Bourque, the former Penguins player and current analyst on its radio broadcasts, is familiar with Randle El’s achievements — “He won a Super Bowl and got that big contract with the [Washington] Redskins. He had a pretty successful career” — but doesn’t share his perspective on a do-over.
Never mind that Bourque, 53, has begun to experience sporadic memory lapses he believes are related to about a dozen concussions he got playing hockey.
Many of his peers, including former Penguins teammates Kevin Stevens and Terry Ruskowski, are among the 90-plus plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit alleging that the NHL sought to conceal the risks inherent in concussions because it wanted to use extreme violence to promote the league.
At this point, Bourque is not inclined to get involved.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Some people think I should. It’s not my nature to. There’s a side of me that understood the risk of being an NHL player.
“Probably as a 20-something-year-old kid, if somebody told you that, ‘Well, here’s the deal: You’re going to win two Stanley Cups, your body is going to get all beat up and battered, but people are going to say you had a successful career and you’re going to, in your mind, fulfill your lifelong dream.
“And at the end of it, at 55, you might be drooling half the time and can’t recall your kids’ names and birthdays and all that stuff. Would you trade it?’
“I guess, as a 25-year-old kid, you’d probably say, ‘Yes.’ But now, as a 55-year-old guy, you’re probably thinking, ‘Geez, how much damage did I do to myself and what price did I pay to win those Stanley Cups?’ ”
The drive to play hockey and win championships was rooted deep in Bourque’s childhood in Chelmsford, Mass.
“I started skating when I was 3, playing hockey at 5,” he said. “You can’t teach, you can’t duplicate, you can’t manufacture the desire I had to be an NHL player.
“There was nothing else I wanted to do. [As a boy] I used to sleep with my skates on the night before a hockey game. I’d have all my equipment on. I’d have my stick in my bed with me so that when my dad woke me up at 4 in the morning, I’d be ready to go.”
Bourque had a Plan B if hockey didn’t work out — he thought about attending Cornell to study either veterinary medicine or restaurant management — but it wasn’t truly a front-burner option.
“I always thought about managing a resort in the Poconos, or something like that,” he said. “But, when I realized how high your grades had to be — and mine weren’t — I said, ‘Boy, I’d better start working on this hockey thing.’ ”
He did and was rewarded. Bourque developed into a versatile player, capable of being used at forward or on defense. He was an excellent skater and willing to play physically.
The Penguins signed him as a free agent in 1982, and he hung around until 2000, when he played his final game for the Hamburg Crocodiles in Germany.
More than a few of his contemporaries, from the NHL or elsewhere, have told Bourque they are experiencing memory issues similar to his.
“It is fairly common [among] the guys who played that physical style,” he said. “They’re kind of at that point in their lives now where they’ve been out of the game long enough where they’re starting to accept things that are wrong.
“There has been a long enough time for this to be more of a concern. The first couple of years, if this happens, guys are like ‘Aw, this will go away. This is no problem.’ But after being out of the game for 10 or 15 years or whatever, you start going, ‘Wow. Something’s not right here.’ ”
Bourque said a lot of players in his era shared a macho mentality that led them to return from concussions before it was prudent.
“You had some guys who were probably considered ‘soft’ back then if they stayed out longer,” he said. “That’s how brutal we were with each other. Like, ‘C’mon man, you look fine to us. Get back in there.’ ”
While much remains to be learned about brain injuries, far more is known today about concussions and their long-term impact than when Bourque played.
“You just wish you were more educated,” he said. “You probably wish that the doctors and the trainers were more educated, to diagnose you better.
“To say, ‘No. I see the symptoms and you’re not playing. It’s not your call.’ Because almost every time, it was my call. All I had to do was say, ‘I feel good,’ and that was it.
“They took the penlight, flashed it in your eyes, looked at the pupils, and that was it. There was no other protocol. I guess that’s probably the regret, but they probably did the best they could do at the time.”
While some of Bourque’s peers share the memory problems he has had occasionally the past six or eight months, most don’t work in broadcasting. That means they don’t need the instant recall on which Bourque relies while working alongside play-by-play man Mike Lange.
“I always prided myself on being someone who could recall things quickly,” he said. “In this job, you have to. Especially with the chemistry I have with Mike, on-air, I understand his cadence and how he calls a game, and I need to recall and say things quickly and get out.”
Bourque hasn’t sought medical attention for his memory lapses and says he doesn’t know whether his problems will plateau or get worse. He doesn’t hesitate, though, to share his greatest fear about the future.
“You hear all these stories about these athletes who go into a deep, spiral depression, and I’ve never had that,” he said. “I don’t understand it, because I’ve never experienced it or had anybody close to me experience it. But, when you hear people talk about it, it’s just awful. For some people, it’s been a death sentence.
“How many guys have committed suicide, former athletes? They study their brains, and there’s a common denominator right there. I just hope that never happens.”
Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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