The Specter of Concussions
Written by Pac Pobric • Illustrated by Keenan Wells
It used to be a routine play, the kind players expected of one another. It could lift the spirits of a team, deflate those of another, and change the momentum of a game. It was violent, sure, but no rule was broken, and the referees had nothing to police. As long as the battered man had been in possession of the puck, it was a clean play. So it happened every night of the season across the National Hockey League, and it drove fans from their seats in feverish cheer. Here he was, one player gliding down the ice with his head down, unaware—and suddenly he’d be leveled with a brutal, high hit to the head.
Scott Stevens was cherished for it. In his 22 years in the NHL, many of them with the New Jersey Devils, the hard-driving defenseman was one of the best hitters in the league. His hip check, which he used to flip opponents like coins, was inimitable. But even more disastrous were his thundering upper body hits. In 1992, during a playoff game at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers, he spied New York forward Kris King carrying the puck through the neutral zone along the boards with his head down. Stevens, who was at the center of the ice, turned towards King, took two short strides, and crippled the winger as he entered the New Jersey zone. And this was a relatively mild hit.
Thus far this year, the Rangers’ failures have little to do with injuries. Their meagre 3-6-1 record, including a dispiriting 4–1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night at the United Center, is largely due to inexperience, poor communication, and collapses in discipline. They are not losing because key pieces are out nursing wounds; they’re losing because they aren’t playing well enough. Yet injuries—and brain injuries specifically—have rattled the team. Last month, during a trivial preseason game against the Devils, New Jersey defenseman Eric Gryba caught Boo Nieves, a promising New York center, with an ugly head-on-head collision that landed Nieves on the injury reserve list with concussion symptoms. He has yet to play this season.
This is not a local problem; the specter of concussion is everywhere in the NHL. Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, who backstopped the team to Stanley Cup victories in 2013 and 2015, missed ten months of play since 2017 because of a concussion. Victor Hedman, a key member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, missed a month of play during 2011. Sidney Crosby, perhaps hockey’s biggest star, has suffered at least four brain injuries in his career, sidelining him for months at a time. Then there’s Kris Letang, Carey Price, Auston Matthews, Nikita Scherbak, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal—the list could go on indefinitely.
Athletic careers are short and injuries are inevitable. Everyone plays hurt. But head trauma is a special category. Its symptoms can be severe and persistent. Headaches. Fogginess. Nausea. Vomiting. Fatigue. Amnesia. Disorientation. Memory loss. Sensitivity to light. Slurred speech. These can follow players long after their marquee days are over. Chris Pronger, the Stanley Cup-winning defenseman who spent time in Anaheim, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, among other cities, not only lost his career to head injuries; he’s had lingering effects well into his 40s. "I got a headache right now and you wouldn't know it," Pronger told a USA Today journalist in 2013, two years after his reluctant retirement. "It's just a pounding. Back of the head. That's the thing. You get used to it.”
In a perverse sense, Pronger has been fortunate. Other players haven’t lived to tell of their woes. Steve Montador, Wade Belak, Bob Probert, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard—each of them died in the past ten years, and only Probert made it to age 40. Boogaard, let’s remember, died as a member of the New York Rangers, a team he warily fought his way onto in 2010 after regularly suffering concussions since at least his teenage years. He played only 22 games with New York before his pains caught up with him. In 2011, after a descent into pill use to ease his persistent pains, he died of an overdose. He was 28.
Clearly, this is not simply an athletic problem. It is a moral one too. But the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman have only taken half measures to protect players. Fighting is still permitted. So is an “incidental” hit to the head. And any suggestion of a connection between concussions and CTE—the degenerative brain disease that plagues so many former athletes—has been shrugged off. The only solution thus proffered in the past few years has been to make deliberate head-hunting illegal. But even with this rule in place, the onus is still on the hurt player to make sure he doesn’t put himself in a “vulnerable position”—whatever that means.
There are better solutions. As evidence of the crippling long-term effects of brain injuries has come more fully into view, a small but vocal group of former players have taken the ethical stand that the league simply must do more. One key advocate has been Ken Dryden, the hall-of-fame former goaltender who last year published Game Change, a shocking and essential book about Steve Montador, who died at age 35 in 2015. Dryden’s suggestion is to treat all hits to the head—whether deliberate or not—as penalties. “It’s one change that’s needed,” he told the New York Times. “No hits to the head. No excuses.”
Then there are the fans. What are we willing to put up with? It’s thrilling, no doubt, to watch a highlight reel of Scott Stevens’s greatest hits. He was feared and adored for good reason. No wonder he was the Devils’ captain for a dozen seasons. But in retrospect, some of the devastation he dealt out is difficult to watch.
In 2000, during the Eastern Conference Finals between the Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers, Stevens caught Flyers forward Eric Lindros cutting through center ice with the puck on his blade and his head down. With one short turn, an upraised shoulder, and the speed for which he was so admired, Stevens hit Lindros in the chin and peeled him from the puck. Lindros lay on the ice for a few moments, twitched a little, and finally got to his hands and knees by the time the Flyers trainer reached him. There was no penalty on the play.
Lindros’s career dwindled after that blow as post-concussion symptoms set in, and these days, he’s a staunch advocate for reform. This past August, at a concussion symposium in London, Ontario, he made a seemingly radical suggestion: that the NHL police all body checking out of the game. Some fans scoffed. But can we blame him for trying?