• Dan DeCiccio

Traumatic Brain Injury Surfaces in Hockey’s Former Enforcer

No one disputes hockey is a tough sport. Players are checked into boards, pucks are slapped at speeds of 80 to 90 miles per hour on average, players are poked with sticks and fist fights are the rule not the exception. You won’t find many hockey players out there who aren’t missing a tooth or two as they wear their smile as a badge of courage. Today former hockey players carry another badge of the sport they played, the badge of traumatic brain damage caused by repeated blows to the head.

The New York Times reported on former N.H.L. enforcer Stephen Peat now 64. While there is no evidence to prove Peat suffers from C.T.E. (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), it is suspected because of the numerous concussions, the blows to the head he received while out on the ice and the symptoms he shows today.

C.T.E. is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma to the head. The only way to reach a definitive diagnosis of C.T.E. is by examining brain tissue after one dies. Peat’s symptoms are consistent with C.T.E. such as depression, anxiety, memory loss, headaches and addiction to pain relievers.

Peat played hockey for local youth teams. After a stint in the Western Hockey League, Peat was drafted in 1995 into the W.H.L. While a good student, Peat never finished high school, and never attended college. Peat was later drafted into the N.H.L in 1998. As an enforcer in the N.H.L., Peat’s job was to sacrifice himself and his body in order to protect star players. Peat suffered injuries to his neck and pelvis and a broken hand. Headaches were constant, and so were the painkillers, such as Percocet. Peat was caught in the addiction cycle of pain, pills and the revolving door of rehab.

One day, Peat was going to fix some stereo equipment. He was unable to find a soldering gun so he used a blow torch. He inadvertently set the house on fire burning much of it down. Arson was suspected but never officially proven. Peat ended up copping a plea and was sentenced to one year of probation. Peat went back into rehabilitation again. He is hopeful but not realistic.

Peat is monitoring the players’ lawsuit against the N.H.L. alleging the league withheld information concerning the dangers of concussions.

The New York Times reports Peat lives with his father, Walter Peat, in British Columbia, Canada. His father has become his caretaker. Peat’s father said of his son, “He cannot focus…He’ll be cooking something, will answer the phone and walk away.” Peat’s dad misses the man Peat was, especially, “that twinkle and smile.”

Like many victims of traumatic brain injury (TBI), the damage is invisible to outsiders so the victim appears normal. Peat’s father remarked, “He looks fine, but who can say what is going on in a brain-damaged head.”

Unfortunately, Peat is not the only former hockey player whose career has been cut short due to blows to the head. Chris Pronger, who last played in 2011, fell victim to head trauma as well. Just as Peat was during his career, Pronger was a big bodied impact player on the ice who was not afraid to check, hit and fight opponents in order to protect star players on his team. Pronger’s final injury came when he was hit from behind forcing him head first into the boards, ending his Hall of Fame career.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Pronger detailed the hardships he endured after hockey. Pronger, a Stanley Cup winner, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and the only defensemen to be awarded the N.H.L League MVP trophy since the mid-70’s was plunged into a “black hole of depression.” “Part of yourself is gone.” Pronger states. “You have to make peace with that.” Pronger is now plagued with headaches and dizziness. It doesn’t take much to give Pronger a “sensory overload.” Everything from a monotonic tone of an air conditioner, heating vent, or refrigerator to watching his children skate around him can bring on his symptoms. He can no longer play with his children they way he used to. Instead of bouncing on a trampoline with them, he tosses them a ball until the arm movements make him dizzy or nauseas. He tells Sports Illustrated of a story where his nine-year-old son came up behind him to give him a hug. The “attack” frightened him to the point where he snapped. He now warns his children to “stop scaring me. I’m going to whack you or something because I can’t see things coming anymore. It’s not like it used to be.” Consistent with the symptoms of C.T.E., Pronger’s memory has also been affected. He now loses his train of thought easily and can sometimes draw a blank mid-sentence. “You get used to thinking up ways to buy time so you can figure out what the hell you were just talking about. If I don’t write things down, good luck. I was talking to my mom last night. I take another call, tell her I’ll call right back, 10 minutes. Think I remembered?”

Just as Peat, and many other victims of TBI, Pronger dipped his toes into the world of depression and self-medication. He never wanted to leave his house and was “drinking six beers a night or whatever.” It’s not easy going from being in the spotlight as one of the top defensive players in the N.H.L to living in a home with dimmers on the lights to prevent the onset of headaches. “I was in a pretty dark hole, and my thoughts were swirling. I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, [but] I can see where if you don’t start going in the other direction, [you’re] going to start getting [that way].” Lately, Chris Pronger is attempting to have a better outlook on life for his wife and his children. “[Other] people have it a lot worse,” he says. “I’m here, right? I’ll be fine.”

Since C.T.E. cannot be determined in one’s lifetime, we will not know the extent of the injuries of NHL players like Stephen Peat and Chris Pronger who struggle with TBI today. But that does not mean C.T.E. has not been found in the highly physical sport. Enforcer Derek Boogaard was diagnosed with C.T.E. after his untimely death. Boogaard, more commonly known around the league as “The Boogeyman” due to his fierceness, played just six seasons in the N.H.L.; amassing an incredible 589 penalty minutes in just 277 games played. But being “go to guy” on the bench for fights comes with its consequences. Boogaard suffered multiple concussions while playing hockey. Subsequently, he fell into depression, and with it came addiction. The New York Times reports that at the start of the 2009-2010 season, Boogaard’s team, the Minnesota Wild, reported that he would be out indefinitely due to a concussion. It’s a better story to tell the fans this instead of telling them Boogaard was out because he was in drug rehabilitation.

Boogaard’s friends and family started to notice a difference in him quickly. His teammate John Scott stated “His demeanor, his personality, it just left him. He didn’t have a personality anymore. He just was kind of — a blank face.” Boogaard would randomly drift off and fall asleep at times, sometimes while even in the locker room, and began to come late to team meetings. He was being prescribed painkillers by the team doctors, but when that wasn’t enough anymore, he would hit the streets. He often bought thousands of dollars’ worth of painkillers at a time, and would swallow them down by the handful.

Boogaard was traded to New York for the 2010-2011 season where he played just 22 games and accumulated 41 penalty minutes. His career would be ended by yet another fight. After being slammed down after a brawl, Boogaard’s head made contact with the ice. The headaches came soon after. He became more and more depressed as he couldn’t play hockey. Friends who went to see him stated that his memory was getting worse and worse. He would laugh it off and say he had been hit in the head too many times. Eventually his depression and addiction got the best of him, and he lost his life due to an overdose. He was only 28 years old. The doctors who examined his brain diagnosed Boogaard with C.T.E. and were “wowed” by the amount of brain damage they found in 28 year olds brain; even one for a hockey enforcer.

The effects of the game do not stop there. Just three months after Boogaard’s death, two more N.H.L. players, Ricky Rypien (27) and Wade Belak (35), committed suicide due to the depression the suffered.

We will never know if a hockey player suffers from TBI either during their career or after, but it seems that for family members, such as Walter Peat, the best that they can do is that is hope their sons don’t join the “dead before 50 club,” which has claimed six N.H.L. enforcers in the past five years alone.

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