Cheap – and dumb – shots on the ice

This past Sunday, the Boston Bruins’ Marc Savard was blindsided by Matt Cooke. Watch it here:

All the YouTube comments about “If you can’t take a hit, you’re a pussy” and “Canucks are friggin’ animals” notwithstanding, getting hit like this in hockey, as well as other sports, is often part and parcel of the game.

Consider also Mike Richards’ hit on David Booth:

I watched both of these videos last night (which is one of the reasons I didn’t get to sleep at the time I was planning), and I had to wonder — if Cooke and Booth actually knew what they were doing when they drove their shoulders into the unprotected heads of their opponents, would they have done it?

If they’d known that repeat concussions can lead to dementia and Alzheimers… memory loss… broken marriages… domestic violence… lasting loss of balance… and more — sometimes ending in unemployment, homelessness, and suicide… would they have done it? If they’d known that “destroying” someone like that isn’t like breaking their finger — it’s more like cutting it off and mangling the other fingers around it — would they have thought twice? And if their coaches and managers and team owners had the right information and any sense, would they have let them get away with it? Furthermore, would the refs have overlooked it?

I’m not sure people’s brains are working well enough to let them make smart choices, here. I’m not sure, given the culture of hockey, and the tough-guy mystique, there’s any chance for anything other than dumb choices, when it comes to these kinds of sports.

I’m not being down on contact/collision sports players. I was one, myself, once. And I loved it. If I could still do it, I probably would. But there’s a logistical issue here, that has to do with how we’re physically constructed, not how mentally and physically tough we are.

One of the problems I see with contact/collision sports is that traumatic brain injury (which is what a concussion is) can lead to reduced appreciation of risk, poor judgment, lousy planning, increased aggression, and a whole host of other cognitive/behavioral issues which can impair anyone. It’s not only pedestrians walking around in the everyday world after car accidents, assaults, falls, and brain viruses, who suffer the ill-effects. Professional athletes do, too.

And when you play a rough-and-tumble sport that involves repeated impacts, including grade 2 concussions,  as just part of the game, the cumulative effects can be dramatic and quite serious.

Imagine the long-term effects on kids who are taught/allowed to brawl on the ice or on the field, season after season, year after year, from the time they’re old enough to handle a stick or a ball. We don’t know nearly enough about what concussion does to young brains, but it strikes me (so to speak) that engaging in repeated intense shaking of the brain, which severs fragile axons which are essential for clear thinking and responsible functioning, would ultimately produce the kinds of aggressive and downright stupid behaviors we see in the Cookes and Richardses of the sporting world. It’s not their character I’m questioning (though some might). It’s their neurology.

Add to that the fact that players are getting bigger and faster each decade, and the pressures of money and success, that we’re living in a culture of shoot-first-ask-questions-later and bigger-and-badder-is-better, and you’ve got a recipe for a whole lot more Booths and Savards being laid out on the ice — or on the grassy field/floorboards.

Ultimately, what these kinds of incidents tell me, is that the NHL is not doing its job in enforcing rules that keep play from degenerating to a series of full-on assaults over possession of a little round black puck. It’s also doing a piss-poor job of educating its players about the long-term effects of the concussions they dole out to each other. Either that, or it’s breeding numb (if not hateful and bloodthirsty) assailants who don’t give a crap about the long-term consequences of their chosen actions.

According to some definitions, that would qualify as sociopathic behavior.

One of the reasons I’m so pissed off about this is that Richards and Cooke are professionals. They should know better. They can do better. But they didn’t. And somehow, that’s okay. It’s just part of the game. Never mind skills. Never mind sportsmanship. That’s for pussies. It’s much quicker and easier to knock your opponent out with a blindside hit than have to actually play against them. Screw the game. All that matters is the win.

I have to wonder if folks who resort to violence instead of athletic skill are too impaired from their own repeat head traumas to fully grasp the seriousness of what they’re doing.

If that’s the case, then the NHL is really the ultimate culprit in producing what amounts to little more than (briefly) premeditated assault in the name of a “game”.

And the league can thank themselves — in refusing to penalize these kinds of hits — for promoting this kind of behavior in young players, who are too young to know better — and aren’t being taught any different.

Best wishes to Marc Savard and David Booth for full recoveries. Good luck, guys.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

8 thoughts on “Cheap – and dumb – shots on the ice”

  1. Thanks – I agree absolutely. Refs and managers and coaches and everyone in a position of authority needs to be educated about the seriousness head injuries. Stuff happens on the ice and field, and you can’t prevent that in the course of regular play. But deliberately going after someone in a fashion intended to do (lasting) harm should not be tolerated.


  2. The problem of sports concussions is not merely a question of rules or helmets. Humans have an almost lascivious pleasure in watching violence; whether it be gladiators hacking away at each other, the prurient stares of rubber neckers after a bad accident or even the more refined sensibilities of movie goers (look at what won on Oscar night – and yes, it WAS a good a film, but it was still representative of violent tensions). We like to look at violence and destruction – perhaps it’s partially ‘there but for the grace of G_d go I’, or perhaps it’s just vicarious thrills but we have this attraction for it. This then gets combined with the American (and perhaps Western) notion of stoicism, of the tough guy, of the guy who can take it. From this springs a variety of other idealized characterizations; the pull yourself up from your bootstrap Horatio Alger archetype, the I can do it all modern woman, the John Wayne he-man and the ‘I can do it all’ survivor of injury…….

    We are voyeurs, we like to watch, and as long is there is an audience there will be performers. This has been coupled with the realization that there was much money to be made in the performance of sport. And then that is combined with the ‘I will lived forever’ sensibility of youth and the general culture of the stoic hero. Kids – and I mean even 24 year olds, do not have fully formed brains, so in a way we are all ‘brain injured’ till our frontal lobes complete their development in mid-twenties. Thus youngsters smoke cigarettes, text and drive, drink and drive and do outrageous drugs and have unsafe sex – because they are immortal or invincible on some level – the bad stuff won’t really happen to them.

    And of course there is the money – there is so much money to be made (for so very few but it is tantalizing) and this is the talent that these guys have – the ability to do this sport, to take the pain, to endure. They are selling their endurance. And we buy it. Try telling someone to walk away from that when it’s all they have.

    Then you wake up one day and you can’t remember what to call your toothbrush, you forgot the two items you wife asked you to pick up at the store, you find yourself in irrational rage because someone moved your chair and you can’t read a book because you can’t follow the story line. You feel dark and angry and look for solace in extremes – booze and drugs and other high risk activities. Eventually it falls apart.

    A long while ago I said something about not letting kids play football and you said that kids would never give it up, sports are too intrinsic to our lifestyles even to our values. And part of that is getting beat up and struggling to your feet to win one for the home team, to overcome, to do the impossible. We trade a moment of glory for a lifetime of the commonplace.

    This is a hard mindset to overcome, no matter how many pictures of damaged brains you see. Look how hard it was to get kids to quit smoking – this is even tougher. I have relatives whose kids play in hockey and I won’t say anything – they will simply protest and get mad at me for being the naysayer. But perhaps, with more and more societal focus we can make a difference and change the way the game is played.


  3. Interesting… I am familiar with the concept of catastrophizing, but I never thought of myself as doing it on the scale I have been. I guess that’s what my neuropsych has been trying to do — talk me back from that edge, where I really am not — I just think I am. It’s very strange to think how much I’ve been reacting to, how much I’ve been thrown by… but not knowing the exact nature of my condition for decades was a problem. Now I know. So, I can start thinking about my life and experiences in very different terms.

    Brain damaged… it sounds so final. Brings to mind images of feeding tubes and ventilators. But really, if you live long enough and fully enough, chances are your brain is going to get damaged along the way. The cells don’t grow back. The larger brain may remap and adjust, but what damage is done… is done — or so I hear.


  4. BB,

    I was going to send you a video from December or so but I thought it was too disturbing – shot in a junior hockey game I think in Quebec. Same deal – one player rode into another elbow up, smashed him in the head – and the injured player fell – and went into convulsions. It was sick to even watch it, even more so going over the replay and seeing how the first player came in with his elbow up.

    He knew.

    Having grown up in small town Canada I of course grew up with hockey. Violence is very particular to Canadian hockey – I don’t know the stats, but I doubt the Europeans, or the Russians, ever had problems with fighting, injuries the way we do. I don’t recall seeing the same kind of dirty, savage hits in the Olympics. When i was a kid fighting, the hard hit, was pushed as part of the game. This is when I was eight friggin’ years old. There’s still huge denial about it. When Eric Lindros complained off the after-effects of concussions, Bobby Clarke, leader of the Philly Flyers in the 70’s, possibly the most violent team ever, told him to quit whining and get back on the ice. It’s a big problem. And no, there’s almost no awareness of what effects concussions will have on players, anyone, long term. I think there is much more awareness in the US.

    Don’t even get me started on the NHL. I was a hockey fanatic as a kid, and I hardly watch it now . . . and that about says it all.



  5. Speaking of Eric Lindros, he is featured in a video that was created with the NHL and the National Academy of Neuropsychology to raise awareness about concussion. It’s really good. You can watch it here:

    The Concussions in Hockey video is available as a free online download at the page, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to look at Flash on my own computer. I just watch it. Wait through the buffering, and watch it some more. It’s only 12 minutes long, but it has a lot great info in it.


  6. BB,

    Thanks for the video – just watched it. Pretty good. Eric Lindros took some bad hits – he was a big guy, so everyone wanted to take him out. I’m glad these guys are trying to raise awareness.

    Follow-up on the Marc Savard injury:

    I really hope this finally gets legs in Canada and raises awareness. Lindros was so right when he said it used to be almost laughed about.



  7. I did read that article — it’s a good one.

    I, too, hope that this gets some attention in Canada. Check out the video at where former enforcer Rocky Thompson talks about headshots. He contends that these kinds of hits have always been part of hockey, and players don’t protect themselves well enough, today.

    I dunno – once upon a time, everyone thought you had to be knocked out to be concussed. And back in the day, dementia and Alzheimers weren’t the high-profile issues they are today. I think also, because the type of work we do in the “developed” world has shifted from manufacturing and production to more information economy stuff, we’re feeling the effects of head injuries more strongly than ever. Once upon a time, you could get a job as a longshoreman or a factory worker and support your family. There were jobs that didn’t require a huge amount of “high level” processing, and being a bit slower wasn’t the debilitating state it is today.

    Nowadays, we use our brains in different ways, and we may just have to change the way we play sports, to keep competitive off the field.

    But who knows? Even I still like to watch players dish out and take hard hits (so long as I don’t think about what happens in the process).

    Could be, we as a western culture decide, we can afford the collateral damage, and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is just the price some folks will have to pay for glory — and our entertainment.


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