As a young kid from Canada, all I ever wanted to do was play hockey. I was fortunate enough that my dreams came true and that I was able to have a successful, 10-year career in the National Hockey League — the pinnacle of our sport.
Hockey is obviously tough and physically demanding, which is why players and fans alike love the game. We all expected that our joints, muscles and bones would be subject to injury. But what I, and thousands of other NHL players, did not know about were the long-term effects of repeated hits to our heads. We knew hockey could damage our bodies physically, but never expected it could damage us mentally and lead to a host of cognitive and neurological conditions years after we left the game.
As president of the Minnesota NHL Alumni Association, I have seen firsthand the toll these head hits have taken on former NHL players. My former teammates suffer daily from the effects of countless head injuries: memory loss, depression, insomnia, migraines. Many aren’t able to control their tempers, and that seems to be getting worse with time. In some cases, former players aren’t able to perform everyday tasks that most take for granted. As the medical bills pile up, they worry about how to provide for their families — while they still know who their families are.
Today, I frequently experience memory loss as a result of my injuries from playing in the NHL, and I worry every day that my condition will only get worse. We are all faced with an uncertain future, concerned about our increased risk for neurocognitive diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as we get older. CTE is the brain disease suffered by former National Football League players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, both of whom committed suicide. (Their gunshot wounds were to the chest so that their brains could be studied to find out the reason why they were in such emotional turmoil.) CTE is also the same disease suffered by Derek Boogaard, a left winger for the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers and a well-known fighter who died in 2011 at age 28 of an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone.
This was the reason I joined the concussion lawsuit against the NHL, to compel the league to do the right thing by its retired players. Yet instead of doing the right thing, the NHL is scheduled to argue in a federal courthouse on Thursday, Jan. 8, in Minnesota that this lawsuit should be dismissed. In short, the league shamefully wants complete immunity after failing to warn its players about the long-term consequences of head injuries when it was in a position to do so.
During my career, my coaches wanted me to play an intense and physically aggressive game. I was frequently told to “go out and get that guy,” essentially using my body as a weapon against opponents. Over the course of my career, I fought in dozens of altercations at the behest of my coaches. Every one of those punches and bodychecks added up.
I suffered at least three or four concussions in my NHL career, and many other head hits, but I never missed substantial playing time because of these serious brain injuries. Team doctors never suggested that I receive a medical evaluation or take some time off. After those times when I’d had my “bell rung,” my only treatment was to wait it out — which often meant a few line shifts, not days or weeks to let my brain heal.
The NHL condones and promotes brutality in a way like no other sport. Only the NHL allows — even encourages — players to fight each other and put their health and safety on the line. The league believes that skill and athleticism go hand in hand with violence — and in fact has glorified it and used it as a marketing tool.
More concerning than the NHL’s support of this violent culture is how it sought to hide and downplay the health risks of playing under these brutal conditions. The league never told its players that we were at risk for long-term brain damage and diseases, despite mounting medical evidence suggesting otherwise. Even today the NHL refuses to admit that concussions cause long-term neurological harm.
The NHL calls its alumni “hockey’s greatest family,” yet it refuses to care for the men who made the game what it is today. We fought each other when the NHL asked us to. Now, retired players fight together for the security and care we need and rightfully deserve.
Brad Maxwell, president of the Minnesota NHL Alumni Association, played 10 seasons in the National Hockey League as a defenseman with the Minnesota North Stars, Quebec Nordiques, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers. He lives in Elko New Market.