Away from the NHL spotlight and long after he played his last hockey game, Keith Primeau is crafting a legacy in the sport that will likely surpass anything he accomplished on the ice.
The former Philadelphia Flyers captain has been flooded with interview requests over the last week—as sure a sign as any that hockey’s concussion issue has become big news yet again.
Even though it’s an injury that has forced many from the game, no former player has been as open as Primeau about discussing his experience with concussions. He takes every call and answers every question in an effort to spread awareness and contribute any way he can.
“On my side, it can be a very delicate line and balance to walk,” Primeau said Thursday in an interview. “But I also believe it needs to be said because it’s such a sensitive topic and people aren’t really willing to step out of line.
“I just want to speak the truth and sometimes the truth is not what people want to hear.”
It’s not always easy to talk about an injury that still plays a major role in his life. Just 39 years old, Primeau continues to live with the affects of post-concussion syndrome—”I’ve damaged my brain and I don’t know if that will ever go away,” he says—but tries as hard as he can to keep his spirits high.
He’ll travel from his home in suburban Philadelphia this weekend to take part in a concussion education day with minor hockey players in Warkworth, Ont., a village located about 150 kilometres east of Toronto.
The Saturday session will be Primeau’s first public appearance on behalf of “Play it Cool,” a prevention program started by former European pro Kerry Goulet.
Not only will Primeau participate in on-ice clinics with players and coaches from the Percy Minor Hockey Association, he will also speak about the challenges he’s faced in living with concussions. That openness is unique.
“Some guys are very private … and I get that,” said Goulet, who battled depression after suffering a concussion during his playing career. “We’ve all been programmed as hockey players to show courage—fight through it, suck it up. I think the legacy from Keith will be the fact that he is showing tremendous courage because he’s opening up his life and talking about it.
“It’s a new form of courage.”
The “Play it Cool” program hopes to host education days for minor hockey players across North America. Primeau will draw heavily on his own experience in delivering his message to kids and their parents.
“There were choices that I made (to play through concussions) and part of that is because I believed that was the right mentality,” he said. “The design behind ‘Play it Cool’ is to try and change that cultural mindset. You can still be courageous and you can still be a competitor and you can still enjoy the game, but with less risk.
“We feel that the best place to begin that concept is with our youth.”
Primeau remains heavily involved in the sport. He coaches teams that his youngest two sons play for in addition to a local high school squad. And he’s had players miss time with concussions.
During a NHL career that spanned 15 seasons and more than 900 games, Primeau was officially diagnosed with the injury four times (he suspects he actually suffered more). The last concussion forced his premature retirement in 2005-06.
Head injuries have been a major talking point around the NHL this season and will be on top of the agenda when GMs sit down together next month. The issue found the spotlight this week when Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski appeared to be dazed by two heavy hits in Boston, only to take smelling salts on the bench and return to score the winning goal on a highlight-reel play.
Some observers argued he should never have been allowed to return after the hits.
“I can appreciate his position,” Primeau said of Grabovski. “At the end of the day, people will question and crucify whoever let him back out there. At the same time, there’s nothing that says he’s can’t go back out there.
“That’s why we’re in the infancy stage of understanding post-concussion and head trauma.”
Primeau intends to do everything he can to help expand the level of understanding.
He has already agreed to donate his brain to the Massachusetts-based Sports Legacy Institute when he dies and will continue to speak about his own experiences whenever he gets the chance.
“This will be his biggest moment,” said Goulet. “He’s donated his brain to science and he’s going to allow other young people to benefit by it.
“We are doing way too much damage to our brains.”