The NHL and NHLPA have a problem on their hands at the moment that requires some real leadership and bold action. And it wouldn’t be that difficult to do if they put their minds to it.
The fact that the NHL Players’ Association will put forth an initiative at some point this season aimed at helping former players deal with issues they face in the transition to retirement should be applauded. It sounds like it could be a terrific program that could help a good number of former players find their niche after they’ve devoted almost their whole lives to playing hockey.
But to suggest something like this would have helped Todd Ewen deal with the obvious troubles he faced before he killed himself this past weekend is kind of like thinking one would be able to close a gaping wound with a Band-Aid.
There will be some players who would benefit from the program into which the NHLPA will sink about $3 million. It might help guys who have had little training outside of hockey and were not good with their money. It could help others find off-ice strengths they never knew they had. It could assist others in finding a purpose in life after hockey. But how would it have helped Ewen? Would going back to school or getting some career counseling have helped Ewen deal with the demons he was obviously facing or overcome the depression that likely led him to put a gun to his head and pull the trigger?
Almost certainly not. First of all, there is no outward evidence to suggest that Ewen was out of sorts after retiring from the game eight years ago. He had formed the Ewen Realty Group with his wife, Kelli. He was active in the St. Louis Blues alumni association, was a fixture in minor hockey in St. Louis and had been instrumental in St. Louis University establishing a Division II hockey program.
During his career, Ewen illustrated and wrote children’s books and had a keen mind both for hockey and business. Those who worked with him with the Blues alumni group said he was full of good ideas and was a key cog in the association, one of the strongest in the NHL. “He had a lot of great ideas and he did a good job of helping to put this group on the map,” said Reed Low, who worked with Ewen on the board of the Blues alumni association. “He was instrumental and he was always asking, ‘How can we make this thing better?’ ”
Does this sound like someone who was having trouble dealing with life after hockey? The former players who reacted to Ewen’s death all expressed the same shock and bewilderment. All they had seen on the outside was a gregarious, outgoing guy who always seemed to have a smile on his face. Those who saw him at a recent Blues alumni fantasy camp said it looked as though Ewen was having the time of his life. They wondered how they could have missed the signs that Ewen was so troubled.
So it’s pretty obvious that Ewen’s troubles went far, far beyond what people who were even close to him could detect. It certainly doesn’t sound as though Ewen could have been helped by any post-retirement career-counseling program. What Ewen and players in his situation need is real help, not a public relations campaign that makes it look as though people are doing something about a problem when they’re really not.
Here are five things the league and NHLPA can do right now that might save future Todd Ewen tragedies from happening:
* Show some leadership on the fighting front and ban it immediately. Those who say the one-dimensional enforcer is organically being weeded out at the NHL are right. But these things never trickle up. They always trickle down. If the NHL bans fighting, so to will major junior leagues where a lot of concussion problems begin in the first place. And while he’s at it, commissioner Gary Bettman might want to stop questioning whether there’s a link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
* Get serious about headshots. First, ban all of them regardless of intent. Make the unintentional headshots suspendable for at least five games and make the ones where the head is targeted a minimum 20-game suspension. In order to do this, the league would need to have the players’ association on board. That would necessitate the PA not advocating for the attacker and actually looking out for the interests of the player who has been the recipient of a headshot.
* Establish a registry, much like the organ donor registry, that would allow players to donate their brains for concussion research upon their deaths. A player could simply fill out a form on-line where his intentions would be registered, making it automatic upon his death. There are two excellent organizations that are doing this research – the Canadian Sports Concussion Project in Toronto and the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston. Having a registry would not only result in a lot more donors, it would eliminate the difficulties researchers would have contacting the family of a player who has just died asking for his brain.
* Concussion spotters are a great idea, but the league could easily make them independent observers, instead of people who are associated with the team, and make them people who have medical training. The league could also give the concussion spotters the authority to diagnose a player and pull him out of the game, even against his will, if necessary.
* Take every decision regarding a player’s health out of his hands. Look at all the players on PTOs in training camp this fall. Contracts are gold in the NHL right now and players would not be blamed for leading their teams astray when it comes to being honest about their injuries. For example, there’s nothing stopping a player from underperforming on his baseline test, which would lower the threshold if he had a concussion. Players are the last people who can be trusted when it comes to their health.