WASHINGTON – Former professional hockey players and their family members — many with Minnesota connections — are canvassing Capitol Hill this week in hopes of pressuring professional and amateur sports to tighten rules and better protect players.
Those lobbying members of Congress include Len Boogaard, whose son Derek, an enforcer for the Wild, was found dead in May 2011 from an oxycodone overdose. Derek Boogaard suffered multiple concussions and hits during hockey games.
Also speaking out is Jeff Parker, a White Bear Lake native who played hockey professionally for five years. Parker now suffers memory loss and mood swings after a couple of severe head injuries in 1991 that left him with no sense of smell.
“I think they’re turning the other cheek to it,” said Parker, who works as a server at a restaurant in St. Paul. “Hopefully something is done sooner rather than later.”
Former athletes and advocates want members of Congress to recognize the connection between multiple head hits and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that can only be diagnosed after someone dies. Roughly 100 NFL players have been posthumously diagnosed with CTE. So was the NHL's Boogaard.
Doctors across the country are working on research into CTE, and earlier this year the NFL, for the first time, admitted a connection between blows to the head and body in football games and the brain disease.
Retired hockey players have put $100,000 into hiring a Minnesota-based firm, Lockridge Grindal Nauen, to help them with their public awareness efforts.
Earlier this spring, House Republicans held a hearing about concussion research, inviting NHL and NFL officials to weigh in, along with several doctors. U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Tuesday that “much work remains to be done to explore new solutions and, most importantly, advance the public’s awareness of traumatic brain injuries.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., ranking member of the Senate’s Consumer Protection subcommittee, has been sparring with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on the league’s reluctance to embrace CTE connections with brain injuries. In a letter to Blumenthal, Bettman called the research “nascent.” The NHL did not respond to a request for comment.
The NHL recently announced changes to its concussion protocol ahead of the 2016-2017 regular season, including four independent “spotters” who will monitor all NHL games. If they see signs of a concussion after a play, the coach will remove the player from the game.
Parker said on Tuesday he wishes those rules had been in place when he was playing professional hockey. While playing for Hartford in 1991, he hit a pole and was knocked out cold for five minutes, with a cracked helmet, he said. He said he doesn’t remember how long he took off before his next game, but he felt pressure to get back and play because he didn’t have a contract. After taking another hard hit, Parker lost his sense of smell and left the game forever.
The Hill lobbying and a White House visit come as Minneapolis-based lawyers are putting the finishing touches on a class-action lawsuit alleging the NHL knowingly put players at risk for debilitating brain injuries. The NHL moved to dismiss the lawsuit, but Minnesota-based U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson ruled earlier this year that there could be a trial in 2017.
“We’re fighting for the players and trying to prove to the league that yes, players were at extraordinary risk, and yes, the dangers are real and that the players are suffering and we’d like to see them do what they’ve done for football and create a package of protections,” said Charles Zimmerman, the chief lawyer representing the players.
The NFL negotiated a package of benefits for retired football players where everyone gets a baseline test by a neurologist to determine whether they have one of five neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s. A former player with a diagnosis would be compensated based on a schedule of benefits.
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., said on Tuesday that hockey was a “huge part of my life and I still play to this day.”
Emmer heads the House hockey caucus. “We have become more and more aware of the impacts that contact sports can have — especially on our nation’s still developing youth,” he said. “It is important that we look at these effects to raise awareness and to determine what solutions can be found to better protect the generation of tomorrow.”
Tony Sanneh, a former professional soccer player from St. Paul, spent 15 years playing in the U.S. and Europe and was a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team. He runs the Tony Sanneh Foundation now and said on Tuesday he believes more awareness will give way to rule changes.
“We like to be purists, but every game evolves,” Sanneh said. “Everything changes. Someday, hockey may be more of a skill game with no checking or fighting and soccer may be a game with no heading.
“That’s the reality of it. ... The sports weren’t meant to be dangerous. They’re arts. There is a beauty in them that we enjoy, and the best parts of the games are not those pieces.”