I would give back all of my money. I would give back all of the time. You can take my name off the Stanley Cup twice over.
This is what Daniel Carcillo said in his recent piece in The Players’ Tribune.
They can scratch my name off that Cup, and I’d hand my ring back in right now if I could go back and make it so that I wouldn’t have had to experience all this pain and sorrow and anger and sadness. I’d make that tradeoff in a heartbeat.
This is what Nick Boynton also said in his recent piece in The Players’ Tribune.
That’s powerful. Getting your name etched into the Stanley Cup is what hockey players strive for. It’s their ultimate goal. To hear Carcillo and Boynton say these things is truly something. But what exactly is the message they are trying to convey?
What is CTE?
These two former NHL players are attempting to raise awareness about a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE for short. It’s a brain disease associated with violent head trauma. According to this article by the Concussion Legacy Foundation, “CTE is caused by repetitive hits to the head sustained over a period of years. And it’s not just concussions: the best available evidence points towards sub-concussive impacts, or hits to the head that don’t cause full-blown concussions, as the biggest factor.”
Symptoms of CTE include severe depression, anger, mood swings, and memory loss. According to Carcillo, he’s learned that you are 80% more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease if you’ve sustained three or more concussions.
Carcillo and Boynton are both suffering from symptoms of CTE, and are seeking treatment at a facility in Orlando, FL. They released their stories to The Players’ Tribune because they’re trying to protect current hockey players from having to go through the same trials. That’s easier said than done for a few reasons.
The Hockey Culture
Hockey, like football, is a violent sport by nature. Players are taught from the very beginning to be tough, to be warriors, to play through the pain. Let’s face it, you can’t reach the NHL or NFL without an incredible amount of mental and physical toughness. Howard Wright, a former athlete and son of a professional football player with CTE, sums it up best in this interview with The Hockey Writers:
That will be the hardest to overcome. We have our own insecurities and hubris as a player. You are taught and trained “stay in the game, tough it out, shake it off, go back in.” Players live it and it is part of their identity. Its part of the sports psyche.
It’s almost impossible for a player to protect himself because of the idolatry and the way we deify the athlete. All of us want to be champions. The person least likely to ask out of the game is the person we have to protect the most. That is the player. The player is not exonerated from responsibility, but they are the least motivated to tap out.
It’s simply ingrained in these players. Most of them are young, and rich, and living in the moment. They’re not thinking about their quality of life in the future. Just like teenagers (as many of them are), they have the attitude that it won’t happen to them.
This is why they need to hear stories like Carcillo’s and Boynton’s. And they need to be scared. They need to understand that it could happen to them if things don’t change.
Boynton gave a very raw and honest assessment of what kind of player he was:
I tried to hurt people.
That’s what I was there for. A lot of people don’t want to hear that, but it’s the honest truth. So, yes, for instance, I would try to injure you if that was the difference between winning and losing a hockey game. I’d do whatever was asked of me. And I can tell you that, yes, coaches do actually sometimes tap you on the back and tell you to get out there on the ice and fight. Whether you want to believe it or not, it happens.
I’d to it for my team, and, as weird as it sounds, for … the game. Because as best I could tell, being tough, and one guy knocking the snot out of another guy, and showing no mercy, well … those things had always been part of our sport.
An Appeal to NHL Players
It’s time for this culture to change and Boynton thinks the stars of the sport today have the most leverage to make it happen.
And I truly believe it’s going to need to be the superstars of the game driving things. As much as I’d like to believe I have the power to change the world, the reality is that no one in power cares about my complaints. No one’s gonna change league policy because me and Carcillo are pissed.
But at the same time, the potential to make a difference right now is just so great. It’s sitting out there for guys, just waiting for someone to grab hold of and initiate some conversations that will end up saving people’s lives. And at the end of the day, that, more than anything, will be the best thing for this sport. Because this stuff isn’t going away anytime soon, and hockey can either be on the right side of this, or on the wrong side.
Resistance from the NHL and the NHLPA
So far the people in power in the NHL have been on the wrong side of this. Despite evidence to the contrary, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and numerous NHL owners refuse to discuss and continue to deny any link regarding CTE and head trauma from playing hockey. Some go as far as to say they’ve never heard of CTE.
Many think one solution would be to change the rules to include zero tolerance for any hits to the head and for better programs for player awareness and concussion protocol.
But none of this is going to happen with resistance from the NHL and the NHLPA. They first need to acknowledge the situation before they can take steps to improve it. They’re undoubtedly worried about lawsuits and lost proceeds from fans if they take some of the physicality out of the game.
Yes, money is at stake here, but so is the health of countless players. At what point does it make sense to acknowledge the obvious and do the right thing? There’s still plenty of money left to be had.
It takes a lot of courage and strength to do what Carcillo and Boynton are doing. They’re bucking the system and a culture that has been in place since the beginning of the NHL. But they feel speaking out is necessary to maintain the integrity of the sport and they’re trying to save lives.
One final quote, this time from Carcillo:
No, I don’t love the NHL. I love the game of hockey.
For the love of the game and those that play it, let’s hope the message is heard and change is on the way.