The NHL Needs to Take Action Now on Concussions

I suffered my first concussion when I was 11 years old.

I remember it well, a kid twice my size barreling down along the boards, teaching me a lesson I wouldn’t soon forget: keep your head up. Still, you can’t dodge every hit in a game as fast as hockey.

A few years later, looking for a pass across the middle, I took a shoulder to the head. Though visibly confused, I attempted to finish the shift. The coach called me to the bench, gave me a couple of tablets of Advil, and told me to sit a few shifts before going back out.

The last memorable concussion I had came in the second-to-last game I ever played. I collided with a defenseman who had at least a hundred pounds on me, made it back to the bench, and fell into a rack of sticks. As usual, once my vision cleared, I tried to get back out, but the nausea was overwhelming. I took off my gear and watched the rest of the game from the stands. Still, I played again the next day.

Unfortunately, my story is a common narrative. Hockey, like football, has a concussion problem reaching epidemic levels, and I’m confused by the lack of urgency expressed by leagues as they look for solutions.

As fans, we have a responsibility to be more than passive observers. As lawyers and law students, we should demand legal action and policy change to protect athletes and the kids who idolize them from the devastating effects of concussions, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

In recent years, professional leagues have bolstered concussion evaluation protocol, while some youth leagues have upped the age at which contact is introduced. However, I’m not sure it is enough. With countless former players battling CTE , I wonder how many more we will lose before real change is made.

Thinking back through my short-lived hockey career, it is hard to justify my decision to continue playing as long as I did. I was just a kid who loved the game – the NHL wasn’t exactly on my radar. Yet, the bruises, breaks, sprains, and maybe even the lacerated spleen wouldn’t stop me from doing it all over again.

The concussions, however, are concerning.

After I’d hung up the skates and moved on to college, I struggled with headaches and vertigo, and still wonder what damage may have been done in the short decade I dedicated to the game I loved. I can only imagine how much more concerning it is to face these problems night after night as a professional player, especially at the age of 35 or 40 when life without hockey is on the horizon.

To stay silent while your employees are consistently endangered would be considered intolerable in nearly every other profession, yet a ‘wait and see’ attitude persists in the sports world. I’ve waited and I’ve seen players I admired growing up, such as Paul Kariya, forced out of the game by head injuries. We’ve waited and seen enforcers of the past like Derek Boogard and Steve Montador tragically lost after battles with CTE.

If the league keeps waiting, I don’t want to think about what we will see a few decades down the line.  

I’ve heard one of the first steps to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The NHL should take note. Instead of waiting to see how the NFL deals with concussion prevention, the NHL should use its opportunity to be a leader in the field, setting an example for the rest of the professional sports world by making player safety a priority.

The jury is in on CTE. There is a clear and convincing verdict suggesting more needs to be done to prevent concussions and the aftermath of repeated head trauma. For the sake of the game and those who play it, concussion prevention needs to become a priority. I’m done waiting. I’ve seen enough. Let’s hope the league has too.