On Sep. 19, 2015 former NHL tough man Todd Ewen was working in his front yard in a quiet, upscale St. Louis suburb. He left his car trunk up, the garage door wide open. He went downstairs, got a gun, and inexplicably shot himself in the head. The St. Louis County police report was pretty clear – Ewen’s death was caused by a self-inflicted gunshot.
That part of this story is not under dispute. They are the cold, sad, sobering facts of Ewen’s young existence. He was 49 years old when he died. He left his entire world in shock – especially his wife Kelli, who was left with three young children to raise, and a whole lot of questions about why her husband – once a creative genius and just a beast of a hockey player – killed himself. For me, having consulted with Ewen on a writing project around that time, I was dumbfounded by this tragic and unsettling news.
Kelli is suing the NHL for these very reasons, claiming that her husband suffered the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from his role as an enforcer during his pro career. The lawsuit was entered in California District Court in May 2019, before COVID-19 brought most legal proceedings to a screeching halt around the U.S.
The case has been a back and forth struggle, with unsettling details emerging of a text chain that was alleged to have existed between Kelli and Todd in the moments before his death. She scoffed at the accusation. His widow has been widely quoted on national networks and has become an unlikely spokesperson for CTE in hockey. She has accused NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman of not appropriately addressing the issue, according to a story about her lawsuit.
Upon his death, Kelli took the league’s suggestion to have her husband’s brain examined by a league-approved doctor to look for signs of CTE, her lawsuit alleges. The doctor made her examination and released her report, claiming CTE did not lead to Ewen’s death.
“Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati at the (Canadian Concussion) Centre told Kelli her husband did not have CTE. She was devastated and desperate for an explanation and said she asked the doctor to retest his brain, but Hazrati declined,” according to a “Fifth Estate” article in November 2020 that appeared on the Canadian news outlet web site CBC.ca.
Not satisfied with that answer, Kelli had her husband’s brain re-examined in Boston by Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and director of Boston University’s CTE Center. That second test found that Ewen had indeed suffered from Stage 2 CTE. And that’s where the dispute lies today.
“The NHL’s attorneys argued that Todd Ewen died by suicide because he believed he had CTE, and therefore it would be dangerous for the league to warn players about the disease because they might kill themselves in fear. The NHL contracted 19 expert witnesses, including Hazrati, who in their testimonies injected doubt into the science of CTE,” the Atlantic reported.
Life With CTE
By 2013, Ewen gave up youth coaching because he couldn’t remember plays and was missing practices, according to the CBC.ca article.
“We didn’t know who we had. One day we had the sad Todd, the mad Todd, the angry Todd. We had no idea what was going on. This man suffered for years like this, our family suffered for years like this,” his wife told CBC.ca.
They wondered if he could have Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, but with the loss of Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard, Ewen began to wonder if he could have CTE, the article noted. He told Kelli one day that he didn’t want to be a burden. “At the time, she did not realize the weight of his words.”
“…Todd Ewen suffered repeated hits to the head and concussions not knowing that such hits increased their risk of long-term neurocognitive deficits and disease,” Kelli Ewen’s lawsuit alleges. “Because Todd Ewen was unaware of the dangers of repeated head hits, he continued to participate in fights, continued to play hockey in the NHL, and could not take informed measures to limit the exposure to head hits or ensure he had fully healed before returning to play. Todd Ewen, thereby suffered from numerous head blows as an NHL player, including severe blows to his head during 150 fights he participated in over his 11-season, 546-game career in the NHL. The numerous brutal hits to the head Todd experienced, including many that resulted in concussions, caused Todd to develop CTE and other neurocognitive deficits.”
In a New York Times article examining the case, Ewen had a mean streak. (from ‘Doctors Said Hockey Enforcer Todd Ewen Did Not Have C.T.E. But He Did.,’ New York Times, 11/30/2018) During his career, Ewen, who played for the St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Anaheim Mighty Ducks and San Jose Sharks, broke three knuckles and every finger on both hands. His nose was reconstructed three times and his eye socket was shattered. He blew out both knees. He had multiple concussions, black eyes and stitches on his face. Once, a player punched him so hard the screws on the inside of Ewen’s helmet were driven into his forehead, the article stated.
“Afterward, he became more reclusive,” his widow told the Times. “He started carrying a yellow notepad so he could remember what errands to run. Doctors prescribed anti-depressants, but they made his moods worse, ” she said.
“In the morning, I’d wake up and wonder if I was getting the mad Todd or the sad Todd,” she continued. “Todd knew there was something wrong with Todd. He kept saying, ‘There’s something wrong with my brain, I don’t know what it is, but there’s something wrong.’”
In July 2016, Bettman, the hockey commissioner, in a letter to Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, cited Ewen’s case to blame the news media for getting ahead of the science on the long-term effects of head injuries, the New York Times reported.
According to an SI.com article, quoting the widowed Ewen, Bettman argued for patience. “This, sadly, is precisely the type of tragedy that can result when plaintiffs’ lawyers and their media consultants jump ahead of the medical community and assert, without reliable scientific support, that there is a causal link between concussions and CTE,” Bettman wrote. “Certainly, a more measured approach consistent with the medical community consensus would be a safer, more prudent course.”
From a PR standpoint, it’s just not good optics to argue with a grieving widow.
A Lover and a Fighter
As a young player, one of the first fights Ewen got into on the ice, ironically, was with Red Wings’ bruiser Bob Probert. “As the legend of Probert grew larger on the ice it began to spill over off the ice and into his personal life,” THW reported in November 2020. “Documenting the specifics would be futile at this point but suffice to say there were numerous legal matters and a definitive pattern of substance abuse. While people were heavily judgmental back then, and likely still are, we are now acutely aware of what this larger-than-life figure may have been experiencing,” the article noted.
“Posthumously, doctors at Boston University discovered Probert’s brain had brain bruises,” THW reported. “More specifically, his brain had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or what is now commonly referred to as CTE. The effects of CTE can be both detrimental and degenerative over time. Eventually, the degeneration can lead to behavioral changes and/or anxiety/depressive symptoms. As a result, many victims of brain injury turn to self-medication as a means of coping.”
The similarities to Ewen’s case were stunning, his wife would say in various interviews with American and Canadian media covering the lawsuit.
Ewen was drafted in the eighth round by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. He was dealt to the Blues in 1986 for Shawn Evans. He was moved to Montreal by St. Louis for their third-round choice (previously acquired, St. Louis selected Nathan LaFayette) in the 1991 Entry Draft. At age 26, Ewen helped lift the Stanley Cup as a member of that 1993 Canadiens team that beat the Los Angeles Kings four games to one. Ewen played in just one game in the Final that year.
The Canadiens would send him to Anaheim in 1994 along with Patrik Carnbeck for a third-round pick (Chris Murray). Ewen signed with the San Jose Sharks in 1996, playing in 56 games before retiring. In his 11 years, he played in 518 games, amassing a whopping 1,914 penalty minutes. That ranks him 58th all-time in penalty minutes.
But there was so much more to Ewen than just hockey. There was another side, as detailed in a Baltimore Sun article on him.
“Ewen, 27, has been a cook, a ‘roadie’ with the band Wall Street out of Vancouver, and a pit crew worker on open-wheel cars on the smaller USAC circuits around California. … He’s an artist who has left his mark around the NHL by making little hockey pants out of the white tape trainers use and giving the finished product to small children at the arenas — much to the chagrin of the trainers, whose tape supplies shrink rapidly.” (from ‘Tough guy spins children’s tale,’ Baltimore Sun, 02/15/1994)
He is also a musician and owner of a Stanley Cup ring never wears “because I have great respect for the team I’m on now.”
Going Face to Face with the Animal
Before all of these sensationalized headlines broke – the stories of text messages, and an alleged broken home, and tales of Ewen being just as batshit crazy as a person could be, I met him in the strangest of ways.
As a night student at a university in St. Louis, I took a class with a woman named Jocelyn Twist. We were both adult learners chasing bachelor’s degrees in Media and Public Relations. Socially, we had many friends in common and we talked a lot about hockey over the years. A lot of hockey. Jocelyn was the better half of Blues enforcer Tony Twist, although they were going through a divorce when we became friends. Still, the stories were just golden.
Aside from being incredibly attractive, she was genuine and proud to have been a rink girl growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan, near neighboring Saskatoon. Being from that hockey mecca, she knew just about every hockey player to come out of Sasky. The Saskatoon Factory has produced countless NHL players including Twist, Hall of Famer Bernie Federko, and Ewen, among so many others.
Being poor and an adult college student – let’s face it, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds – I was always looking for side projects to make some spending money. Poor people commonly referred to this as “grocery money.” The former Mrs.Twist and I usually spoke about being broke and divorced and raising kids. One day, she casually mentioned the name, Todd Ewen.
“You should call him,” she said. “He wants to write a book and needs some help. But let me warn you, Todd is all over the place.”
I didn’t pay much attention to her final comment about this hulk of a man. Their kids played youth hockey in west St. Louis County along with many children of NHL veterans who settled in the midwest. That same rink in Chesterfield, MO has seen plenty of pro players develop – including local stars Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), Conor Gartland (Coyotes), Blues announcer Joey Vitale (former Pittsburgh Penguins player), Brady and Matthew Tkachuk (Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames, respectively), and 15-year veteran Paul Stastny (Winnipeg Jets) among others.
You don’t really “meet” with Ewen – you are just in the room as he rants, raves, laughs, chokes up, you name it. I immediately sensed he was an emotional guy – as in high-strung. Yet I never felt threatened in his presence. He was relatively calm this particular Saturday following his son’s practice. He was respectful, if not all over the place, about his plans for his book. It was going to be a youth coaching book. As he spoke in detail of what wanted his book to be, you got the impression he had it already written in his head. That is probably not the safest place for an unfinished manuscript.
“You know, I wrote a children’s book,” he bragged. It caught me completely off-guard for a variety of reasons. First, as a writer, he needed to maybe define his market a little better? Toddlers and hockey strategists are two very different audiences. Second, why take this deep-dive into hockey plays and zone strategies and rolling out effective lines when he surely had some pro player money left the bank? A kids’ book might be an easier sell than say, a compendium of hockey plays designed by goon Todd Ewen.
It was indeed true – the book. He had penned a kid’s book titled Hop–a Frog Who Dared to Be Different.” He dedicated it to sons Tyler and Chad, he told the LA Times. Ewen penned this prologue:
“A story about a frog who has the courage to be different. And about his friends, a dragonfly who reminds us of the importance of sharing our thoughts and fears and a ruffian cat who shows us that we can learn to enjoy and have fun with boys and girls who are different from ourselves.”
As for our meeting, I tried to act impressed, but kid’s books were not my thing. I ended up hemming and hawing with him for a bit about our deal, if not to try and negotiate a payment or some kind of pay structure, but maybe to get a free soda from the snack bar too. Then, his eyes beamed wide and bright, as if he had just licked a nine-volt battery. He suddenly remembered something he brought with him – some sort of Holy Grail thing.
Buried in his messy attache case was a bright blue three-ring binder that was just bursting at the seams. He ripped it from his bag and excitedly thrust it in front of me like a 5-year old showing off a random crayon drawing from kindergarten.
“It’s all here! It’s all here!” he pleaded with me as I aimlessly thumbed through the pages of his work.
Todd Ewen’s Book of Hockey Secrets
When a beast of a man like Ewen shoves a three-ring binder in front of your face, you graciously get settled in because you are about to travel down the wormhole that is Todd Ewen’s hockey mind.
“I’ve been thinking of all these plays and thought to myself I need to write these down,” he said proudly. “They’re all different plays. I diagrammed them out.”
Of the estimated 300 pages in his binder, each page had intricate graphics of hockey plays sketched out in a digital format, and inserted into his Word document. Each diagram in itself told a story, with red lines going this way, blue lines going that way, a scribbled line going around the net, an overly emphasized “X” on the point.
“How did you do all of this?” I asked, wondering if he had access to those crazy new graphic tools called Photoshop, InDesign (Pagemaker at the time), Illustrator, et. al.
“Oh no, I did all of the art myself,” he said.
“But … how?” I asked.
I still remember the words hanging in the air. I am no computer expert, but I do know Microsoft Paint paint has killed many artists’ souls over the years, just as the old Microsoft MovieMaker has often done. How in the heck did he create all of these graphics – in all such great detail – using a rudimentary graphics program like … Microsoft Paint? It didn’t make sense, but as I would learn from others who knew him, not a lot of things made sense with Ewen sometimes.
Even Microsoft knew what a clunker it had in the program. It discontinued that brand in 2017.
“Oh yeah, it took me like 100 hours. I just sat down and (holding his wrist) just drew each diagram out with the computer mouse like this. It took a long time. My hand started cramping up so I had to stop,” he joked.
Writing the Final Chapter
Kelli’s lawsuit against the NHL brass is moving slowly through the legal system. It was scheduled to go to court in September 2020, but the pandemic forced the courts to shift their docket and move hundreds of cases back. Ewen’s is no different, yet this case is so very different.
As far as Todd Ewen goes, I have come to appreciate him as a hockey player, as a writer and as a creative genius. I did not know him outside of my one interaction. However, it was an interaction that was very powerful, and one I would remember for all these years.
I took a glimpse inside the mind of a madman, even for just a few fleeting moments. How he turned mad, and why he fell victim to severe depression, we will never know. The Todd Ewen everyone knew had so much life, this guy I had only briefly visited. It was hard to believe he was dead.
I would call on him several times about the writing project. I took his binder, tried to make sense of it, and had about a thousand follow-up questions, most notably, “WTF?” My calls went unanswered, so my attempts became less frequent. I never knew if he ever got that book written. I didn’t really care that much. I got his binder back to our mutual friend, and I never heard from him again. Not even a thanks, not even a free to-go soda from the snack bar.
It’s fascinating to wonder how history and the NHL will ultimately remember Todd Ewen. Will it be as a proud Stanley Cup Champion, or as a mean, if not reluctant, enforcer, or as a brilliant hockey strategist? Or, perhaps he will be remembered as yet another cautionary tale of a sad beaten-down palooka who just couldn’t deal?
In this story, that is a chapter yet to be written.
Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1