Hockey's Historic Highlights

Concussions in Hockey Nothing New

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand


Concussions in Hockey Nothing New

Posted December 30, 2017

Viewed 861 times

Ace Bailey and Eddie Shore
Ace Bailey and Eddie Shore 

In hockey circles the subject of concussions just won’t go away. As this is being penned Toronto’s best player, Auston Matthews has just made his return to action after missing six games with what was described as “concussion-like symptoms”; but later admitted to being the real thing. Michal Rozsival is on a long-term injury list; Al Montoya, who was hurt on (probably) November 4 is out “indefinitely”; and Marc Savard’s fantastic seven-year, $28 million dollar contract, ran out at the end of the 2016-17 campaign. He had been sitting idle with post-concussion symptoms for five seasons. Clarke MacArthur missed the majority of two seasons, getting into only four matches in 2016-17, plus 19 post-season games. He will not play this season—and probably never again—this following several concussions.

   And now, the scholarly Ken Dryden, tired of hearing about players’ careers ending, and their personal lives disrupted by headaches, memory loss, and depression, has published a book entitled Game Change. It went on sale in October.

   The former Hall-of-Fame netminder turned lawyer, carefully compiles historical league records, personal testimonies from victims, and medical research—which has, over the last two decades been dissected and rehearsed from every possible angle—and appeared in print for access by those who care.

   Some recent revelations posted are these:

**More than 100 former players are suing the NHL, claiming the league was negligent about not informing them of the dangers of concussions and brain injuries like CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).

**The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatrystudied 33 retired NHL players. 59% of them experience disorders, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

**The Atlantic, in questioning how serious the league was about dealing with the whole head injury problem, reported that in one seven-year period, there were 559 concussions suffered by NHL players.

**At least seven top-flight skaters have been forced into retirement because of head trauma resulting from concussions. This includes Eric Lindros, Pat LaFontaine, Keith Primeau, Paul Kariya, Adam Deadmarsh, Mike Richter, and Scott Stevens.

**There are strong cases for deaths having resulted from concussions suffered during playing careers. Wade Belak, Reggie Fleming, Todd Ewen, and Derek Boogaard are singled out. But the one on which Dryden turns the spotlight is Steve Montador. Living with the demons associated with this long-lasting trauma, he had already arranged for this brain to be sent for examination. Indeed, the autopsy showed he was a victim of CTE.

   Many feel that the league’s efforts to deal with his epidemic of physical and emotional hardships have been feeble at best.

   In 1997, the powers-that-be supposedly launched a study of the problem. Little changed when it came to the reduction of hitting from behind into the boards and similar infractions—with suspensions like a mere two games handed out for serious long-term injuries. 

  In March of 2010, the meeting of NHL managers in Boca Raton declared “concussions is the first order of business!” Indeed, the following season commenced with a new rule in effect dealing with hits to the head. Ironically, 31 players reported to had their “bell rung” during the course of that schedule.

   In the meantime, charges and countercharges have rebounded back and forth between the league and the NHLPA. For instance, TSN’s Rick Westhead, who has thoroughly researched the controversy, spotlights contrary stances held by the two sides.

  He claims to have unearthed information which indicates that a number of requests for the NHL to put more effort into resolving the concussion issue have been ignored.

  Contrariwise, spokesmen for the loop insist that the NHLPA have repeatedly interfered with attempts to introduce new rules, especially about the fighting element in this issue, which is one cause of blows to the head and resulting concussions.

  Recently the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto has become involved in studying long-term chronic aftermath of this kind of injury. They are concluding that there is NOT concrete evidence of significant lingering brain damage as the result of hits to the head.

  But several retired NHL’ers could care less about that so-called “research”. They only know from their own experience that the aftermath of concussions is very real. Scott Thornton has been singled out as a typical example. In an interview he recalls having had either “seven or eight” K.O.’s. With him the lingering effects included headaches, confusion, failure to recall words and the names of teammates. He pointed to acquaintances having had seizures, mood swings, throwing up between shifts—and home life being disrupted when the noise of children playing drove men to distraction.

   One of the worst scenarios involves Kevin Kaminsky. For him, having his head hammered once too often has brought something akin to terror. On one occasion, with his fist cocked, he grabbed his 4-year-old daughter, ready to nail her.

   The list is almost endless. And in every case, distress is the common denominator.

   In the 2011 issue of the Hockey News Yearbook, Adam Proteau focused on “Concussed—Truths and Myths”. Pinpointing Sidney Crosby’s experience, which was current at the time, as a typical example of the ongoing crisis, he acknowledged that “NHL’ers have been dealing with the issue for more than a decade!”  

   But, in reality, this fly-in-the-ointment goes back much further than that. While being knocked on the noggin began to receive significant attention in the nineties, even this scrutiny falls far short of fully surveying the dilemma. Because, while these injuries were nearly always minimized, they were still there. So, in a word, concussions in hockey are not new! In shinny’s fledgling years, that term was not even used to describe the results of flagrant blows to the cranium by opponents during heated competition. 

   On January 13, 1907, the Montreal Star reported: “’Baldy’ Spittal deliberately brought his stick down with all force on Blanchford’s head… blood poured on the ice!”

  A detailed account of an accompanying atrocity described Ottawa’s Alf Smith making a beeline across the ice, without any apparent provocation, to clobber big Hod Stuart across the forehead. He dropped, looking like a dead man, and was carried from the ice. He didn’t know what happened to him for 10 minutes.

  In the December 16 issue of the Toronto Star, Stephen Smith claims that the first recorded NHL concussion took place the night the league played its initial contests. In Montreal, the Wanderers handed the Toronto squad a 10-9 defeat. During the penalty-filled contest, the Redband’s Harry Hyland tallied five goals. The game report also pinpoints his being bonked on the beano, and knocked out. However, the term “concussion” is not used. In the Globe and Mail the injury doesn’t even warrant any ink.

    It wasn’t until 1923 that reports describing this ordeal specifically began to appear in game reports. On March 7, during that campaign, the Canadien’s Billy Coutu pole-axed Ottawa’s Cy Denneny cutting him for stitches, and “causing a concussion”.

  During a Toronto-Detroit game on February 13, 1928, “Doc” Bill Carson lost his balance and catapulted into the Detroit Cougars’ “Puss” Traub, and suffered a “damaged skull”—a 4-stitch gash, a “brain concussion”, and a “possible slight fracture of the skull”.

  As time passed, this diagnosis became commonplace in post-game descriptions relating to head injuries. The inimitable “Hooley” Smith made the headlines at least four times because of his knotted noggin, twice in 1929 alone. On one occasion, he banged it hard against the goal post when he slid into the iron frame of the cage. On another, he was clouted over the head with an opponent’s stick, and taken to the hospital. His most notable incident took place a decade later, when he had moved from the Maroons to the Americans. One night he wheeled around the goal only to be met with a crushing check from Brian Hextall. He described the aftermath as “hearing the birdies sing!” A year later he had a repeat performance!

  One of the least publicized injuries of this kind involved Eddie Shore. Because of his bashing of “Ace” Bailey to the ice in that infamous December 1933 Boston/Toronto clash, and the subsequent near-death saga of the Toronto player, it is usually forgotten that the “Edmonton Express” also suffered a concussion. “Red” Horner reacted to Eddie’s treatment of his teammate, and clubbed the Bruin defender, causing him to fall backwards and hit his head. Interestingly enough, when Shore returned to action after his suspension, he was sporting a red helmet, which he wore the rest of his career.

  The boisterous Bruin was also instrumental in putting the Maroons’ Jimmy Ward in the hospital—but on January 22, 1935, it was unintentional. The two collided, with the latter’s head hitting the playing surface with a sickening thud. He collapsed on the bench and was rushed into surgery. It was feared it might be a repeat of the Bailey incident; but he was soon out of danger. He was sidelined for 3 weeks.

   Another victim of scrambled grey matter was the “Mighty Mite”, Aurèle Joliat. On November 19, 1937, the Habs’ speedy forward met the elbow of “Buzz” Boll who, at that time, was sporting the colours of the Maple Leafs. The blow threw him to ice, where his head hit the hard surface, cutting him for several stitches. He was finished for that game, and, when Manager Cecil Hart was contacted about him the next day, he reported he was still bedridden. When he returned to action, he had traded his traditional little black cap for a helmet.

   That same campaign, during the Stanley Cup playoffs, both the Ranger’s Alex Shibicky and Ott Heller waited anxiously for medical clearance to play the next game against the Red Wings. They had experienced “brain concussions” in the preceding game two nights earlier.

   The 1940’s saw no less incidents of this kind. One of the earliest hurts took Gordie Drillon, the last Maple Leaf to win an NHL scoring championship, out of commission. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Toronto sniper slid into the goal post and incurred the damage. Injury-prone, he was traded to Canadiens in 1942, where he experienced his second concussion in February 1943, but missed only one contest.    

  Ted Lindsay, hockey’s tempestuous teapot from 1944 through 1965, came out on the short end of a confrontation with big “Butch” Bouchard’s stick in December 1945. At first it was feared he had a fractured skull—but further tests revealed only a concussion. He missed but a couple of games.

   They didn’t come any tougher than Murph “Old Hardrock” Chamberlain. During a game in Detroit in 1946, he took a tumble and hit his head—hard! “That ice can get awfully hard!”, he confessed. “I got up and played the rest of the game—and the next game too. But I didn’t know much of anything for four days!”

  The list of concussion victims in the Fabulous Fifties reads like a shinny’s Who’s Who. Several name players experienced head trauma as a result of various adverse contacts—opponents’ bodies, fists, or the playing surface.

  One of the earliest such incidents involved Gordie Howe. In the opening game of the 1950 semi-finals between Toronto and Detroit, a near tragedy took place. Howe attempted to bodycheck the Leaf’s Ted Kennedy, but the latter saw him coming, and pulled up. “Mr. Hockey” missed his target and crashed into the boards. He was rushed to the hospital with a broken cheek bone and nose, and a suspected concussion. In reality, his skull was fractured, an injury which nearly took his life. Despite the aversion to headgear during that era, the big guy donned a helmet for several contests.

  He was forced to repeat the wearing of this unpopular equipment in January 1961, when he returned from a concussion-induced 10-day layoff. There is a rare photo which features the all-time superstar sporting leather headgear.

  The above-mentioned “Teeder” Kennedy, the hard-working captain of the Maple Leafs, himself suffered this injury. In a rough match against Boston on January 2, 1953, he and his Bruin counterpart, Milt Schmidt, tangled. They were separated but sparred a second time. This time the Beantown centre wrestled Kennedy to the ice. He struck his head and was rendered unconscious. He also broke his collar bone.

  In November 1954, the Habs’ Paul Meger tripped over Leo Labine’s stick and slammed his head on the ice. The diagnosis was a “skull fracture”! Three months later he was still convalescing in hospital, having been told he would play no more that season. 

  Without a doubt, the most daring of all victims of this cranial derangement has to be Charlie Burns. At the start of the 1954-55 Junior “A” season, he suffered a double skull fracture, and was at death’s door. It was assumed he would never play hockey again. But doctors inserted a steel plate in his head, and by the next campaign he was back on the ice. In November 1959, as a member of the Bruins, he dropped his head momentarily and was given a clean check by Pierre Pilote of Chicago. He struck his head on the ice and was hospitalized with brain trauma.

   The 1960’s saw Fred Hucul, Kenny Wharram, goalies Eddie Johnston and Pete Peeters, and Gordie Howe (again), sidelined for varying amounts of time as they had their “bells rung”. Camille Henry, Dick Duff, Ron Ellis, and Paul Henderson were others who joined the parade of concussion victims.

  During the initial year of that infamous decade, Dickie Moore was an early victim in scary business of beano bumps. He spent ten days in the hospital recuperating but, typical of pucksters of that era, he was released to play after missing eight contests. The doctor, however, had stipulated that he must wear a helmet or he could not give him his blessing. Also typically, “Toe” Blake insisted that if he donned headgear he would not allow him to dress! So, he complied! “After all!”, he commented, “It was only my head!”  

  To be sure, the strangest episode saw “Gump” Worsley forced to leave a game in 1967 when he was hit with an egg thrown from the stands, hitting him on the noodle. As usual, the happy-go-lucky backstop made light of it all—he pondered whether it might have been “soft-boiled, or hard-boiled”. But, he concluded, it must have been the latter—“like most of the Madison Square Garden sporting crowd!”

   With good reason, red flags began to flutter in the 1970s. Violence in general, spurred by the Broad Street Bullies’ approach to the game, began to arouse negative reactions in several quarters. The press, and hence shinny fandom, and even the law became aware that there were just “too many” instances where serious damage was being inflicted on player’s top stories.

     On November 5, 1975, Dan Maloney pounced on Brian Glennie from behind, dropped him with a punch, then repeatedly pounded him, then dropped him by the scruff of the neck as he lay prone on the ice. Glennie was hospitalized with a concussion.

    Ontario Attorney-General, Roy McMurtry, having seen enough of hockey’s mayhem, had Maloney charged with “assault causing bodily harm”! He was acquitted (although he was not allowed to play in Toronto for two years). But this miscarriage of justice seemed only to encourage more of the same conduct.

   In March of 1978, Dennis Hextall rammed Gary Doak’s face into the boards, sending him to hospital with various hurts, including a concussion. As payback, Boston’s Terry O’Reilly pole-axed Hextall when the Bruins returned to Detroit in the fall, prompting him to see more stars than he could on a clear night in the desert. He continued his destructive assaults a short while later by smashing Brian Engblom into the glass from the side. The Habs’ defenseman testified that after the blow, the last thing he remembered from that evening was the whistle blowing to stop the play. Needless to say—this spelled “concussion” once more!

   The scariest incident, which took place that same season, in fact, involved the Isle’s Wayne Merrick, who impaled himself on his own stick, which threw him to the ice, banging his head. He began convulsing, gnashing his teeth, which resulted in several cuts to his tongue.  

    In a feeble effort to apply a band aid solution to these out-of-hand debacles, in 1979 the NHL legislated the mandatory wearing of helmets for all newcomers to the league. The intent seemed to be that when noggins were banged, the headgear would absorb the majority of the shock and put an end to the avalanche of headaches.

  The ineffective result is spelled out in recent history. Better helmets, increased suspensions for blindsiding and hitting from behind—nothing has really helped—as the aforementioned statistics affirm.

  Herein lies a mystery. It appears that with hard hats becoming the norm on the pay-for-play scene, concussions—or at least significant head trauma—have, if anything, increased, rather than decreased.

  Were heads harder in the days leading up to, during, and for a baker’s dozen years following the “Original 6” timeline? Was the ice softer?

  Part of the answer could well be, as former NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell contends: “In the old days one might have a concussion and not realize it. You got hit, went back to bench, and the trainer held up his hand asking, ‘How many fingers do you see?’ If you gave the right count, you got back on the ice!” Former Maple Leafs GM, Brian Burke adds: “….you puked, waited for the cobwebs to clear. The trainer gave you one of little ammonia sniffers—and you went back on!” 

  This theory is that many skaters were unaware of what really had happened to them, and just played through the aftermath.  

    However, such an explanation falls far short of the obvious question: “Why no long-lasting repercussions in those ‘old days’?” Why no continuing dizzy spells, depressions, sensitivity to noise, and memory loss? There has been only one well-documented record of a player from the “golden years” having any lasting effects. It emanates from an interview by Mike Ulmer with Jack McLean, who skated with Toronto for three seasons in the mid 1940’s. “Repeated concussions left enough scar tissue to create a tumour in his skull”, reported the freelance journalist and author. However, this in no way impeded McLean’s pursuit of a career in engineering when he hung up his blades. As well, he was as sharp as a tack when the interview took place.

  Doctors, who have studied the phenomenon in recent years since post-concussion effects have become so significant, have drawn two conclusions:

Players are much bigger and stronger than they were in past years. As well, the speed of the game has picked up considerably. This combines to create a much greater force of impact. (it might be added that in bygone days there was usually only one force to contend with—that of the body check from one’s opponent. Now there is the increased force of the check plus the sudden stop when hitting the boards or the ice).

Dr. Pat Bishop, while conducting a Hockey Canada Seminar in Winnipeg recently, contended: “There is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet!”

  Yet, countless players from past eras suggest that the wearing of headgear has prompted the lack of respect for opponents. Even though 26 percent of such injuries are reported as being “accidental”, cheap shots—elbows to the head, late hits when skaters have relaxed their guard, and checking into the boards from behind—account for the continuing number of unnecessary injuries.

   Hockey concussions new? Hardly! But their frequency and their severity—now that’s a different story!

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