By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Former Boston Bruins enforcer Dan LaCouture has come forward to talk about his post-NHL struggles with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), as well as the alleged negligence of the league when it came to player safety regarding repeated head trauma. But never had he gone as in-depth as he did for a new longform article by TSN senior correspondent Rick Westhead.READ MORE: Tufts University Student Dies After Choking On Hot Dog In Charity Event Contest
The story, titled “Lifetime Penalty,”is a balanced, thorough, and comprehensive account of the ongoing battles of former NHL pros with CTE, the NHL’s failure to properly inform or protect players in the case of head injuries, and the unfortunately prevalent issue of players failing to properly protect themselves from brain damage.
LaCouture, who grew up in Natick, Mass. and played college hockey at Boston University, did not take on the “enforcer” role until he arrived in the NHL. In a 2015 guest column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, LaCouture wrote that he was drafted for his scoring ability but was instructed to “adapt” to more of a fighter role.
LaCouture embraced this transition to the tune of 52 career fighting majors – and, according to him, 18 concussions. Having never fought before entering the NHL, his case is as strong as any that the NHL directly caused – or, in legal terms, was a substantial factor in causing – his extensive brain damage.
In the TSN story, LaCouture goes into more detail about his concussions and the failure of his teams and the league to properly monitor or care for him in the wake of his head injuries. The worst head injury of LaCouture’s career, according to him, came in 2004 when he fought Calgary Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr as a member of the New York Rangers. LaCouture lost his helmet and slammed his unprotected head on the ice, cutting himself open and losing consciousness.
The most disturbing part: according to LaCouture, “There was no CT scan, no appointment with a neurologist, no close monitoring by the Rangers’ team doctor or medical trainer.”
LaCouture’s ex-wife Bridey said the team “sent him home with me and basically said keep an eye on him.” He said the pressures of playing out his contract forced him back on the ice too soon, which opens up another complex issue permeating the lawsuit pitting 100 former NHL players against the league: the reluctance of hockey players to admit they are hurt.
Not only are hockey players inherently tough, rugged men, they play with a tremendous amount of pride. Many of them feel they would be letting their teammates down if they took themselves out of a game or reported an injury that would usually require a trip to the locker room or a stint on Injured Reserve. Others do not want to have multiple concussions on their record and thus garner the appearance of “damaged goods” or less attractive commodities for potential employers.READ MORE: Massachusetts Unemployment Rate Up To 5.2%, Slightly Higher Than National Average
Former NHL defenseman Phil Bourque, 53, says he experiences early-onset symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease such as “abnormally long” memory loss, and that he “probably lied to the trainer numerous times” and that he always returned to the ice sooner than he should have because he feared for his job.
The article also concerns the struggles of former NHL enforcer Mike Peluso, who has spoken out about his post-hockey mental health and starkly declares “I will die young.” There’s a story about former Bruin Shayne Stevenson, whom the Bruins and coach Mike Millbury forced back on the ice after suffering a concussion. He suffered a second head injury during that game, which when occurring in such close proximity to the first poses serious health threats.
The story details several internal emails between NHL executives, including commissioner Gary Bettman, that implied a culture of ignorance and prioritization of the product over the long-term health of the players delivering it. Westhead says the emails could be the “smoking gun” that the players need in the lawsuit.
Both sides of the problem conflated in the case of Dennis Wideman, who deliberately hit linesman Don Henderson from behind shortly after taking a big hit. The NHL later confirmed Wideman had a concussion, but the trainer’s notes from the game read “cleared,” indicating that Wideman had returned to his senses and could continue to play in the game. Other notes from trainers and spotters said that Wideman, who repeatedly refused medical attention soon after the incident, had visual signs of a concussion, which should have removed him from the game.
The worst person to ask if he is concussed is the person suffering from it. Concussions affect judgment in addition to memory and speech, among other basic human functions. A player may genuinely believe he is not concussed; in the case of the NHL, he may recognize the injury but hide it to preserve his presence on the ice and professional livelihood.
As much as the NHL may have shown reckless disregard and blatant ignorance in the treatment of players with head injuries, the players also need to understand the consequences of concussions and the debilitating long-term effects of head injuries that are not properly treated. They transcend personal pride.
However, if Wideman’s case, and that of LaCouture, Bourque, Peluso and others, is any indication, then it’s incumbent upon the league to remove all responsibility for concussion treatment from the hands of the players. Wideman should have spent the end of that game in a quiet room, not on the bench.
The former players involved in the lawsuit may have a case, but ultimately, they have a culture of their own that they need to amend if they care about their long-term mental health. It’s for their own good, and for the good of the game.MORE NEWS: Boston Wine Store Earns 'Small Business Of The Year' Award From US Chamber Of Commerce
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.