Ice hockey has always been a faced-paced, rough, and sometimes downright nasty game. Injuries always have been and always will be a part of it. But with what we know today about brain injuries, the NHL has been forced to step up its attention to the issue. How could it not? Back in March, the league moved to dismiss a concussion-related class-action lawsuit filed by six former NHL players; its movement was denied by a federal judge. This isn’t going away for the NHL any time soon.
In the 2013-14 season, Brendan Shanahan’s last as head of the NHL department of player safety, he handed down 15 suspensions for illegal checks to the head. This season—with Stephane Quintal as head of player safety—that number was reduced to just nine suspensions for illegal checks to the head. Of special note is that four fines were doled out for illegal checks to the head under Quintal's regime, while Shanahan handed out no fines for head shots the year prior. Is the league again becoming more lenient on the issue, or are the players simply learning to cut back on the vicious checks to the head? It’s tough to say.
Here’s a list of 10 players whose careers were either completely derailed by concussion issues, or affected enough to the point where it’s fair to wonder what may have become of them if they hadn’t received multiple head injuries:
10 Dean Chynoweth
Defenceman Dean Chynoweth spent time in the NHL
fighting playing for the New York Islanders and the Boston Bruins from 1989 to 1998. Over that time period Chynoweth sustained a staggering 13 concussions, most of which were the result of direct blows to the head from opponents’ bare fists.
Chynoweth, like so many players before him, carved out a decent little life for himself as an on-ice bodyguard. The shots to the head caught up with him, however, and he was forced to call it a career at the tender age of 29.
9 Dennis Vaske
Not the flashiest name on the list, but it will be 20 years ago this November when Dennis Vaske received the hit that effectively ended his career. The stay-at-home defenceman played 232 of his 235 NHL games in New York Islanders silks.
This firsthand account of the incident paints a disturbing picture. Basically, Los Angeles’ Eric Lacroix smashed Vaske into the boards, face first, behind the Islanders net. Vaske then lay motionless on the ice for 10 minutes, blood oozing from his left temple. He missed the rest of the 1995-96 season as a result. He was only able to play in 39 more NHL games over the next three seasons before finally retiring.
8 Adam Deadmarsh
Adam Deadmarsh played 567 games in the NHL over a span of 10 seasons before he was forced to call it a career due to concussion issues. “Deader” had at least two cases of documented concussions during his career, the second of which came early in 2002-03. He would not play another game in the NHL after that one.
What’s particularly troubling about Deadmarsh is that he still hasn’t fully recovered from the brain injuries; that, or he’s still extremely sensitive to even the slightest head trauma. He served as an associate coach for the Colorado Avalanche for three seasons, but he stepped down after the 2011-12 season. Sources suggest he either sustained another concussion working out, or was still struggling with past head issues.
7 Marc Savard
It doesn’t seem like too long ago that Marc Savard’s name was perennially showing up amongst the NHL scoring leaders, but in reality the feisty center hasn’t played a game since January of 2011. He suffered his first major concussion in March of 2010 when Matt Cooke laid him out with this infamous hit that has since been credited with truly opening the dialogue on headshots in the NHL.
The centerman put up an impressive 305 points in 304 games with the Bruins prior to a Matt Hunwick hit that ended his career for good in January 2011. Needless to say, losing Savard was a huge hit for the Bruins. Nevertheless, the Bruins went on to win the Cup that season, and although Savard hadn’t met the minimum games played requirement to have his name automatically engraved on Lord Stanley, the league eventually agreed to make an exception and Savard’s name is forever etched in history.
6 Keith Primeau
Like most players on this list, Keith Primeau suffered many concussions—four documented ones, but he says it’s likely closer to 10—before finally calling it a career at the age of 35. His last concussion was suffered just nine games into the 2005-06 season, when he was on the receiving end of a big hit from Montreal’s Alexander Perezhogin. That would be his last game, as he officially announced his retirement on Sept. 14, 2006.
Today, Primeau is a vocal leader in the fight against head injuries in the NHL, and it was only within the last year or so that he’s claimed to have become completely symptom-free.
5 Derek Boogaard
Easily the most tragic story on the list, late pugilist Derek Boogaard comes in at number five. In his prime, the “Boogie Man” was one of the most feared enforcers in the NHL, but the repeated bare-knuckle blows directly to the head caught up with him in a bad way.
Boogaard, who had already sustained countless concussions throughout his playing career, signed with the New York Rangers prior to the 2010-11 season. His year got off to a decent start by his standards, registering two points (1G, 1A) in 22 games before sustaining a major concussion during a fight with Ottawa’s Matt Carkner. Boogaard became a Manhattan recluse afterwards and suffered from depression while on the IR for the remainder of the season. He was found dead in his apartment on May 13, 2011, after taking a lethal mix of alcohol and prescription pain killers. Boogaard was just 28 years old.
4 Steve Moore
Just how productive of a career Steve Moore would have had if Todd Bertuzzi hadn’t sneak-attacked him on that fateful March evening in 2004 is anyone’s guess, but the notoriety of the incident lands Moore at number four on this list.
Many people think it was the three fractured vertebrae that caused Moore to hang up the skates, but those were fully healed after about 18 months. It was the severe concussion he suffered on the vicious play that has kept Moore off the ice since, and he still deals with post-concussion symptoms to this day. A legal battle ensued, and Bertuzzi and Moore finally agreed on an out-of-court settlement last August, ending the decade-long saga.
3 Paul Kariya
Paul Kariya was half of one of the most dynamic duos of the 1990s (the other half being Teemu Selanne, of course). However, unlike Selanne, Kariya’s production took a nosedive at the turn of the millennium, and concussions can almost certainly be blamed for that.
He suffered his first concussion during the 1996-97 season, though he only sat out for two games as a result. That got the concussion-ball rolling, though, and Kariya would suffer several more throughout his career, including one in February of 1998 that kept him off the Canadian Olympic squad later that month. That was his fourth concussion in three years; he played for parts of 11 more seasons in the league—suffering several more concussions, including this one sustained during the 2003 Stanley Cup Final—but he was never the same dominant player that he was before the head injuries started.
2 Pat LaFontaine
Pat LaFontaine recorded over 1,000 points in the NHL, but he had a chance to be the best American player to ever lace ‘em up before concussions forced him into retirement at the age of 33. He spent his entire career playing for each of the three teams situated in New York State, and he finished with 1.17 points per game, still tops among American-born skaters.
LaFontaine suffered his first major concussion early in the 1996-97 season as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. He took a high hit from Pittsburgh defenseman Francois Leroux, and subsequently experienced severe post-concussion symptoms for the remainder of the season, limiting him to just 13 games. LaFontaine was determined to continue playing, and he did so the next season for the Rangers, despite advice from doctors to retire. A collision with teammate Mike Keane on March 16, 1998 spelled the end for LaFontaine, and he would never play another game after that.
1 Eric Lindros
Eric Lindros is the poster boy for concussions in the NHL, so it makes sense that he ends up here at number one on our list. Billed as “The Next One” when he shirked the Quebec Nordiques organization after it selected him first overall in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, Lindros enjoyed a productive start to his NHL career in Philadelphia, registering 600 points in his first 431 games with the Flyers.
It was during the 1998-99 season when Lindros suffered his first concussion after taking a hit from Pittsburgh’s Darius Kasparaitis, sidelining him for 18 games. Lindros suffered a second concussion later that season, and of course we all remember this Scott Stevens hit during the 1999-00 postseason that is recognized as the final nail in the coffin containing Lindros’ career. He would go on top play parts of five more seasons, but his production fell off a cliff and he decided to hang them up after the 2006-07 season at the age of 34. It’s fair to wonder if he would have had a longer career had his injuries been dealt with in the same way Sidney Crosby’s were a few years ago, but we’ll never know for certain.