Lost in the shuffle

Just checking around on the Marc Savard story, I came across this post:

Boston Bruins Decide Not To Play In Honour Of Marc Savard

Apparently, it’s customary for a team to leave a fallen player’s dressing room stall in place, but that changed, this time. From the story (bold is mine):

“We actually decided not to dedicate the rest of the season to Marc,” admitted team captain Zdeno Chara. “We as a team feel that it is best to move on and put Marc Savard behind us. We are in the middle of a battle for the playoffs and we can’t worry ourselves with trying to please an injured player. We have to stay focused, and unfortunately that focus doesn’t involve Marc.”

Head coach Claude Julien said it was a tough decision to make but one in which he said needed to be made. “I talked to them about it and as a group we felt that it was best to sever any ties with Marc in an effort to make sure we keep pushing forward instead of dwelling on the past. The toughest part was taking his stall down,” said Julien referring to the tradition of a team keeping a fallen teammates’ dressing room stall exactly the way it was left. “Tossing his nameplate in the garbage was a hard thing to do but it was the first step in seperating ourselves from him. We all know what he meant to us, he was our leading scorer, but we have to forget him for now. Next year, if he gets over his concussion problems, we’ll welcome him back with open arms.”

This gesture, this response struck me as incredibly typical, with regard to concussion/traumatic brain injury. It happens, time and time again, to those who sustain the kind of injury that no one can see, and almost no one fully understands. It’s just too much trouble for the rest of the folks, who have pressing demands weighing on them, to accommodate — or for that matter, even acknowledge — the presence of an injured compatriot.

Hockey is a tough game. Life can be a tough game. And when you’re in a high-performance position, dealing with high-performance people, in a winner-takes-all situation, if you’re injured to the degree that Marc Savard (or for that matter many of us) get injured, you can expect — like a wounded wild animal — to be left behind the pack when they decide to move on.

It reminds me of the nature shows I used to watch (when I used to watch a lot of television), where a weakened or injured member of a herd or flock or pack would be allowed to hang around the edges for a while, but if/when they failed to keep up, the rest of the gang just moved on. They couldn’t afford to jeopardize the safety and well-being of the group, for the sake of accommodating the one.

They just don’t have that kind of luxury. It’s literally a matter of life and death.

This, my friends, is why I do not speak openly about my TBIs to anyone outside my most immediate circle. To admit to a brain injury to others — no matter how sympathetic they may be — is to admit to being impaired. Less-than. Not quite up to the task. Nobody cares, if you’ve got a killer work ethic. Nobody cares if you’ve figured out all kinds of compesatory techniques. Nobody cares if you’ve struck a balance between your pain and discomfort and the discharge of your daily duties. All they know is, they need you to be 100%, 100% of the time, and if you openly admit that you can’t be that — well, “can’t means won’t” and they silently place a strike against you in the mental scoreboard everyone — and I mean everyone — unconsciously keeps in the back of their mind.

Frankly, I don’t have the patience or the time for educating the rest of my milieu about the problems and pitfalls and hidden blessings of mild traumatic brian injury. And I consider myself lucky that even the folks within my circle often cannot hear me. I didn’t always feel this way, but several years out from coming to terms with the true nature of my difficulties, now I do. I can honestly say that I’m thankful that they dismiss my concerns and issues as being primarily psychological, telling themselves that I can’t possibly have all the problems I do. The pain, the confusion, the memory issues, the emotional volatility, the issues with planning and focus… “You’re so smart!” they tell me. “You don’t have any of those problems!” It must be old trauma that’s bothering me. An unhappy childhood. Whatever they want to tell themselves, is fine. So long as they don’t treat me like some kind of mentally deficient scrap of human detritus (commonly referred to by some as “retards”).

While it is annoying to be dismissed by people who supposedly care about you, it’s still better than being marginalized and completely shut out from the company of others, like Marc Savard has been. And that’s what happens. People might not mean to do it — or maybe they do — but something about brain injury freaks people out, and they all have their own versions of the story in their heads about what that means. Those stories are intractable and impossible to combat from the outside. So I don’t bother trying.

I really feel for Savard — closed up in his dark room with no contact with anyone, aside from his text messages (sorry, I can’t find the article that mentions that, but I did read it the other day). I have been in that darkness, too — though mine was less literal. The weeks and months after my last head injury were a slow but steady descent into confusion and crisis. For the life of me, I could not understand why everything was going to hell. As far as I could tell, I was fine — the rest of the world was falling apart. Out to get me. Determined to destroy me. And for some bizarre reason, I cried constantly — though I have very dim recollection of it, personally — my spouse tells me that”s how I was, and I have every reason to believe them.


The more I think about it, the more I realize that the one saving grace I have, is that my injury is hidden from the rest of the world. I used to rue that and complain about it, angry that I wasn’t properly respected for the hard work I’ve done to get back to where I am. Angry that no one could seem to fathom how difficult the simplest of things are for me to accomplish. Angry that I had to do so much of it alone — why wasn’t anyone helping me?

But now, the more I consider the Marc Savard situation, and the more I think about how the world works (like it or not), the happier I am that I am not exposed in that way. Precious few people are aware of my history of injuries. And I thank my lucky stars, that I at least had the presence of mind to keep my mouth shut, those many times something in me wanted to talk about my past to gain the sympathy and understanding of others, so I would not feel so alone in my struggles.

The one consolation Savard may have, is his past contracts with the Bruins that netted him plenty of dough. He’s in a position to take time off, if he’s got mean$. And given the public nature of his injury and rising awareness about concussion, he’s in a position to be understood and accommodated — although he’s been initially dismissed and pushed out of the “pack” by the others hungry for victory.

Tens of thousands of other concussion and traumatic brain injury survivors do not have that financial safety net. Nor is their injury one that was sustained in a public way, at the hands of someone who (IMHO) was clearly, obviously — and on tape — “headhunting”. Savard went down in the line of duty, providing entertainment and enjoyment to his fans. Everyone could see that he was defenseless and was unjustly attacked in ways that would land Cooke in jail for assault with intent, if he weren’t on the ice. The rest of us fall down stairs, have car accidents, are attacked for whatever reason, have things fall on our heads, or just have some crazy stuff happen to us, which renders us … well… different than we were before that event. Nobody understands why we’re different, nobody gets why we’re acting the way we are — why we can’t take the noise and the light and the crowds anymore, why we’re so tired all the time. Nobody gets why we can’t remember shit anymore. All they know is, we don’t really seem to be trying… How annoying for them.

We’re just no fun anymore.

And if the pack doesn’t send us away, on their own, we withdraw of our own volition. We pull back into our caves to lick our wounds, tend our injuries as best we can (which is sadly piss-poor, all too often), and try to build back some of what we seem to have lost, but can’t quite put our fingers on. We hope for help. We may even ask for help. But absent any clue from the rest of the world (all too often the case), we don’t stand a chance of getting it.

Or, perhaps even worse, the folks who do appear to get us, sequester us in a category of “less-than” and play on our insufficiencies to justify their assistance — professional or otherwise. We ask for help… and are assigned victim status by those who are professionally trained to cater to victims.  Our perceived helplessness becomes the rallying cry for those who make their living from helping us. We must be helpless, or they would have no job to do, no industry to build out. The worse off we are, the better off they are.

Talking to folks at work about the Savard situation (I work with a number of Bruins fans), their tone is somber and distressed. Some would like to see Cooke’s blood on the ice. Some would like to see him banned for good. Whatever their feelings towards Cooke, when it comes to Savard, there’s this truly empty void that fills the space when we talk about him. The hit was one thing, the stretcher off the ice was another. Now he’s off in no-mans-land, a fallen comrade pushed to the side by a team that has larger issues in mind, than his injury.

In a way, I can see why the Bruins would decide to put him aside. It’s a crushing loss for them, no doubt. And why constantly remind themselves of it? I’m guessing seeing his empty dressing room stall would be tinder for the fire of anger and outrage over the incident — better to remove the kindling, before the sparks really take hold and more players (deserving or not) are consumed in the fires of rage.

But at the same time, it must hurt. Sure, hard hits are part of hockey. They have probably always been, since the first northerners took to the ice to duel over a puck in the dead of winter. Hard hits are part of any serious contact/collision sport. And they’re part of life, as well. We can count on it. That doesn’t make it any less painful — any moreso than knowing that broken bones come with the territory of rough play and work alleviates the pain of a shattered tibia or a crushed hand. Any way you look at it, it’s excruciating, and it sucks.

But it might be nice to have another response to concussion, other than summarily cleaning out someone’s stuff and tossing their nameplate in the trash.

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.

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