It comes to something when we are no longer surprised about the periodic news stories telling us that yet another current or retired hockey player has been found dead. Since the summer of 2011 when Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak all lost their lives to the more recent losses of Steve Montador and just this week Todd Ewen, the loss of retired hockey players has become a regular occurrence. This is not limited to those that have played in the National Hockey League, while the news stories might fly under the radar of the mainstream press, there have been a large number of suicides of young players who played in the minors or in Europe and did not get recognition in the mainstream media. Gone are the days when the public are shocked by the sudden loss of a hockey retiree, as we saw this week with the loss of Todd Ewen, suicide is immediately deemed to be the most likely cause of death and concerns about concussions and brain injury the determining factor.
Since 2011 CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is in the vocabulary of many sports fans. The brains of several late hockey players have shown signs of this degenerative disease that is likely to be caused by repeated concussions to the head from years of playing contact sport. CTE has been called the ticking time bomb of contact sports with players expressing concerns of the damage that they do to their brains whilst playing is causing increased concern and anxiety over their future post retirement. The hockey world has become a place where we are all educated on the facts of brain injury.
The NHL appeared self-congratulatory this week for announcing ‘concussion spotters’ at all games this year, a critique of this has already been ably dealt with on this blog this week by Courtney Szto so I can spare you my rant on the inadequacies of shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. There is no doubt that contact sports do have an association with brain injury and that as we learn more about the devastating effects of concussion we must adapt the game if we are to limit the damage that is done during the game, but I maintain that we are still missing something here. Having spent seven years dedicated to the academic study of hockey, and of the culture of fighting in particular, it has become apparent that we are ignoring a far bigger problem -not of a broken brain, but of a broken culture.
Society seems to have an obsession with finding a medical cause for increased suicide ideation in current or retired players, the plethora of recent news stories such as this and this completely overlook the role of the culture of hockey in creating this time-bomb. We seem determined to link all deaths of players, and specifically enforcers together as if they are the same case, all caused by the same ‘plague.’ No two players mentioned in this blog post died in the same manner yet we treat them as one, and it makes us feel better if we believe that there is one nice neat scientific cause which will eventually provide a nice neat scientific solution. However, this is not just a problem with concussion. There is a wealth of research evidence that demonstrates the social and cultural problems that are experienced by those who retire from any position, and more specifically those who have been involved in teams playing sports that shape their identity to such an extent. This is not limited to hockey however, or even sport more generally, it is something that is suffered by those who retire from the police force, the military and any occupation where there is a strong shared identity and culture.
I wish that we could explain this problem of player suicide with a neat scientific pathological explanation. If this was the case then we could put funds into research to reduce concussions, we could invest in better helmets and body protection, but this is not the only problem. The culture of the sport needs to be addressed, not just the problem of hyper-masculinity, as suggested by this Headspace blog, but also the over-reliance on prescription painkillers (implicated in several of these deaths), the culture of consumption of large quantities of alcohol (a known depressant) and the lack of support for the mental health of players both during and after their careers.
Thankfully with the candid bravery of players such as Daniel Carcillo in The Players Tribune, and Paul Bissonnette in Puck Daddy this month we are beginning to hear the voices of those players who are living under these threats and are seeking to change things by opening up a dialogue about mental health, culture and support. It is great news that Carcillo is focussing his attentions on setting up his charity ‘Chapter 5’ and supporting players through their transition to life after hockey. I hope that their bravery spreads further and we can start a culture of openness of these matters before we lose any more great people, let’s encourage this dialogue and be the change that is needed.