(Photo: The Players’ Tribune)
I’m pretty intense about trying to avoid “soldier” metaphors when I talk about athletes. Not because I don’t respect athletes, but because it’s a different kind of respect than what I have for soldiers. I think it’s dangerous to equate entertainment with war. I think it’s irresponsible to ask athletes to sacrifice their bodies, and oftentimes their mental well-being, in the same ways that we ask soldiers to.
But there’s a reason why the metaphor works. Guys play injured because they don’t want to let the fans down, or because they feel they owe a loyalty to the “name on the front” of their sweater, or because their teammates need them. How many times have we heard, “You play for the guy next to you,” in a post-game interview?
Guys, we literally stole that soundbite, almost word-for-word, from Black Hawk Down.
There is a reason why soldier metaphors are so tempting with athletes, particularly hockey players. Hockey is a hard sport. It makes you bleed. It breaks your bones, it shatters your knees, it bloodies your knuckles.
And it can permanently damage your brain.
On February 9th, 2015, 29 former NHL players joined a class-action lawsuit against the NHL. According to Sports Illustrated, the filing claims that the NHL failed to adequately educate and protect its players with regard to the long-term effects of injury, head trauma in particular. As a result, “the players are suffering from a variety of post-concussion symptoms, including headaches, memory loss and sleep problems, and are at an increased risk of developing serious latent neurodegenerative disorders and diseases including, but not limited to, CTE, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or similar cognitive-impairing conditions.”
The NHL motioned to dismiss the lawsuit, just like they did with the one before. Their message seems pretty clear: your concussions are not our problem. You chose to play hockey. We paid you handsomely for it.
That’s true, in many cases, but large paychecks don’t prevent memory loss. You can’t buy memory, or sleep, or a pathway out of dementia. When we talk about depression in retired athletes, we’re not talking about ennui. We’re not talking about rich, bored retirees who are sad because they don’t have a cool 9-to-5 anymore.
We’re talking about bodies reacting to years of sustained trauma, and nowhere to turn to address it.
Before his death in February, Steve Montador had a lot going for him: he was expecting his first child, he was an ambassador for Right To Play, he was active with the NHLPA, and, after facing his own demons, he was helping others who struggled with addiction or depression.
On paper, he was the poster child for athletes trying to find their way after retirement, despite battling memory loss and light sensitivity after the concussion that led to his compliance buyout from the Blackhawks after the 2012-2013 season.
“My hope is that it helps somebody, and it opens the right eyes, and people get in touch with our PA, or each other, and we can create something that helps athletes figure out what they’re good at, and what they want to do next in life. I think this past year Steve was trying to do that. I wish he had.”
Following his friend’s death, Carcillo researched what the league has available for players after their playing days are over.
“Right now, as far as the PA goes, we would receive a phone call, you know, to see kind of how we were doing, and that’s pretty much our exit program,” he said.
When it’s over, it’s over for so many. No transition plan, no long term goal setting, no one telling you what to eat and where to be 24/7. You are on your own.
… Think about it. These guys are often plucked from normalcy before they have chest hair. These kids (because that’s what they are at the start of their career), don’t get the opportunity to experience reality before it even begins. How can they be expected to adjust to normal life when it is all over? They have likely not experienced it as an adult.
I wrote earlier this year about the NHL’s lack of a true support system for rookies coming into the league, and it’s a problem mirrored in its treatment of retirees going out of it.
“Why do NHL players struggle so much with moving on from the game? Why are so many former players I know battling depression? Why does the hockey community ignore them when they’re gone? And why can’t we create a more concrete program to help them transition into real life?” Carcillo asked, and rightly so.
Why can’t we?
As a league, as the media, and as fans, we don’t owe ex-players a new career. We don’t owe it to them to make sure they never have to struggle again. But we do owe them a pathway to figure out what happens next. We do owe them resources to help deal with the problems that their commitment to hockey–and to us–brought them.
I doubt intense physicality will ever fully leave hockey, and I don’t think it should. That’s not the question.
The question is: if we ask our players to be soldiers, why do we refuse to see them as veterans?
(Contributing: Pink Puck Blackhawks writer Carly Mullady.)