A Broken Culture: The NHL, Injuries and Concussions

A Broken Culture: The NHL, Injuries and Concussions


A Broken Culture: The NHL, Injuries and Concussions


A couple of weeks ago, TSN ran a five-part special NHL Under Oath detailing the National Hockey League’s ongoing legal battle with former players alleging the NHL did not do their duty when it came to concussions, concussion education and after career healthcare.

Former NHL players such as Daniel Carcillo Nick Boynton, Ken Dryden, and Corey Hirsch have spoken out about their struggles with mental health via The Players’ Tribune.

Their stories coupled with unsealed emails and testimony from Commissioner Gary Bettman, Colin Campbell and so many others really paint a damning picture of how the NHL’s Old Boys Club views concussions, injuries and mental health.

I know that here at Pensblog we try to put a humorous spin on a lot of what we write, but I felt I had to take this week to discuss a few things seriously. Next week, I’ll do something to the effect of how the Flyers are wet dog farts and Barry Trotz leaving the Caps is truly #ALLCAPS, but I can’t this week. If you want to skip this one, I get it.

What inspired me to write this wasn’t Carcillo’s continued advocacy, Boynton’s story or even TSN’s NHL Under Oath, it was this:


Madden at the end of the day is paid to piss people off, create controversy and more power to him, he’s unquestionably one of the best at it. Scroll his Twitter feed and he gets just about everyone going. I’ve acknowledged that for years and on a personal level, the times I’ve met the man have been nothing but pleasant. He worked with my dad for years and expressed his deepest sympathies to my family when he passed in 2009.

I had to write about this. I’m not going to @ him on Twitter when I post it and I plead you don’t either, because: A. I don’t want to argue with him. His position has been established and I’ve never seen the man change his view and B. I just don’t have the energy to.

So here we go, let’s talk about the NHL and how they handle concussions.

But His Emails

In a 2010 matchup against the Islanders, Kris Letang comes across the middle and throws a blindside hit on Blake Comeau.

Comeau stayed in the game, despite losing his helmet and staying on the ice well after the hit. As we’ve learned in the past few years, more than just head contact can cause concussions. Whiplash can be a huge reason people suffer from concussions.

Then Penguins GM Ray Shero emailed Colin Campbell, the NHL’s Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations to get a read on what he was thinking regarding possible suspension.

“We are going to get rid of hitting AND lay down every time you are hit. Keep your freaking head up. Shoulder to shoulder! Those are my thoughts! Not to be repeated!!!” – Colin Campbell

Not to be repeated. Not only is this a ridiculous response, but if it’s not to be repeated, don’t put in an email, stupid. “Keep your head up,” he said. Well, his head was up. Unless he had the neck of a owl and could turn his head 360 degrees, he was never going to see Letang coming.

Yes, the purposes of hitting are to; separate man from puck, gain a territorial or manpower advantage and of course, hurt.

That’s the keyword, though: hurt. Not injure. I cannot remember if it was Spittin’ Chiclets or 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, but when they spoke about head injuries, contact and physicality in hockey they said that the main point of hitting is to hurt, not injure. It wasn’t to inflict harm on an opponent, but fatigue. A clean, legal hit over and over again can wear an opponent down, but a concussion can impact a players life forever.

Unlike usual, Letang was assessed a five minute major and a game misconduct for his hit. Tough, but fair. Blindsided, Comeau was as far as we know okay, but he did catch shoulder. You can’t get this kind of hitting out of the game without punishing it consistently.

Don’t you worry, they only get worse!

Remember this hit?

Take it away, Colin:

“The mania surfaced on the Lucic hit…not a chance that should be out of the game. I’m sorry to Boston, but someone should teach that young man something about keeping his head up. Hitting is a vital aspect to everything our game is about and we may be adjusting it too much if we are not careful…and give in to the masses. Canada certainly loved Rick Smash Nash running everyone in the Olympics!”

Again, keep your head up? Get all the way real. Savard never saw Cooke coming. There is no keeping your head up.

When the people in charge don’t care, that kind of mentality trickles down…

People (Not) Helping People

“We know that some players take longer to recover, some don’t. It could be that certain players might be at a higher risk of something, and the idea of assigning risk to people, he felt would affect their contract value.” – Dr. Willem Meeuwisse

When asked about the NHLPA’s stance on concussions and their willingness to study them, Dr. Meeuwisse, a former Flames doctor, alleged Dr. John Rizos, the PA’s medical consultant, the union wouldn’t support the testing for CTE, even on former players.

The NHL’s reputation is piss-poor when it comes to managing player safety, health and retirement so everything they say should be taken with a bag of Morton’s. However, it’s not hard to believe a union with the goal of getting their members the most money during their careers would be against a study that could harm that objective.

This is part of the NHL’s culture problem, though. We love to pontificate over how tough our favorite sport’s players are and talk about how they find a way to rise above the pain, but when those pains are causing life-altering health problems, maybe studying the effects of brain injuries in hockey is worth it.

Which leads to…

The Warrior’s Code

Let me say it here: fuck “The Code.”

Milan Lucic was on the ice when Matt Cooke ended Marc Savard’s career.

Ryan Reaves didn’t stop Tom Wilson from trying to decapitate Jonathan Marchessault.

Two players that serve no other purpose than to punch each other in the face and “deter” other players from running around recklessly has been proven to be bullshit over and over again.

If you want to watch two people beat the hell out of one another, UFC exists, WWE exists, boxing exists. Even if you do, that’s fine! We like what we like and who am I to judge. Hell, even if you think fighting in hockey is crucial, that’s fine, but you’re living in a time gone by.

I just needed to get that out, it’s not what I’m here to talk about. The National Hockey League has festered a culture of sit down, shut up, play through it and sacrifice the individual for the team.

Obviously the best teams have the most success, but this is a severely flawed mentality. I totally get sacrificing personal glory for the betterment of the team, but sacrificing one’s health for the team is not only stupid, but it’s also dumb.  

Here’s some examples:

Nick Bonino – 2016 Stanley Cup Final

Now, this one I kind of get – it’s more for his family and at the time newborn, but imagine going to your office job with an infected elbow, 101-degree fever and IV fluids. They’d fire you immediately.

Ian Cole & Nick Bonino – 2017 Stanley Cup Final

From the early second round through the Final, Ian Cole had a broken hand. Now, I’m just a blogger in my mom’s living room (she doesn’t have a basement, take that nerds), but I feel a sport where you use a stick, having a healthy hand is crucial.

Bonino, unlike 2016, had a broken tibia in game two. He finished the game on pure adrenaline (and probably several numbing shots) and was ruled out the rest of the series.

Brooks Orpik – 2018 Stanley Cup Final

He lost a finger. Brooks Orpik sitting out likely would’ve been addition by subtraction for the Caps, but welcome to the NHL. Play through it, punk.

Boston Bruins – 2018 Playoffs

This reads like a medical journal. Concussions, shoulder injuries, hip injuries, potential surgeries left and right.

We all want the story, I get it. I understand the fraternal aspect of wanting to win and being competitive, I’ve broken my fair share of Xbox controllers over losing a meaningless game of NHL, I can’t imagine getting to compete for a Stanley Cup. Maybe that’s why I’m not an NHLer…who are we kidding, I’m 5’2” and have worse hands than Tyler Kennedy.

Take a look at the supposed “rift” between Sullivan and Kessel. It’s a catch 22 of epic proportions. We were never told what Kessel’s injury was, but apparently it wasn’t serious. That said, it may have limited him. His coach wasn’t happy with his performance, but he was also hurt.

At what point do coaches and managers say, you’re injury is a liability, take a seat?


Alright, I’ll get a little personal. I only ever played local hockey through high school and collegiate club. Sure, not the highest levels, but still competitive, fast-paced hockey.

I had three concussions that I’m 100% aware of. Two of them caused me to lose consciousness. One of those two was so severe I was taken via ambulance to the hospital in fear of a broken neck. All of them were caused by dangerous hits.

I’m fully aware dangerous hits will never leave hockey, it’s impossible to eliminate them. It’s the fastest sport on Earth and one incorrect stride can be the difference between skating past an opposing player and staring up at the ceiling.

I haven’t had the same kind of post concussion problems guys like Carcillo and Boynton have, but I do know there are days I wake up in a haze, portions of my life I struggle to recall because I was suffering from concussions and I am truly terrified one day I’ll wake up and have zero idea who I am.

I do know that quotes like this are absolutely chilling:

“They can scratch my name off that cup, and I’d hand my ring back in right now if I could go back and make it so that I wouldn’t have had to experience all this pain and sorrow and anger and sadness. I’d make that tradeoff in a heartbeat.” – Nick Boynton

They dedicated their entire childhood, teen years and a portion of their adulthoods chasing this dream and now they’d give it back to feel better – as Boynton said, everything is not O.K.

Listen, I love this sport and I want to see it succeed and be around longer than I am. I know that there are things in the immediate the NHL can do to get out of its own way. Talk to guys like Carcillo, hell, talk to Paul Kariya. Eventually something needs to be done to protect the guys that make this league millions.

Do I think Madden would be singing a different tune if it was Matt Cooke instead of Daniel Carcillo? Absolutely.

There’s a link between the NHL and CTE. The sooner the league and PA acknowledge this, the better.

Call me a snowflake, call me soft, call me what you will, I don’t give a shit. I know people will come back with “this is what they signed up for.” A lifetime of mental illness, pain and suffering is absolutely not what they signed up for. They signed up to play hockey and the culture poisoned them.

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