My career was cut short because the NHL encouraged violence and ignored the consequences
April 5, 2015 12:00 AM
Pacific Trading Card
Dan LaCouture, Pittsburgh Penguins (2001-2003).
By Dan LaCouture
Hockey is in my blood. Growing up in Natick, Mass., as the son of a high school hockey coach and with two brothers who eventually played professionally, I always knew that hockey was my future.
What I didn’t know were the catastrophic consequences I would face from playing the sport to which my family and I dedicated our lives.
Today, I am 37 years old and unable to play professional hockey because of the symptoms I experience from the multiple blows to the head I suffered while on the ice. But the inability to play hockey professionally is the least of my worries.
I have debilitating headaches, nausea and motion sickness every day. I am always irritable. And with recent studies showing the shattering illnesses linked to traumatic brain injury, along with the recent news of National Hockey League legend Stan Mikita’s unfortunate battle with dementia, I fear worse symptoms are yet to come.
In 1996, I achieved the dream of playing professionally when I was drafted 29th overall into the NHL. While I was hired based on my ability to score goals, in the pros I was told my career depended on adapting my game. I soon learned that I had to play the “enforcer” role to stay on the team.
I found this surprising, but it was business as usual in the NHL. The league encouraged and glorified fighting, which was unlike anything I had experienced because this is not how hockey is played on the way up — nor is it important to the sport. Many of my teammates and I felt daily pressure to fight just to get more time in the game and a place on the score sheet. I had to fight or risk losing my job.
My most serious concussion occurred in 2004 during a game at Madison Square Garden when I jumped into a fight to defend a Rangers teammate who had been hit from behind. During the brawl, my helmet slipped off and I split my head open on the ice as another player landed on top of me. The next thing I remember was being lifted off the ice by teammates and trainers. I got some stitches but never received an MRI, a CAT scan or serious medical treatment of any kind.
Not surprisingly, being an enforcer, I sustained multiple concussions during my time in the NHL — 15 to 20 all told. And that doesn’t include the countless blows to the head that did not result in a “typical” concussion.
Usually, I got back on the ice immediately following these hits, not knowing the long-term consequences of failing to let my brain properly heal. While players with multimillion-dollar contracts can afford to take time off from playing, most of us never had that luxury. As a fourth-line player most of my career, taking long periods of time off could be a career killer.
My story is not unusual among professional hockey players. The NHL for years denied the link between hits to the head and devastating neurological disorders. It concealed information from players. It has treated concussions like an injured shoulder or a bruised knee — shake off the pain, play through it. It has ignored its duty to protect its players.
As players in the world’s most popular hockey league, we should have been made aware of the risks. Instead, the NHL chose to conceal them while continuing to promote and profit from the unnecessary violence it encouraged us to wield against each other. The NHL now penalizes players for dirty hits to the head, but far too leniently to prevent them.
I joined the concussion litigation last year against the NHL because the league has the means and responsibility to not only provide care for players who suffer from traumatic brain injuries, but also to prevent players in the future from suffering a similar fate. While I consider myself lucky to have a flexible job that allows me to take time off when I am unable to work because of my symptoms, other players are not as fortunate.
Concussions limited what I could achieve in hockey and eventually ruined my career — all because I wasn’t properly treated. The NHL has the capacity to make hockey safer even as it continues to grow and thrive. It’s time for the league to step up and accept accountability for its years of silence and inaction.
Dan LaCouture is a former winger for six NHL teams, including the Pittsburgh Penguins (2001-2003), New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers and Boston Bruins.
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