer of the players we adore and look up to have to end their careers prematurely.

    It’s great to force players to retire before their whole lives are affected by CTE. That’s a type of awareness that is truly unique to the modern age. But we can still cut down the number of head injuries suffered by changing the game in non-fundamental ways and I think we actually owe these players all of our efforts to do that.

    • Oh, I’m all for the rule changes, research on safer equipment, and I’d be happy to consider increasing the size of the ice surface. But people have to understand that none of that appears instantly- we have a playing population that was trained a certain way, equipment designed to certain specifications, and rinks already built. The culture is changing, right now, all around us, but culture doesn’t turn on a metaphorical dime. While we wait to figure out what the better equipment is, while we wait for players to learn a better discipline of checking, in the meantime, awareness and treatment are the best tools we have to prevent long-term brain damage. We shouldn’t make that awareness a weapon against the game.

      When I say that a certain number of concussions are inevitable, what I’m trying to get at is that there is a tipping point of acceptable risk in the game. Hockey is dangerous, it always has been, players know this and many of them thrive on it. Our goal should never be- can never be, given contact- 100% safety. Honestly, I wish the NHLPA would step up and lead this conversation, because I feel (for complex reasons) that fans are not the best ones to determine what is or is not the right level of safety- we tend to skew too far to the poles, I think because most of us have so little experience of pain and injury in our own lives.

  9. Thank you so much for this article!! It is great to see another person out there with what I believe is a more ‘sane’ view on this concussion issue. And yes I agree that it is an issue. I read in an earlier comment that a reader has suffered a concussion. I have as well and returned to play much too early at the advice of my team trainer and doctor. When I think of a concussion though I am still with the mentality that it is just another injury. It is an injury we do not yet know enough about how to treat but an injury all the same. Knee injuries can end a career, back/spine injuries, shoulder, eye, and hip. Even pucks can be a weapon.

    I love the stance that this is not a new problem, this is not an epidemic. It has been happening all along. It is an extremely rough sport. And I am quite happy with what the NHL is doing to try to protect players without losing the intensity that has made our beloved ice hockey such a popular sport. Minor Hockey has been making very similar approaches.

    When it all comes down to it though who is really responsible for any given player’s safety? I believe that every single time a player laces up his or her skates at any level knows there is a risk involved and there is a potential to be hurt. It is very sad to see some players being pushed to continue play when they should stay off the ice but ultimately it’s the player’s decision to come back.

    Yes there is an incredible passion that comes with playing hockey, we feel it even as fans. What player is going to sit longer than those around him/her feel he/she should? Very few. But no one truly knows how an injury affects a player other than that player. These people are not as helpless as we like to believe. They have just as much education on these subjects and have better resources available should they choose to use them. When did accountability stop being put on the player in question?

    And I ramble. Thank you again for the terrific read! It has me excited again for this sport I so dearly love.

  10. This was an excellent and insightful read, a great piece of writing.

    Your point on Pronger/Crosby et al potentially suffering career ending injuries yet still being comparatively young is a good one.

    Taking Dan Blackburn for example. Not a concussion related injury but he received a 6 million dollar insurance payment when he was forced to retire due to injury.

    If they are able to retire to retire in a healthy state with a normal quality of life then I can’t really get too worked up about it. They got to live the dream. Even a few years in the NHL is a hell of a lot more than most of us could ever hope of doing.

    A tragedy would be a career ending injury like the one suffered by Vladimir Konstantinov who can barely walk or talk and requires 24 hour care.

    A healthy young guy with 6 million dollars in his back pocket? Not quite a tragedy.

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  12. 1. Rugby solutions – cut down on the gear – soft padding only. But keep the helmets to deal with board and ice collisions.

    2. Increase ice surface – anecdotally and scientifically proven to reduce the number of total collisions and heavy collisions.

    3. Shrink the goalie – the fact that goals are at a premium decreases tactical risk taking but increases physical risk taking.

    Easy solutions, but expensive. Owners won’t do it – players will have to decide if their health and careers are worth it.

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