The worst thing about playing pro hockey is this: the end might come at any moment and there’s a good chance you won’t even see it coming.
You might say that that applies to all of us. No one knows the day nor the hour, right? Any one of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow. There is a level of chaos inherent in existence, and some of that chaos is potentially fatal to both livelihood and life.
But be realistic: the chances of a random, catastrophic accident befalling an ordinary individual are pretty small. For most people, the changes that might wreck us are the kind of changes we see coming a little ways off. If I work a dangerous job, I know the moments when accidents are most likely and what direction the risk lies. If I have a health problem, I know a fair bit about my trouble, treatment, and eventual prognosis. Maybe I couldn’t tell you precisely what will lay me low or when, but I could probably give you the gist of it. The risk in my life, and likely in yours, is within the realm of predictability.
The risk in hockey, however, is not wholly predictable, and often unpredictable in sudden and devastating ways. In fact, given all the rules, all the training, and all the padding, the most horrible damage is often of the accidental variety. The game provides equations for expected damage- the puck to the nuts you risk from facing down a slapshot, the concussion that’s likely to result from having your head low in the presence of Raffi Torres- but there is so much trauma left outside the arithmetic of risk. Taylor Hall never laced up his skates thinking, tonight perhaps a teammate will stomp on my head with a skate blade. Richard Zednick never thought, well, sometimes you battle along the boards and your carotid gets cut open, that’s just part of the game.
And I rather doubt Blake Geoffrion expected that a perfectly clean, ass-to-body hipcheck would leave him with a hole in his skull the size of a silver dollar and a hole in his hockey future the size, perhaps, of forever.
Whatever Geoffrion’s equation was, whatever his plan had been, this was not it.
For now, the papers tell us, he’s going home, just happy to be alive and whole, with the likelihood of a full recovery ahead. For now, we’re all happy too: his family, his teammates, fans of the Habs/Bulldogs in particular and hockey in general. We’re all thrilled that this is not the horror it looked like and that a young member of our metaphorical family is alive and will be, eventually, well.
But there is another question lurking behind this happiness, which Scott Radley phrased through the thoughts of Blake’s father, Danny Geoffrion.
“He has no idea if his son will play again this year. Or ever, for that matter. Blake’s had concussions before and at some point a guy has to think about his future and his quality of life. But that’s another discussion for another day.”
That day, when it comes, will be a hard one. That will be the day that Blake Geoffrion has to decide whether or not to give up.
Before we go one step further, something must be established: giving up is sometimes the right thing to do. Sometimes there’s an electrical fire and the mission must be aborted; sometimes there’s rain and the game has to be called. Sometimes you choose the wrong fucking soul-sucking brain-numbing job and one day you’re staring at the cubicle wall with a droning headset in one ear and your perpetually allergic coworker making pitiful sniffles in the other and you just know: the only sane thing to do is quit. We’ve all given up on things and been better for it and we’ve all gotten screwed over because, once upon a time, we refused to bail on something needed bailing from. Hopefully we can all agree, in the abstract, that giving up is not necessarily bad.
But it is absolutely anathema to the culture of hockey.
Giving up goes against everything professional players have had to believe to get where they are. Heart, intensity, compete level- call it what you will, but the single-minded determination to do whatever it takes to win the game, make the team, and satisfy the coach is probably the single most highly valued character trait in the game. At every level, young players are watched for signs of indifference and laziness, and while for a precious few skill alone is enough to ensure promotion, for the majority their progress to the next level is dependent on displays of physical and psychological tenacity. The sacrifice of both body and ego in the name of hockey is an essential part of what makes elite players elite. It’s part of who (most of them) are.
Giving up goes against the ethical code of the sport. The quicksilver intervals between injury and return to the ice are a particular point of pride in hockey; the announcers always approvingly note when a guy gets patched up on the bench and doesn’t even miss a shift, or returns half a period later with visible stitches marching down his face. Righteous is he who plays hurt and still blocks shots; blessed is he who says he’s fine when he isn’t for the sake of team and city. Pain, stoically endured in full view of the audience, is always a popular hockey spectacle.
But more than that, giving up goes against all the grandest narratives of the game. Hockey is rife with tales of players who achieved greatness by endangering their own well-being. In overtime of game 6 in the 1964 Stanley Cup Final, Bobby Baun scored while playing on a broken leg to take the Leafs to game 7 and, ultimately, the Cup. In the WHL, Eddie Shore got knocked out and came back to score three goals game he couldn’t even remember the next day. Paul Henderson got a concussion in game five of the 1972 series, then scored the game-winning goals in games six, seven, and eight. The most famous goal in all of Canadian hockey history was scored by a man who, according to modern medical standards, probably should not have been playing at all.
When Blake Geoffrion’s great-grandfather Howie Morenz died of a shattered leg and a heart attack, his teammate Aurole Joliat asserted that it was not just the injury that did him in but fact that he wouldn’t be able play again. He died, Joliat said, of a broken heart. The implication- that for Morenz a life without hockey was a life not worth living- would seem tragic to non-hockey ears, but the way the story is recounted in the hagiographies, it almost sounds heroic, as if death was the ultimate form of refusing to give up hockey.
Hockey players do everything they can to avoid giving up. Other than a few stars who have chosen to “go out on top”, players do not quit the game voluntarily. They let the coaches and GMs and their own declining play force the decision for them until it isn’t a decision at all. They wait to be forced out. For a hundred years, this has been the deal: players try to play no matter what, and the higher-ups decide when they can. There have always been ugly consequences of this. Retired fighters live the rest of their lives with scarred and mangled hands. Scorers end their careers with knees that don’t do some of what they ought and ankles that do far more than any stable ankle should. And so it goes.
It’s a cruel business, but there’s valor in it to. Actually, I’d go further and say that the hockey ethic of self-sacrifice is an essentially noble impulse. Outside of a few professions, modern society doesn’t give us many opportunities to physically risk ourselves for others, so the case studies we do have of people putting their own health and comfort on the line for others are precious to us. They’re precious, too, to the players who do it. It’s a fulfilling, satisfying thing to take one for the team. The sport has long celebrated men for making that choice, and it’s a valid choice. A bad decision, maybe, but not a wrong one. It’s not immoral. In fact, it’s probably part of the reason we’re so apt to conflate athletes with heroes.
But now, in the era of concussions, hockey can’t afford that kind of nobility anymore. That ethic, if allowed to continue, will destroy the game. If we actually care about preserving quality of life, concussion-awareness require players to be able to choose to quit before the decision is made for them. By the time the symptoms are so severe and so obvious as to make the damage apparent to all, the damage is far gone and likely to persist, and give us the kind of stories that torture us now, of men left depressed and confused years after the game gave up on them.
Concussions require a level of self-knowledge, and indeed self-preservation, that hockey culture just doesn’t have a script for. All the scripts say, hide it, fight it, cover it up. There are glorious stories of players who came back to games after injuries and even head injuries. There are no such tales told of men who sensibly stayed off the ice. More often, the attitude towards players who leave, even for the best of reasons, vacillates between contempt and indifference. Under the best circumstances, they’re forgotten. Under the worst, they’re vilified. There are few greater insults in the game than “fragile”, except perhaps, “quitter”.
Hockey needs a new cultural script, a script for giving up, one that recognizes the courage it takes to leave behind your dreams and sacrifice not for the sake of your teammates but for your wife, your children, your friends, all the other people who will love you and need you through the rest of your life.
It’s not going to be easy to write this, because it sounds lazy and selfish, because the very people a player is ostensibly sacrificing the game for are the very ones who have trained themselves to sacrifice so he could play.
But there is no way the NHL can solve its concussion problem without this cultural script. Authority is powerful, but not infinitely so. The League is not inside the brains of its players, it cannot know exactly how dizzy, tired, emotionally erratic, forgetful, or nauseous they feel, and therefore concussion safety will never be entirely within its control. No matter what policies the NHL institutes, rules it changes, or suspensions it throws down, the first and last decision belongs to the player himself. He must acknowledge his symptoms and their meaning, report them honestly to doctors and accept the consequences of that reporting. He effectively has to choose to put himself on the IR, and eventually- if he is to preserve his long-term quality of life- he may have to choose to quit.
Blake Geoffrion has already been lucky in his survival, and he’ll be lucky in his recovery as well. As serious, frightening, and prominent as his case has been, it’s likely that he won’t have to make the choice on his own. His recovery will be closely monitored by a phalanx of doctors, and neither they nor the Habs will allow him back on the ice if they think it’s unsafe. He’s going to be taken care of.
But there have been and will continue to be others who face that moment alone, guided only by the certain knowledge of symptoms no one else can see. It’s all very well to tell such a player, with the self-important paternalism of those with no skin in the game, that he shouldn’t hide his condition. It’s easy for us to say he should risk his profession for his health and not vice versa. But in that moment, with the whole mass of history, culture, money, fame, and training waited against, who among us could actually do it? Think of the single greatest dream you’ve ever had. Now imagine seeing it, immanent, right in front of you… and turning away.
Fuck. If that’s not the hardest free choice you can imagine making, you’re not imagining hard enough.
If what we’re asking- and I think we are- is for generations of future players to make that hardest of all possible choices, for their own good and for the good of the game, hockey needs different stories. It needs denouements and postscripts and epilogues, tales of valiant quitters and noble abdications, and all the good things ex-players were able to do later, older, because they knew when it was time to turn away. Hockey has a million scripts for how to stay in the game. What it desperately needs is a script for how to give up.