On December 12, 2008, Whitby Dunlop defenseman Don Sanderson got into a fight with Brantford Blast forward Corey Fulton. The fight lasted a moment before Sanderson’s helmet came off, and he fell. His unprotected head bore the brunt of the impact when he hit the ice. The 21-year-old lay comatose for close to three weeks before finally succumbing to his injury. Sanderson’s father and the young man’s girlfriend were quoted as saying Don never liked fighting, he only did it occasionally to defend his teammates.
Over a century before, in 1907, Owen “Bud” McCourt lost his life after an on-ice altercation resulted in severe head trauma. A quote from the newspaper at the time said, “nearly all the local players express[ed] the opinion that if the referee had been more strict regarding the rough play, the trouble would have been averted.” Considering each of the following players also suffered head injuries at the hands of opposing players that were overcome with something akin to madness, it’s only dumb luck that Ace Bailey (1933), Ted Green (1969), Donald Brashear (2000), and Steve Moore (2004) didn’t suffer a similar fate as McCourt.
Tragedy struck yet again in 1968 when Bill Masterton hit his head on the ice in a game between the Minnesota North Stars and the Oakland Seals. A recent article suggests that Masterton may have been playing with a pre-existing head injury.
Each of these deaths and the circumstances surrounding them, in one way or another, underscores four things about hockey: there’s a code; there’s passion; there’s a culture, and there’s controversy.
This past summer will long be remembered as one of the most tragic in hockey. In addition to the plane crash carrying the KHL club Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, we saw the passing of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak. The former struggled with addiction issues; the latter two, depression. Unlike the first three men, it’s obvious these three died of something other than head trauma, right?
Recent research coming out of a collaborative effort between the Boston University Medical School and the Sports Legacy Institute is suggesting that the effects of head trauma no longer have to be as obvious as in the case of Sanderson, Masterton and McCourt.
The hypothesis, set forth by neurosurgeon Robert Cantu and his team, is that addictions, anxiety and depression might be caused in part by something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The Institute’s website describes CTE as “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma [… and] is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.”
The mere possibility of secondary effects to head trauma like this adds a whole new dimension to the discussion and raises the question of whether or not these men experienced the effects of repetitive brain trauma that Cantu’s research suggests?
By piping up regarding their roles and the effects that fighting has had on them, some retired heavyweight enforcers seem to be suggesting that there might be a correlation. Both Brantt Myhres and Georges Laraque were recently interviewed on a radio show discussing the negative psychological effects that the role foists upon enforcers. Laraque understands the pressure that some feel; and Myhres, having struggled for years with addiction, has lived through it. Each man touched on his anxieties with the prospects of an upcoming fight.
“All I could think about was that Stu Grimson was in the lineup,” said Myhres as he recounts one of the first NHL games he played in. For Laraque, it was having to face the prospects of Dave Brown. “I just hoped that he’d have a good game, so he wouldn’t be mad.”
Todd Fedoruk summarized it concisely in the USA Today: ” Could the pressure of fighting make you want to pick up? Yeah, I think that can be a trigger,” he said. “For me, it was. You just want to forget about having to fight the guy. You line up against a guy like Boogey, God rest his soul, but he’s 267. He’s a big man. You think about that a week before you fight him.”
Not everyone, however, feels this way. On CBC’s Fifth Estate, Marty McSorley said the prospects of fighting didn’t bother him at all, and he’s not alone.
“I don’t understand where it comes from ” says the aforementioned Stu Grimson. “No matter what profession you’re involved in, we all experience anxiety. I experience those same things that George Laraque and Brantt Myhres are talking about, but it’s not necessarily a daily experience. Anxiety is something a professional has to learn to manage if they’re going to work in a certain profession for any length of time.”
The Grim Reaper, as he was called in his playing days, is now a trial lawyer working out of Nashville. And although his career trajectory doesn’t fit the stereotype of an NHL enforcer, fighting was his stock and trade for over 700 NHL games. In fact, Grimson was so tough, he could literally do it in his sleep.
“I was in a fight in junior hockey once where I blacked out, and it felt like I was gone for a long time,” he says. “I recovered consciousness, and I was still on my feet. In fact my right arm was cocked somewhere up behind my shoulder and I realized, ‘wow, I’m still in this one.’ It was bizarre.”
According to HockeyFights.com, Grimson fought a total of 217 times prior to retiring. That’s almost a fight every fourth game. Ironically, fighting and the lingering effects of post-concussion syndrome are what forced him to retire. Despite that, he fully supports the role fighting plays in hockey, and he doesn’t agree that it should be vilified whenever talk of reckless head shots comes up.
“I’m not so sure that fighting should be drawn in because here it’s a different story: you’ve got two guys who both understand the risk associated with what they’re about to do. They understand it very well, but they’re prepared to accept those risks. It’s a job that they readily step into knowing full well there may be a cut lip; there may be a broken nose; there may even be a concussion in any particular fight, but that’s very different from somebody that’s not expecting someone else targeting their head. I think the point you really want to make is that we need to do whatever is reasonable to eliminate deliberate or even reckless head blows to players that are vulnerable. Those are the areas that we’ve really got to crack down on.”
Whatever the cause, and whether or not what Dr. Cantu’s research suggests is accurate, issues of depression and addiction have long reared their head in any number of sports and are certainly not the unique province of repeated head trauma. What, however, should come from this revelation is the continued need for dialogue and support for those players that might be suffering from any one of these psychologically debilitating diseases.
“There are a number of great programs in place right for any athlete that is current or retired from the game of hockey,” Grimson says.” Specifically, the collaboration between the NHL and the NHLPA called the Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health (SABH) program. This is a program that’s designed to support anybody that’s dealing with a behavioural issue like depression or a physical addiction like drugs and alcohol.”
While it’s impossible to identify any one particular solution to address issues of head trauma in hockey, whether they result from deliberate shots to the head or the effects of two willing combatants clubbing one another in the cranium, Grimson offers some food for thought on where it needs to start.
“Knowing what I know about the effects of head trauma back when I first started, I probably would have been quicker to disclose to the medical professionals that supported me what I was experiencing when I was experiencing it. I would have been quicker to seek treatment,” he says. “Now, I say that as someone that understands the culture of the game, that sounds a bit ideal. Here’s one of the problems; one of the difficulties that we face in this area. We haven’t talked about this much yet. The culture of sport, specifically of hockey, is problematic in this area. The athlete doesn’t want to disclose anything for fear of losing his spot on the roster. It’s akin to exposing a weakness to teammates. You never want to let on that you’ve been hurt.”
Bill Masterton immediately comes to mind. After a brief pause, Grimson adds, “The culture may have prevented me from doing the right thing. As we talk about the issues that are part of this debate, for me that’s one that really needs to be identified as we analyze the problem.”
Speaking in terms of the culture, for a program like SABH to work, a player needs to come forward on his own. “It’s not always easy to detect and diagnose that there is a problem,” says Grimson. “Even if a guy did come forward and he said you know what I’m really struggling with this particular area of my life, if he decides to take his life for whatever reason there is no program in the world short of keeping him inside in an institution and under 24-hour watch to prevent that.”
It’s not a stretch to think that if coaches and athletes took a different tack and began to change the culture, so it was easier for an athlete to come forward, things might be easier to rectify. “The responsibility lies with everybody. The players, first and foremost, the trainers, coaches, teammates–everybody involved,” says Grimson. “I know the powers that be in our sport are making every reasonable effort to do that.”
This can, and should, also be extended into the realm of fans and spectators. You only need to read the comment section for almost any article on Sidney Crosby’s concussion or turn to Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada to see just how entrenched the culture of hockey is in the public consciousness.
An example can be seen in part of a response to a CBS Pittsburgh article on Crosby where a reader takes issue with Crosby for speaking out on head shots and writes, “Whining and crying are not the finer qualities of a professional hockey player.” A more recent example is Don Cherry calling three former NHL fighters “pukes” for allegedly saying, “The reason they’re [Boogaard et al] taking drugs and alcohol is because they fight. You turncoats, you hypocrites,” said Cherry. “You were fighters and now you don’t want guys to make the same living you did.” This quote is particularly intriguing as Cherry claims Stu Grimson was one of the three that said it.
Discussion regarding blows to the head and fighting have been front and center for over a century. Not that anyone wants to stifle the passion of hockey, but when talk of the code and the culture are used to explain why certain things happen maybe it’s time to really look at our game, and what it is we’re teaching kids and expecting of athletes when they play. Perhaps only then will we be able to move forward and leave seriously debilitating and sometimes deadly injuries behind us.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Hockey Edmonton Magazine.