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.