Hockey can be a brutal game. The injuries sustained on the ice can be life-altering, even life-ending. More attention than ever is now being paid to the effects of head injuries and concussions, on both the professional and youth levels.
Consider the case of former Buffalo Sabre Steve Montador. Some contend his concussions contributed to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE. Montador died at the age of 35 just over a year ago. Cory Mickey, the son of former "Original Six" player and one-time Sabre Larry Mickey, laments Montador's loss, having gone through a similar experience with his own father.
“Now we remember, maybe, the way that he went out instead of the way that he was,” said Cory Mickey. “He’s got a child currently. I think that a child like his is going through what I’ve gone through as a person — growing up without a father that played pro hockey, never meeting your dad, never seeing the things that you can enjoy with life or learn.”
Cory Mickey never knew his father. Before committing suicide in 1982, the elder Mickey co-founded the Buffalo Junior Sabres and worked extensively with young players.
“One day he freaked out, unfortunately, and he took his own life,” said Mickey. “Until this day, we never really had an answer. It leads to many topics of questions of, was something wrong? Was something going on physically that maybe hockey had obviously put some damage or inflicted some pain that we never really saw?”
Lawyer Stuart Davidson is representing former NHL players who have been subjected to repetitive head trauma in a lawsuit against the NHL. A former Amherst hockey player, Davidson said he watches NHL games now with a lot of angst.
“Seeing players stumble to the sideline, I know it’s not their first time, and decades of science tell us they are going to have problems later in life,” said Davidson. “They call me on Saturday nights at 10 p.m. saying, ‘I’m ready to take my own life. I need help,’ and I, as a lawyer, not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, do my best to help these guys and get them to the right people.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said the science on concussions leading to CTE isn’t there yet and no current evidence links one to the other.
University at Buffalo Concussion Management Clinic Medical Instructor Dr. John Leddy says Bettman isn’t necessarily wrong.
“The data coming out of these studies in deceased athletes raises a level of concern, but it’s not a scientific fact,” said Leddy. "It’s being studied and someday we might have the answer. But as far as it is right now, there is no definitive proof that repetitive head injuries and concussions causes CTE."
"That said, I think that the league should be doing as much as they can to reduce head injuries and improve care after head injuries. That involves rule changes, enforcing the rules, and maybe changing how things are done at the youth level.”
Dr. Robert Cantu, Clinical Professor at the Department of Neurosurgery at Boston University and author of “Concussions and Our Kids,” says there is a long way to go when it comes to handling head trauma at all levels.
“I think the posturing with regard to CTE is being done for legal reasons, not for scientific reasons,” said Cantu. “I’m not pointing out the NHL, I’m simply saying that all sports in which there’s repetitive head injuries, people are at risk of CTE and there have been individual cases of CTE found.”
Davidson says he is concerned Bettman is setting a poor example for youth hockey.
“The commissioner of the NHL is telling parents, when you send your kids onto the ice, when they’re six, seven, eight, nine years old, when they’re skulls are not even fully developed and their brains are not fully developed, you don’t have to worry about anything because concussions are not a big deal,” he said.
An email sent to Bettman in 2011 showed a sizable amount of NHL players playing through concussions. Of the 86 regular season concussions that season, 31 players returned to the ice. The same email suggested withholding examples at the general managers meeting fearing that, “the clubs will feel defensive.”
Recently, a federal judge in Minnesota denied the NHL’s motion to dismiss the concussion suit over the collective bargaining agreement. Stuart called the order a “historic order in American sports and labor law.”
West Seneca Youth Hockey president Dick Lynch has played and coached hockey at multiple levels. He says concussions are top of mind in every sport and are handled much differently from when he played.
“I remember my playing days. When I had my bell run, I couldn’t even remember which bench I came from,” said Lynch. “You get to the bench and the coach is looking down at you and [saying] shake it off, let's go, next shift, and you're already out there. That’s happened to hundreds and thousands of people. That’s just old school and that’s got to be corrected.”
During Game Two of the NHL Western Conference Finals between the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues, NBCSN analyst Mike Milbury came under some scrutiny for saying, "If you're going to slash him, break a bone. If you're going to hit him from behind, give him a slight concussion." For many, it’s just a reminder of the “old-school” mentality of the game.
Lynch says strides have been made at all levels of the game, but improvements are needed, especially when kids look up to their favorite NHL players.
“Everyone team has a Jack Eichel #15,” said Lynch. “A [Sidney] Crosby on every team. A Pat Kane #88. On every team. They do emulate the players, absolutely. Everybody’s got that goal and that goal is to reach the NHL.”
But if and when that dream comes true, every coach, parent, and player must know the risks.