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Eating Their Own: On The Hidden Risks Within Hockey’s Warrior Culture

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Is hockey’s culture of toughness worth the hidden costs?

Boston Bruins v Philadelphia Flyers - Game Four Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

"You go in, you lie to the doctors, you tell them what you need to say to get back out there, you’re the only one that knows what’s going on upstairs in your head, it’s not something a doctor can see. They put you through the protocol and you focus to make sure you pass every protocol you can. All of us, not just me, we’re all hockey players; we have that nature of wanting to play, wanting to be there for the team. We don’t want to miss games and we push ourselves so hard to make sure we’re not missing games. I would come in and try to act normal just to get by and I’d go home and keep everything to myself. You tell everyone you’re feeling fine, but deep down you know there’s something wrong with you." A. Shaw - Sportsnet

By now, you most likely have seen these comments from Montreal Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw, in which he admitted to playing games while concussed, even going so far as to admit lying to team doctors to get back on the ice.

Perhaps you’re thinking “so what, happens all the time, right? Patrice Bergeron played with a hole in his lung and didn’t complain?” or something similar.

I can understand why you may think that, and it’s true that he didn’t publicly complain. You’d also be correct in presenting Bergeron as a great example of a “hockey warrior”, but of course there is a real, and very critical difference between playing hurt vs. playing through traumatic brain injuries, a difference all too often left to the way side when the topic is ever so rarely breached.

Even within just the past few years we have heard players like James Wisniewski, Dale Weise, Johan Franzen and others admit to playing through concussions. The unspoken truth is that there are significantly more that have not, and likely will not admit to having done the same.

Admittedly, it’s an easy thing to do, to downplay what NHL players go through just to remain on the ice, to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. We justify these thoughts with their salaries, or downplay it because “they knew the risks” but rarely do we ever examine the why behind these stories.

The Warrior Culture

"Nobody wants to be left out or pushed out of the lineup and when you look at the Stanley Cup and what it means to you, there's no doubt you don't want to be denied that opportunity. Players, like I said, are tough in this sport and they'll play through a lot.” Claude Julien - NHL.com

Hockey is a game played by people often known as much for their toughness as for their impressive athletic abilities. Spend a few minutes at a local rink and I’d bet you’ll hear coaches at any level praising their players for displaying toughness or grit, whether that player is blocking shots, dropping the gloves or playing through various injuries.

In a vacuum, each of these things have tangible value, both to the sport and to the team themselves. Toughness, and the ability to overcome adversity or injury are unquestionably admirable things in their own right, at least in moderation.

Hockey players, like any other human being, enjoy being a part of a team. As a sport, hockey preaches a level of selflessness not often seen in other mainstream sports. Players are expected to sacrifice for the team’s benefit or risk being viewed as an outsider. They may even feel they’ll have to worry about their spot on the roster if they don’t conform to these time-honored standards. As a result, the choice to sacrifice their health to remain part of that close-knit group, even at a great cost to themselves, is all too often an easy decision for that player.

When I read Shaw’s comments, my mind immediately went to the similarities between the Armed Forces and the often brutal sport of hockey.

Admittedly, for most at least, the connection may not be immediately clear but like the NHL, the military is made up largely by highly competitive men (and women) who thrive in a team environment, and who often put the team or mission ahead of their own physical or emotional well-being.

For those who follow military news, or are Veterans themselves, you have likely heard an increasing amount of coverage on the Veteran suicide issue, which in itself is in no small part a result of traumatic brain injuries and/or PTSD.

In July, I lost an old friend and fellow Veteran to suicide. He wasn’t the first Veteran I served with to take his life, but his was the hardest to accept. Like many who have experienced losing a friend or family member to suicide, I wrestled with how I could effect change but no matter the amount of effort, the answer never came.

In writing this, I didn’t want to come across as speaking for the Veteran community, and I certainly didn’t want to use the wrong words, however well-intentioned, when talking about a topic that is so difficult and hits so close to home for many. After struggling to find the right words, I decided I just didn’t have the skill to properly cover such a challenging topic and ended up tabling the article.

The next day I got news that another brother-in-arms from my old unit had inexplicably taken his life.

This article is an attempt at trying to make a change for the better. Making these topics acceptable to discuss, along with simply trying to be a better friend, teammate, battle buddy, etc. is at least a starting point in the effort to reduce the stigma behind players and soldiers alike hiding their wounds, physical or mental.

Making A Choice

“Like a lot of people do, I lied about it, I said, ‘I’m fine, I’ll be fine’. You want to tell yourself you can do it. The worst thing in the world is when someone tells you, ‘Aw, suck it up’. And you tell yourself that you can force your way through it, you can willpower your way through it. Obviously, that’s not true.” - Patrick Burke on the stigma around mental health in The Hockey News

For players, the reasons why they are willing to risk their health are personal and emotional, a side of players most fans simply don’t want to acknowledge exists with their favorite players. No one, but particularly athletes, who are competitive by nature, wants to feel like they let their teammates down, nor do they want to be viewed as the weak link.

I saw this same silently destructive behavior during my time in the military. As a soldier, you are told over and over that the team and mission comes first, until the day comes for many when your body starts to breakdown or your mental health deteriorates. It may start innocuously enough, or it may happen suddenly but it eventually starts impacting your ability to perform your duties or to “complete the mission”.

There are all sorts of theories as to why there is such a uptick in Veteran suicides, one of which is the theory that a lack of common community is a critically negative component in military members struggling to adapt back to civilian life (see Tribe: Junger, Sebastian).

There is perhaps an obvious similarity between a locker room and a squad or platoon of soldiers. They both function as a team, build cohesion and ultimately become a family and support group for those who are part of it.

Making the topic of head injuries and mental health a welcome topic within these can only serve to enhance the unit cohesion and well-being of its members. A close knit and welcoming support group within the locker room can make all the difference for a player struggling with mental health issues or anxiety about losing his roster spot due to TBIs.

You have to make a decision at that point, do you seek help or do you bury the issue or injury at great cost to your quality of life? I can’t tell you what the right answer is, it’s different for every person, but I can tell you why many people, players and soldiers alike choose to sacrifice for their team.

Searching for Purpose

One of the biggest things you’ll always share is guys miss the room, guys miss the bus, the plane. For me, that was very evident. That’s what I enjoyed the most. You can take the game away, but don’t take my friends and the connections of my safe community away “ Dan Carcillo - Life After Hockey/The Athletic

Towards the end of my time in the military, I reached a point physically where I couldn’t do the things I used to be able to. Physically, I was in constant pain, ignoring it as long as I could, until I simply couldn’t anymore.

It took an interaction during a field exercise in which my peers, men I had deployed with and grown to consider an extension of my family were actively trying to cover my duties for me so leadership wouldn’t notice. I had been telling myself I could continue, but that moment really drove the reality home.

I had a choice to make: to continue to suffer physically serving alongside friends but enjoying the camaraderie and sense of purpose that came with it, or to finally accept my career was likely over and move on to the next chapter of my life for both my health, and for the benefit of the unit and mission.

Although quite minor in military circles, where sacrifice and injury are part of the culture, it still wasn’t an easy choice. For me, being in the military had become a part of who I was as a person. I had made lifelong friends and earned the respect of my peers, family and others as a result of my service. All of that mattered to me, sure, but the hardest thing to come to grips with was the thought of being left behind and of not being able to do my duty.

It’s a weird emotion to grasp, going from something you love to being an outcast watching as your friends deploy without you, making new friends and new memories. I can remember thinking, “will they still include me or will I be an outsider to them? Was I still worth the same outside of the military as I was within to others? To myself?”

I eventually chose to leave the military. It was a genuinely tough decision and one I admittedly still question at times, but my long-term health took precedence.

However, for every person that chooses their long-term health, there are just as many, if not more, that choose to continue suffering silently until their body collapses, or their mind can’t cope anymore.

Moving Upward and Onward

“There is a light, however faint, in all this darkness. There is help out there for you. There is hope. I swear to God, hope is real. You will reach the light.” Corey Hirsch - Dark, Dark, Dark / Players Tribune

The end result is, until players and fans alike learn to acknowledge the dangers, both physical and emotional, that come with playing a contact game like hockey, we will continue to see players succumb to their hidden wounds, whether it is through substance abuse, suicide or decreased quality of living from CTE or other traumatic brain injuries.

So how do we help? What is the next step?

For starters, we talk about it. Simply acknowledging players as actual human beings, with actual human emotions is a key component to all of this. There is nothing wrong with feeling scared to let down your teammates, your unit or even fans.

There is, however, something wrong with hiding those fears until they collectively eat away at you and potentially lead to depression, risk prevalent behavior or ultimately suicidal behavior.

Many have said it before, and likely more eloquently than I can, but as a society and as sports fans we need to learn to separate being tough from being self-destructive. Playing through pain is tough, it’s gritty and it’s a part of why I love hockey.

Playing through devastating head injuries, hiding concussions or emotional distress from teammates is not tough. It takes more courage to admit feelings of anxiety or fear, and we all need to work to make it easier for those suffering to do so.

Ideally, the NHL/NHLPA and hockey’s governing bodies at all levels would work on a set of principles as well as training regarding concussions, CTE/TBI and mental health. Not just PowerPoint presentations, but promoting actual discussions with former players who can speak candidly about what they went through, coupled with availability of independent medical professionals to discuss the long-term impacts of playing through injuries etc.

Much like the military does, the NHLPA should provide training on life after hockey that includes a mentor program of former players, financial planning and availability of mental health professionals similar to Dan Carcillo’s Chapter 5 Foundation. In a perfect world, the league should also make changes to the CBA that encourage transaction, salary cap & roster flexibility for players suffering from TBI’s or mental health issues.

The unfortunate truth is, until the teams and hockey’s overarching culture starts to change, stories like Andrew Shaw’s, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Theo Fleury and the countless others who haven’t spoken up for fear of reprisal or condemnation will only multiply.

In the end, sometimes the best thing for the team, is to simply do what is best for yourself. It’s critical to remember that hockey players, for all their talent and drive, are still just human beings, human beings who suffer anxiety and depression like anyone else.

Asking for help is a sign of courage, and it’s crucial that we as fans start applauding those that have the strength to do so.

And hey, if you’re reading this, don’t be afraid to reach out to those friends you haven’t heard from in a while. It may mean more than you think.