THE WAY I SEE IT

Hindsight

The saying “hindsight is 20-20” holds a lot of truth for me. That’s why, knowing what I know now, I believe the NHL absolutely has to take the hit Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple Leafs made on Edmonton Oiler Matt Fraser Monday out of the game. Why I felt ill as I watched Fraser struggle to his feet.

Whether that’s accomplished by handing out suspensions – Kadri received four games for the hit today – or by an ongoing effort to educate players at all levels about the long-term consequences of hits like that and the damage they are doing to each other, it has to happen. The sooner the better.

Documented case studies and evidence about long-term damage to the brain caused by concussions is growing by the day. We’ve already seen too many NHL careers cut short by concussions – Eric Lindros, Marc Savard, Pat Lafontaine, Adam Deadmarsh, Jeff Beukeboom, Geoff Courtnall and Dean Chynoweth, to name just seven. There are many, many more.

We know of countless other players across the spectrum of pro sports who play what we deem a full careers and later suffer the effects of head trauma. Horrific conditions like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). This week, the case of Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers, who decided to retire at the age of 24, fearing damage to his brain.

Medical professionals and the public at large know so much more now about the potential dangers of repeated head trauma than we did 20, even 10, years ago. The evidence is there for all of us to see. My take on the subject, on hits like we saw Kadri make on Fraser, isn’t as clinical. It’s anecdotal, meaning it doesn’t necessarily apply across the board. It’s what I live with now.

A DIFFERENT TIME

Tape

I don’t know for certain how many concussions I sustained as a youth who played hockey, lacrosse and football. Just to add to the mix, I spent a lot of time doing boxing workouts and sparring – occasionally using headgear, most times not — to supplement my, ahem, lacrosse and hockey “skills.”

It could be a dozen or more. Back in the 1970s, there were no substantial protocols to deal with concussions. No quiet rooms. When we took a blow to the head and saw stars, we called it “getting buzzed” or “getting your bell rung.” My experience, more often than not, was that a coach or a trainer would hold up two or three fingers and say, “How many?” If you guessed right, chances are you’d finish the game. More than once, I recall puking between periods or after games in situations like that.

Coaches and trainers of the day did the best they could with the information they had. The finger test was as complex as it got. To put it in perspective, this was an era when you were denied water during games for fear drinking it would cause cramps. We sucked on quartered oranges instead.

What I do know is I was diagnosed or treated for concussions six times by the age of 18. After the first two, the others came with more easily, without what I’d call a significant blow to the head. The last time, the seventh time, came just a couple of years ago after decades of suffering the effects of those I sustained in the 1970s.

I was participating in the Road Hockey to Conquer Cancer tournament here in Edmonton. There is some irony here in that I had Kerry Goulet, a former hockey player and author of Concussed, which he co-wrote with former NHLer Keith Primeau, on my team. We talked about the issue and his book at length before our first game. He gave me a copy.

On my very first shift, my right knee, which is wonky beyond reason after three surgeries, buckled as I chased a loose ball. I hit my head. Nausea. My mouth was watering. I knew exactly what was up. One of the EMTs on site took one look into my eyes and said I was done. Embarrassing. Frustrating. I didn’t feel right for a week. It brought back the bad old days. Another blow to my already scrambled coconut.

LIVING WITH IT

Concussion

It’s a good thing I took an interest in journalism because it’s a job where you used to have to write everything down. That’s not only come in handy in recent years, it’s been a necessity. It’s a fact of life for me. I write everything down – birthdays, anniversaries, names, events. I have to.

While I have an acute sensitivity to light – I wear deeply tinted glasses all the time and my family has had to get used to stumbling around in the dark because I turn all the lights in the house off – it’s the lapses in memory that are the most unsettling and frustrating. My recollection of events past come and go. It’s been like that for longer than I care to think about. There one day, gone the next. At random.

There are days when I cannot remember my mother’s name. As hard as that is to believe, it’s true. Sometimes on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN, I’ll start talking about an event I’ve mentioned before and I’ll forget details – times, places, names. There have been times when Gregor prompts me for a comment about an event I’ve talked about at great length and in great detail before and I have to shake my head – “Don’t go there. I don’t remember.”

There have been times in the last decade when people have suggested I write a book or blog about 30 years spent as a sports writer. You know, spill the beans about behind-the-scenes stories from the years I spent covering the Oilers – and there are many of them – that never made the newspaper. I can’t do it. Many of the details and the names and the circumstances come and go. Some are just gone. They don’t come back. Didn’t write them down.

My son, Sam, loves skating and he wants to play soccer this spring. I’m looking forward to it. Knowing what I know now, I’ll be keeping a close eye on him. What he won’t be doing is playing any sport where it’s OK to be hit in the head repeatedly. He won’t be picking himself up and heading back out to play after counting three fingers. We know better.

THE RISK

RiskReward

I love the intensity and the emotion that makes hockey what it is. I love that somebody like Ryan Smyth will take a puck in the mouth, spit teeth and blood and hustle right back out there unwilling to miss more than a shift or two. It’s a tough, violent game full of risks and players in the NHL accept those risks as part of the deal. I don’t want no-hit hockey.

What shouldn’t be part of the deal is intentional blows to the head. Players will suffer concussions and all sorts of other trauma because of the very nature of the game and the physical forces at play. You don’t need to be hit in the head to suffer a concussion. That’s understood.

What we don’t need is head shots. What we don’t need, be it the NHL or any other league, is the sight of somebody like Matt Fraser struggling to his feet with rubber legs after a hit like Kadri delivered. Fraser might seem fine in a day, a week or a month. Beyond that, we cannot say for sure. 

We know better.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.

  • geeker99

    What does the NHL think would happen? You take the red line away and these guys are going twice as fast as they used to. They can’t police themselves at all and the Oil are the absolute worst at sticking up for team mates.

    This is a scary time for my favorite sports to watch. Nfl and Nhl are very fast and physical and thats why I tune in on a regular basis. While I don’t want anyone to suffer I also remember they make millions of dollars to do so. As for Lindros, I don’t feel sorry for him. I met the guy and he was a dick, I am sure he was the cause of many head injuries and Stevens was just doing his job. Gotta keep your head up.

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    In one calendar year back in high school I took a linedrived baseball to the eyesocket, I fell down a set of stairs and cracked my head open, and I took a hard elbow in a bantam league game that gave me the rubber knees.
    They next year I went from one of the best hitters on our baseball team to the absolute worst. I always thought I wasn’t developing the skills to hit a breaking ball as kids were just starting to throw them half ass effectively but looking back im sure this had something to do with it, as my hockey skills eroded just as fast. I started needing glasses soon after that hit in the eye as well.

    I was simply too much of a pot head I reckon after that to recognize any symptoms for a long time. Now that I’m getting older I suspect I’ll find out.

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    This is a brave and powerful and deeply moving commentary Robin. I also feel very strongly about head injuries in sports, but nothing I could say can compare to your direct experience of it and the incredible honesty with which you shared it with us. I can only say personally that I hope that your symptoms will not grow worse and wish you all the best.

    Seeing Kadri’s intentional head hit on Fraser made me angry and the two-minute penalty call was an embarrassment to the league, which the suspension corrects. Then tonight I see Bourque crosscheck Boyd Gordon head-first into the boards and that also draws only a minor penalty. It seems that the referees are not getting the message. The NHL cannot completely erase contact to the head, but it can minimze it by severely punishing it and making every call in which it is a major factor, a major penalty. Also, at the very least fighting should be an automatic game misconduct, so there will still be some fights but only if players have a very good reason to engage.

    I have no idea what the NFL, college and high school football are going to do because head contact in line play seems unavoidable.

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    On ice official should be disciplined for his call. He calls a minor penalty for a head shot where the victim has to be helped off the ice. By definition that is a major. Clearly, the league agrees with me hence the suspension.

    Awful.

    BTW, good article.

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    There are a ton of repeat offenders out there. Some rehabilitated, some not so much. I think there needs to be another catagory. Something more severe than repeat offender. A high probability risk label for certain players.

    When a team employs one of these multiple repeat offenders, they must bare as much responsiblity as the player himself. Punish the team and not with money but with draft picks. You signed Cooke? After all he’s done?….and he did it again? …..that’s a draft pick. Let the disciplinary committee pick which one. There would be true accountability if an individual started messing up draft plans for the multi million dollar company’s these teams have become.

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    Mr Brownlee, I have a whole new outlook on you as well as I too am one of those “tough guy’s” that ended up concussed AND also developed a wonderful case of vertigo as well having finished my rough n tough youth days playing hockey.I was playing rec league at 35 and loved the sport with everything I had. wife, kids mtge the whole 9 yards and then out of the blue my whole world changed.I also feel for many of the other guy’s posting with the same other issue’s and the memory isin’t quite what it used to be and in today’s competitive world, it’s very frustrating,let alone I tried to fake it through not showing the small losses in life that it does to you. I now am currently going through a marriage break up because of my spouse’s lack of patience or “for better or worse”. I am not the same person today as I was before but I’m still only human and aren’t we all fallible? Kudo’s to you sir for writing this and to all step forward and don’t hide in the shadows of your mind like I did for so long.