Can Hockey Be Saved? The Latest on the Concussion Lawsuit

While the NFL has battled the concussion issue for years, the NHL is just beginning to realize the consequences.

Jul 23 2015, 3:13pm

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks offered both thrilling, breakneck speed and disciplined shut-down defense, entertaining fans from every spectrum of hockey fandom. But the team's triumphant journey to the Cup was darkened by the death, in February, of 35-year-old Steve Montador, who played his last NHL game in a Blackhawks uniform.

Montador ingratiated himself to his teammates with a rough style of play at the expense of his future. Call them what you want—enforcers, muckers, grinders, fourth-liners—players like Montador keep their roster spots by sacrificing their bodies rather than scoring goals. They, more than anyone else on the ice, trade their health for a paycheck.

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Montador suffered a concussion on February 7, 2012, and was out of the Hawks lineup for over a month. He returned on March 27 only to get injured again. Montador never played another NHL game, instead spending parts of the next two seasons with the Hawks' AHL-affiliated Rockford IceHogs and the KHL's Zagreb Medvescak.

Through his final years, Montador battled with the ongoing symptoms of a concussion. "He had the traditional symptoms of concussion including depression," his father, Paul, said. "Sensitivity to light and noise, inability to sleep, vertigo, nausea, headaches, he had it all. He had every side effect of concussion. It was not pretty to watch. It was painful to watch him go through that."

He added, "It's difficult to not have anything that could be done about it."

The rise in head trauma suffered by athletes has yet to impact public perception of the NHL the way it has with the NFL, a league now synonymous with tragedy and deceit. But that could change this summer.

The estate of Steve Montador joined more than 70 former players in a lawsuit against the NHL regarding its knowledge of the ramifications of head injuries. The NHL's awareness of the horrific effects of the game may come to light after July 31, when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is deposed in the lawsuit.

Steve Montador's estate joined a lawsuit of more than 70 former players against the NHL. Photo via Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL suffered a public-relations black eye in the wake of lawsuits led by their own players that stemmed from significant head trauma. In a 2013 CNN/ORC poll, 36 percent of respondents said that they viewed the NFL less favorably because of its handling of the concussion controversy.

Hockey could be following a similar path. A 2012 Environics Institute Poll found that 32 percent of Canadians totally agreed with the statement "I am uncomfortable with the violence in hockey," and 33 percent totally disagreed with the statement "Fighting is an acceptable part of hockey." This poll came after the summer of 2011, when noted enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak all died after suffering from depression. But little in the league had changed by the time Montador was facing the same health issues.

After learning of Montador's death, nine-year NHL vet Dan LaCouture felt sick to his stomach. One of Montador's first fights in the NHL, on December 21, 2002, was against LaCouture.

Like many in the league, LaCouture has his own tale of depression, alcohol abuse, and damaging long-term effects of concussions. After suffering what he calls a "traumatic" concussion in 2004, he continued to play on and off for three more NHL seasons, but, LaCouture said, "nothing ever felt normal or clear again."

"I'd leave my bedroom, go to the couch and think, I don't feel well enough to play. But I had no options. I had a disability policy but it would have excluded my head because of my concussions in Pittsburgh. I had no knowledge of any sort of protection from the league in case I didn't feel well enough to come back and play. That is one thing I'm really fighting for to make sure is there for the players, so they don't feel like they have to return and play if they don't feel well enough."

LaCouture says that since 2004 his health has gotten worse. He complains of nausea, sensitivity to light, and irritability. At his lowest points, LaCouture says, he was drinking two bottles of wine an evening to combat the pain. He is now fighting to stay sober.

The news about Montador prompted LaCouture to start asking questions. "What separates myself from Steve or Derek Boogaard? Steve passed away years after Derek. What lessons are being learned? What steps are being taken to prevent this?"

As awareness about head trauma's long-term ramifications increases, more NHL enforcers, including LaCouture, are comparing their own symptoms to those associated with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which Boston University's CTE Center defines as "a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma." A May 12 release from the lawyers representing the Montador estate states that there was "widespread presence" of CTE found in Montador's brain.

Prior to his death, Montador decided to donate his brain to Dr. Charles Tator, who serves as Project Director of the Canadian Sports Concussion Project at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre, in Toronto Western Hospital. "It seemed to him to be a fairly easy decision," Montador's father, Paul, said, adding that Steve made the decision before he began suffering serious side effects of his concussions. "It was something he felt was important to do. He understood that advancing the science was very important."

Paul Montador believes that his son used who he was as an NHL player to work toward changing the game.

"Nobody signs up to play a sport knowing that you could develop CTE and it could kill them. No one would want to do that," Paul said. "Once the evidence started piling up, it became clear he had to do something about it."

Widespread brutality and physical blows to the head are not fundamental aspects of hockey. The former players are hoping the lawsuit brings about change in the way some of the game's most common injuries are treated. This is what motivated Brad Maxwell, a 10-year veteran who is now part of the NHL Alumni Association, to join the suit.

"I have my own issues, but it's more about standing up for other guys and trying to be a leader," he told VICE Sports. "Something needed to be done. I needed to take the bull by the horns."

Maxwell believes that his demands are simple: medical assistance, as the $1,500 (Canadian) pension he claims to receive monthly from the NHL is not enough to live on.

LaCouture suggests the NHL implement a 15-day disabled list similar to that of Major League Baseball. In doing so, LaCouture says, the health of players can then be protected in the long run.

"In the NHL, you could play up to four games in one week," he said. "And a guy will think, I can't miss that much time. There's got to be something there: a formula where a guy has to be able to miss a certain amount of time."

LaCouture wants to see changes in the way the league protects even its lowest-paid players, citing his own experiences in the league.

"I can't finish the rest of the season with a concussion and expect a team to sign me next year," he said. "I can't miss a few months of the season and expect a team to sign me. And that's not even signing for a good amount: you just hope anybody gives you a two-way contract at that point."

Dr. Tator, of the Canadian Sports Concussion Project, believes there is a lot of information available to guide leagues on what can be done to reduce the incidents of concussions. Still, he says, the NHL is in denial about the importance of this issue.

With Bettman's deposition this summer, the doors on this case could be blown wide open. and perhaps even change how hockey is played at its highest level. At this point, you just have to hope it's not too late.

"It's becoming evident we have a problem with certain sports," says Dr. Tator. "I'm optimistic that the game of hockey can be saved."