NEW YORK – Keith Primeau is linked to the late Reggie Fleming even though their NHL careers were separated by decades.
When severe brain injuries are the common thread, there is no generation gap. The problem isn’t new, it’s just finally starting to become understood.
While the NHL Players’ Association has pitched a ban of all hits to the head, the league hadn’t moved to adopt such a rule. But for the first time, change appears possible.
The NHL’s 30 general managers agreed last month to form a committee to investigate the problem before they meet again in March. They could then recommend that head shots be eliminated.
A new rule may even be in place next season that would prohibit contact with the head – even with a shoulder.
The general managers will gather against a backdrop of America’s most popular professional league, the NFL, making several new moves to study head injuries and protect players in the wake of new studies and congressional pressure.
“If you would’ve asked me four months ago, my response was one of frustration because I didn’t think that they were taking initiative,” Primeau said of the NHL. “After their GM meetings they came out of there with a plan. That plan, because it’s 30 general managers, will take some time but they are working toward a goal. That, for me, is encouraging.”
The six-foot-five, 235-pound Primeau was a hard-hitter with a scorer’s touch during his 15 seasons. He was cut down, not by a bum knee or tricky shoulder, but by repeated concussions. His symptoms have included: lightheadedness, disorientation, and added difficulties when his immunity goes down.
“When I get sick it goes straight to my head,” he said.
His story isn’t unique, and as more research is done, the danger of concussions and their long-term effects become increasingly clear. Concussions plagued the careers of Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros and his brother Brett, goalie Mike Richter, defenceman Jeff Beukeboom and countless others.
“I know that I damaged my brain,” the 38-year-old Primeau said. “To what degree, I don’t know. What my future holds, I don’t dwell on it.”
Primeau was aware that Fleming, whose 12-year NHL career ended 20 years before Primeau’s started, had a severe brain disease before findings by Boston University researchers were revealed last week.
Fleming was 73 when he died in July, and The New York Times reported that he was the first hockey player known to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease often linked to boxers that causes cognitive decline, behavioural problems and dementia.
Because such research can only be done after death, Primeau has agreed to donate his brain to science. He is better now than he was when he hung up his skates in 2006, but certainly not 100 per cent. Primeau’s career-ending concussion occurred nine games into the 2005-06 season, when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers.
“Day-to-day I am in a much better place that I was even a year ago,” he said. “It was certainly a long road and there were days when I thought that I was never going to feel well enough or healthy enough to live as normal a life as I’ve been able to.”
Primeau’s greatest frustration is that he can’t exercise the way he once could. Increasing his heart rate triggers some of symptoms, he said.
Several NHL players have been sidelined this season by concussions or related symptoms. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, New York’s Chris Drury, Edmonton’s Sheldon Souray, Steve Staios and Robert Nilsson, and Florida’s David Booth, have been knocked out from blows to the head.
Team owners have lots to lose when well-paid players are out for long stretches of time.
The Minnesota Wild have been without Andrew Ebbett, Petr Sykora, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and defenceman Brent Burns because of concussions.
“Our goal is to really frame where this is for the owners and team presidents,” said Colin Campbell, the NHL’s director of hockey operations, who made a presentation at last week’s owners meeting. “It’s their players they’re losing through these hits and concussions.”
Some hits, such as the blow absorbed by Drury from Calgary’s Curtis Glencross, have resulted in suspensions but others, like the one Philadelphia’s Mike Richards delivered to Booth, and Vancouver’s Willie Mitchell against Toews didn’t. Glencross was punished because he landed a shoulder to the head of Drury, who was deemed unsuspecting because the puck wasn’t there.
“When I first came in the league, every player knew exactly who he was playing against every shift,” said Columbus’ Ken Hitchcock, who was Primeau’s final coach while they were with Philadelphia. “Every player knew if it was going to be a finesse shift or he was going to have to keep his head up.
“The thing that’s really changed for me is I’m not really sure that the awareness of who you’re playing against is out there.”
Some have argued against a head shot ban because of the judgment call that would be placed in referees’ hands. Some call for any head contact being a foul, whether or not it’s determined to be intentional.
“I don’t know if you can do that,” said Tampa Bay coach Rick Tocchet, who racked up just under 3,000 penalty minutes in an 18-season NHL career. “I’ve seen a lot of guys hit with shoulders, and the guy’s head goes down. It’s not his fault.”
The biggest argument against a total ban is the difference in size of players. If a six-foot-four defenceman crashes into a five-foot-11 forward, his otherwise legal shoulder hit might land at head level.
The hulking Primeau would seem to be someone who might support that logic, but he doesn’t. His belief is players would make necessary adjustments.
“It’s just the same as not hitting somebody from behind into the boards,” Primeau said. “If you implemented a rule that said no head shots, players are aware and can limit the potential.”
Even the most optimistic observers know this would only be a small step in the attempt to limit concussions in a sport that involves violent contact at tremendous speed. Rules and equipment only go so far, and injuries will always be part of the game.
However, the increased knowledge of what causes concussions, how to diagnose them, and how to treat them is certainly a plus.
“Keith Primeau’s difficulties that he deals with on a monthly and weekly basis was a real eye-opener for a lot of us, because it’s never gone away,” Hitchcock said.