Friday, October 30, 2009

Concussions in Hockey - Keith Primeau Speaks from Experience

The issue of headshots in the NHL is back in the spotlight recently because of Philadelphia Flyers forward Mike Richards' hit on David Booth of the Florida Panthers. Many will say it was a great hockey play - a devastating hit that is the injured player's fault for having his head down or admiring his pass. While this is partly true, players are deemed soft if they do not hit an opposing player; the question now becomes, when is it too much? The line is starting to blur between a great hit and ruining someones life because of a head injury.

Most sports fans are aware of the repercussions of knee injuries and the like, but what happens to players after repeated concussions? The Sports Legacy Institute's research has revealed startling evidence on the after-effects of concussions and post-concussion syndrome.

For more on the SLI, visit their website:

In June, I had the pleasure of speaking with SLI co-founder Chris Nowinski for Main Street. We discussed the concussions that forced him to retire from the WWE and the lingering health issues that continued to plague him several years after his last head injury. We also spoke about the work and research being conducted by the SLI.

For the Chris Nowinski interview in Main Street, check the July 2009 archives...

That conversation turned to the topic of concussions in hockey and the recent news that several current and former NHL players had made the decision to donate their brain tissue to the SLI for research after they have passed away. One such player is former Flyers captain Keith Primeau and he has become an active spokesman for the SLI and the issue of concussions in the NHL. Nowinski suggested I speak with Primeau for a hockey perspective... With help from the NHLPA, I was able to contact Primeau and continue the discussion for Main Street.

For the original Keith Primeau interview in Main Street, check the August 2009 archives...

As a sports fan and columnist, my view on these "great hockey hits" has certainly changed. I do not advocate taking hitting from the game, far from it... but as I said earlier, when is it too much? Besides being our favourite players and hometown heroes, these are real people with very real health issues because of brain injuries. Let's make that distinction - a concussion is a brain injury. It is not just a term to be thrown around; "Oh, he just has a concussion, he'll be back on the ice in 10 days..."

Newspaper articles are often limited by a word count and a large part of my conversation with Keith did not make it into the original article. To bring the spotlight back on the injured athletes and raise awareness on the serious nature of brain injuries, here is the rest of my interview with Keith Primeau for Main Street. We spoke on the phone in early July, shortly after he took a position with the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers.

The Voice - After dealing with the effects of several undiagnosed concussions as a teenager and in my early twenties, I have had some of my own health battles over the last four years; that is why this topic is close to my heart. While talking with Chris Nowinski, we discussed if I would consider a brain tissue donation myself but I am struggling with the issue.

Keith Primeau - I was going to ask you that (He chuckles a bit)... I didn't realize at first that it (the SLI) was open to anybody in general who had been injured. For those people, they would be able to donate; there may be some positive information or feedback. Organs are donated all the time, this is no different.

The Voice - I am struggling with the issue. Was it a difficult decision when you decided to donate your brain tissue for research?

Keith - You know what, I don't know if it was... I guess the longevity of making my decision, which was about three to four months, was just coming to terms with it. You know, soul searching and contemplating, like I said, whether this was something that I valued and I really thought that it was. I felt that my brain has been damaged and I don't know to what extent but I applaud Chris' efforts and at some point, somebody needed to take a stand and begin to make a difference and ultimately my decision won't help my situation but down the road it may help someone else's child. I feel very inspired to do it.

When I first looked at it, I told my brother Wayne and he was like, well, that's creepy... and I never really looked at it as being creepy or out of the ordinary. I wasn't an organ donor prior to that. It wasn't like, that's who I am, that's what I'll do... It really became this single issue of is there value somewhere, somehow for someone other then me in my choices and I felt there is.

The Voice - How is your health now? Are you still dealing with the effects of your concussions?

Keith - I continue to get better thanks. It's been a long process, I am by no means would I say 100%. I don't think I will ever 100% but the more time that stretches out between my last injury and present time, I continue to see minimal improvement that is always continuing and it's encouraging.

The Voice - You are starting to get your life back and can do more things...

Keith - Yeah...

The Voice - I read in a Toronto Star article that the NHL does not keep statistics on how many careers have ended due to concussions. Does the NHL have the responsibility to its players to begin keeping track of this injury and working with groups like the Sports Legacy Institute to raise the level of education among the players?

Keith - I would like to think that there is another side to the business of professional hockey and that there would be a desire to stay connected or to understand just how severe the issue really is and how many players have lost or ended their careers because of head trauma and post-concussion. Whether that will ever happen or not, I am not sure. But yes, I sure would like to see it.

The Voice - The NHL competition committee recently decided to enforce current rules regarding headshots, instead of creating a new penalty for the offence. Is that going far enough? Would you like to see a specific penalty or a suspension when a player brings up their elbow while throwing a body check?

Keith - I would just like to see it dealt with consistently. If there is going to be change, first it has to come from the players. If they are not going to show enough respect for one another then it needs to be administered by the league and my greatest fear is that it just becomes part of the playing norm. What I mean by that is, there was a period of time where groin injuries were front and center and knee injuries were front and center but they began to build it into their business model. They accepted the fact that players were going to miss time because of sports hernias and they just ploughed through it or knee problems, and they just ploughed through it. To me, the head is so much different then just a torn abdominal muscle or a torn knee, in that it can be life altering. I just do not want it to become part of the business model and therefore accepted as part of the framework of the game. I want it to be more then that because we are dealing with peoples lives.

The Voice - Coaching hockey at the youth level now and joining the Las Vegas team in the ECHL, does it help with the healing process to stay involved with the game and at the same time, you can help raise awareness of this serious issue where it may count the most - in youth sports.

Keith - Yeah, I do not know if it is so much the healing process, as it is a real passion. I am very passionate about teaching kids and it is something that I really enjoy and get tremendous satisfaction out of. I have been asked if I miss playing the game. I certainly miss playing the game but as long as I am around the the game in some capacity, I am content. I feel as though it comes full circle. This is where I started out and I am right back to where I began.

The Voice - After a wonderful career in the NHL, can you still look back fondly on your playing days despite the effects of the injuries that you suffered?

Keith - Oh, absolutely! You know, I was always very realistic about my career, it was only going to be a certain part of my life but I feel extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to play the game as long as I did. Absolutely, I have no regrets and as I said, I am extremely blessed.

The Voice - I did not want to take up too much of your time, I had Chris on the phone for over twenty-five minutes...

Keith - Did you? (he laughs) As I said earlier, I applaud his efforts and it was going to take somebody to have the initiative to make a difference and he really is making a difference. There is one other program you may want to do some research on - it is a spin-off of the Shoot for a Cure called Playing it Cool, which is the education of athletes and parents with how to deal with and recognize head trauma and post-concussion issues.
Here is the link for the program:

Chris Nowinski and Keith Primeau are both tremendous individuals, speaking out about an injury that can devastate the lives of the injured athletes and their families. A very BIG thank you to both gentlemen for taking the time to speak with me and sharing their stories, views and advice. It was recently announced that Keith Primeau would be discussing the issue of concussions with the NHL's General Managers. Here's hoping the GM's do the right thing - LISTEN to the voice of experience and implement change in the NHL.

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