Rick Rypien. Wade Belak. Derek Boogaard. Steve Montador. Top line athletes, that all died at the height of their careers. Hockey is an intense sport, physically and mentally. With the current scale of the NHL, the need to perform consistently and flawlessly must be intense. Pressure can lead to stress, fatigue; isolation and travelling can lead to depression. It’s no wonder that the NHL has one of the worst cocaine problems in professional sport.
In 2009, a fierce battle with depression forced Paul Ranger to walk away from Tampa Bay and the NHL, citing ‘personal reasons’ at the time:
“You know there’s an old saying, the light’s at the end of the tunnel, right? I could no longer see the light. It was gone.”
Paul Ranger, January 2018, in an interview with TSN’s Darren Dreger.
And a heartbreaking read in the Players Tribune in 2017 saw Corey Hirsch detail his struggles with OCD and suicidal thoughts:
“…as soon as I got back to my locker after a game, the cycle would start all over again.
Hammering, hammering, hammering.
Darkness. Disgust. Shame. Anxiety.
I had no idea where to even begin looking for help.”
Enforcers seem to be understandably vulnerable; Derek Boogaard’s family attribute his overdose to the chronic pain caused by repeated head trauma. On paper, he had 3 serious concussions in his career. However, when told by a doctor that ‘a concussion is when you get hit in the head and black out for a minute…like “Whoa, what just happened?”‘. He responded that if that was the case, he must have had hundreds. (John Branch, ‘Boy On Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard’)
Daniel Carcillo, ex Blackhawk, has announced this week that he is suing the NHL. He cites depression, anxiety, moodswings, slurred speech and problems sleeping, amongst his host of symptoms that he believes to have been caused by repetitive brain injuries. He states that information was ‘witheld’ from him during his time in the league, and that the people running the NHL need to ‘step up’ and provide specialised care to protect the ‘best athletes in the world’. (Daniel Carcillo, speaking to Players Tribune in 2018)
So, does hockey attract the depressed and the vulnerable, or is professional hockey poor for mental health? On one hand, ice hockey is renowned for a sense of family and community – people could be seeking out that security from a fanbase, leading to a skewed population density. On the other, high speed collisions and knocks to the head can lead to various mood disturbances, as well as other symptoms (more on that later).
In short, I don’t have an answer for you (however, it would be interesting to see levels of depression and mental ill-health compared across multiple sporting organisations). Maybe it’s even got nothing at all to do with hockey – after all, depression is the most common mental illnesses worldwide. It could just be that athletes are human, and so are susceptible to human illnesses.
It’s a question that is far, far above my pay grade. I’m sure there’s real research in the subject out there (I’ve left some links at the end if you’re interested). However, while we’re here, let’s look at things at a surface level.
What sets ice hockey apart from all other sports?
In 2011, Sidney Crosby received a blow to the head that put him out of action for almost 2 seasons. At the time, there were comments on fan forums, calling him a cry baby, ‘he needs to man up’, its just a bump to the head, right?
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that affects brain function. The are primarily caused by large blows to the head, which causes the brain to shake inside the skull, releasing electrical and chemical signals inside the brain. Cellular damage causes neurones to demand more energy to function, and cease communicating with each other – which causes the difficulties in thinking, movement, etc.
Imagine holding a glass of water driving down the motorway, and then doing an emergency stop. The water would be all over you, the floor, the seat – the force of the sudden stop would spill it everywhere. Your brain acts a bit like that in a concussion – however there’s nowhere for it to go. It’s contained within the skull, and that bouncing around is what causes the symptoms of a concussion – ranging from dizzyness to loss of memory, vision problems and unconsciousness.
One of the reason concussions are causing such a problem for professional sport is that they are hard to diagnose, and rely on the injured person self reporting their injury. If an athlete has a suspected broken leg, there’s physical signs of a broken leg. There will be bruising, the leg will look broken. It can be X-rayed to confirm the magnitude of the break, the location. It can be put in a cast, physiotherapy can assist in mobility. With concussions, treatment options are much more limited. However, the recievement of those treatments relies on the injuried part reaching out and saying they are injured. The pressure to perform could be preventing athletes form speaking out – which can put them at risk of further damage. Interestingly, the sport with the highest reported level of concussions is Women’s Ice Hockey, with almost double the reported number of incidences. This is strange – most women’s ice hockey is non checking, afterall. This discrepancy could be due to men being less likely to talk about how they feel, particularly in regards to health – as backed up by depression statistics comparing sexes
Symptoms can range from unpleasant to severe, thankfully most cases only last for days to weeks. However, repeated concussions can lead to further complications, including a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalography, or CTE. Symptoms are much more severe, including mood instability, balance problems, slurred speech and difficulty thinking, over long periods of time. Additionally, three or more major concussions increases the risk of developing disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, early onset Alzheimers and Dementia by 80%.
Okay, but lots of fast sports are high contact. So why does this problem seem particularly prevalent in ice hockey?
Firstly, the sport isn’t just fast. American Footballers also have a problem with concussions, their players collide often, running at full speed. However, hockey players are moving faster, and so can hit harder, causing more damage.
On top of the increased force, players collide with that force frequently, plus boarding is a valid concern, plus fights are more common in hockey. A top of the line professional boxer will fight 2-3 times per year – as much as the ‘Goon’ role seems to be dying out, enfourcers and ‘tough-guys’ can see upwards of 20 fights a season. If we minimise the risk to boxers by limiting their fights, how can we protect our hockey fighters? (If you’re interested, I recommend the 2016 documentary Ice Guardians for more information on the risks of the enforcer role.)
With increased knowledge and research, athletes are becoming faster, stronger; they can jump father, hit harder. These leaps and bounds are great for the sport – but evolution simply cannot catch up. Techniques and equipment are developing much faster than biology can – leaving athletes at risk
So what can we do?
Again, I don’t have a full answer. Whilst this is a problem affecting all sports, I personally believe the NHL needs to take steps to protect its athletes. The National Football League has a sideline concussion test; if a player recieves a blow to the head, tests are performed for balance and cognitive ability – to return to play, the must have no symptoms concurrent with brain injury. The NHL policy simply insists that a player is examined by a team doctor – causing controversy, as the doctor is not working independently.
At a grass roots level, players (and fans) need to be educated on what a concussion is, the symptoms, the risks. We need to treat brain injuries as seriously as strains and fractures. I’ve said many times in this article, I don’t have the answers. But our only hope of finding them lie in transparency and collaboration between those running the show, and the players they represent.
For anyone looking for help but doesn’t know where or how to start, here’s some resources, consider this a sign.
UK – Samaritans – 166 123
Scotland – 0800 83 85 87
USA – 1-800-273-8255