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An Uncertain Future: Rick Nash’s Retirement and the NHL’s Ongoing Concussion Problem

The six-time All-Star called it quits at age 34 because of concussion-related symptoms two months after the NHL agreed to compensate 318 ex-players who sued over head injuries. Is the league doing enough to ensure the long-term health of its athletes?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Sunday night, Rick Nash stood at center ice at Nationwide Arena in Columbus and received a standing ovation. Two days earlier, when the 34-year-old Nash announced his retirement due to “unresolved issues/symptoms” from concussions, it was a premature end to a prolific career. Despite being the 2002 no. 1 overall draft pick and a six-time All-Star, Nash never really became a household name. But during his time in the league, he trailed only three players in total goals: Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla, and Patrick Marleau.

Last season, at the trade deadline, the Boston Bruins sent a package of young guys and draft picks to the New York Rangers for Nash, betting that he could be the productive piece the team needed for a long playoff run. It was exciting to envision what Nash might be able to do alongside, say, an elite playmaker and set-up guy like Patrice Bergeron. But a March concussion, not his first one, sidelined Nash for a dozen games at the end of the season. In 12 playoff appearances he scored only three times. His career ended with a whimper that was caused by a bang.

As Nash was sitting idle this fall, still hoping that he could return, the NHL reached a $18.9 million settlement with a group of 318 former players who for years alleged that the league had failed to protect and educate its athletes with respect to the risks of repeated head trauma. But the deal’s terms were muted. The NHL did not have to acknowledge any liability or admit to any connections between hockey’s physical and at times outright violent nature and CTE. The players were denied their attempt to structure the lawsuit as a class action. And the dollar amounts—roughly $22,000 per player, plus various supplemental funds for some medical costs—were far lower than the negotiated payouts in the NFL’s billion-dollar settlement from 2015.

The NFL deal, which has lately been mired in its own drama, earmarked funds for early-onset sufferers of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and ALS, among other things. But its terms stopped short of including coverage for CTE, which can only be diagnosed posthumously. “Many of the behavioral and mood conditions claimed to be associated with CTE are prevalent within the general public,” negotiators wrote at the time.

A New York Times piece covering the hockey agreement carried the headline “Owners Win The Fight,” and quoted lawyer Charles Zimmerman as saying: “The N.H.L.’s philosophy was scorched earth and deny every issue.” Buttressing this claim was the fact that last spring, when the 2015 depositions of NHL owners and executives related to the lawsuit were unsealed, the transcripts read like an encyclopedia of denial, legalese, and smarm. “There is no link,” said commissioner Gary Bettman in his session. “You know that. You’ve seen all the research and the data. There’s no medical or scientific certainty that concussions lead to CTE.” Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs said he had never heard of CTE. Former Rangers general manager Glen Sather, when asked whether he could think of any reason not to embark on a mental health study of former players, replied, “Yeah, I could probably think of about two or three million.”

It was in the mid-to-late ‘90s when I first began to grasp the severity of what a brain injury can do to a soul. One of my favorite hockey players, Pat LaFontaine, was forced to retire at age 33 in 1998 after years of concussions left him frequently incapacitated by pain and overcome by anger. I read about his searing headaches and his emotional volatility; I learned that he sometimes refused to leave his room for days. It felt claustrophobic just to contemplate. Eric Lindros was next: one of the most ferociously talented players of all time, his body betrayed by the things being done to his head.

When Lindros complained of concussion-like symptoms in the spring of 2000, both the Flyers and his father Carl felt that it was all just a migraine, despite the fact that the Legion of Doom legend had suffered multiple concussions in the span of a few years and that his brother, Brett, had been forced to retire in 1996 after repeated head injuries. “If Eric feels he has a headache, we didn’t know he had a concussion,” said then-Flyers GM Bobby Clarke at the time. “If he has a headache, what are we supposed to do about it?” Lindros ended up sitting out the last 27 games of the 1999-00 regular season and most of the playoffs. He returned for the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals against the New Jersey Devils, scoring a goal in Game 6 and getting knocked unconscious in Game 7 by Scott Stevens in one of the most famous hockey hits of all time.

In recent years, head injuries in hockey have affected skill players and bruisers alike in ways ranging from the quietly devastating to the outright tragic. The Red Wings’ Johan Franzen lives in daily anguish nearly four years after he last played. The Bruins’ Marc Savard saw an ascendent career essentially ended by a Matt Cooke elbow. To the league’s credit, there has been an ongoing and thankless effort to crack down on dangerous and illegal one-off contact to the head. But danger will always be subjective, particularly in a league that celebrates-but-doesn’t the ancient art of dropping gloves and throwing fists.

Hockey’s enforcers are men whose jobs and in many cases entire personas are wrapped up in the sport’s convoluted sub rosa webs of justice, and whose symptoms and stories have unfortunate, obvious precedent. (A 1930s-era predecessor to CTE was the term “dementia pugilistica,” which replaced “punch drunk” in medical literature.) Beloved big ol’ brawler Derek Boogaard was only 28 when he died in 2011 of an oxycodone overdose. A posthumous brain scan revealed that he had even more advanced CTE than famous enforcer Bob Probert, who had died of a heart attack a year earlier at 45. A few months after Boogaard’s death, two more fighters, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien, ended their own lives. Another fighter, Todd Ewen, also killed himself; an initial scan of his brain did not reveal CTE, and Bettman used this as evidence of the linkage not being proven. But a second opinion did find the presence of CTE in Ewen’s brain. And so did scans of four former junior hockey players, all of whom were dead by age 30.

Given how many players have gotten their “bell rung” or their “clock cleaned,” gotten “lit up,” “smoked,” or “destroyed”—the once-routine parlance that now sounds grotesque—the players who sued the league expected that more than 1,000 former NHLers would join their suit. Only about a third of that number did. “Retired NHL players love the game,” TSN’s Rick Westhead tweeted, quoting the lawyer Zimmerman. “They revere their time on the ice & for the most part, are not as motivated as football players are in taking on the league & its leadership ... they look for ways to stay involved [post retirement] in ways we don’t see in other sports.”

In a January podcast appearance, the fearsome former defenseman Chris Pronger, who spent three years working for the NHL in the Department of Player Safety, estimated that he’d had a bevy of concussions (“I don’t know, 30? 20?”) in his 18-year career and twice as many lesser dings. “If you’re talking about every time you see stars,” he said, “I’m at 50 or 100.” But when it came to the idea that the league ought to more aggressively crack down on problematic contact, he bristled, saying it would lead to a league with no hitting. “On a north-south hit, you can’t not hit the guy in the head,” he explained. “If you try to miss his head, you’re probably going to take his knees out.”

Hockey’s idiosyncrasies and peculiarities have long made addressing its problems more difficult. Fighting is increasingly becoming an archaic part of the game, but plenty of people still insist on its utility. And trying to litigate in-game head shots can feel like a game of whack-a-mole, or, as NHL fans sometimes used to snark, like an inconsistent, arbitrary “Wheel of Justice.” It doesn’t help that all of this can be hard to even talk about calmly with hockey fans, who often face the issue armed with a protective force field of whataboutism, defensiveness, and prodigious use of the word “rat.” The NHL has used the ongoing confusion and hypocrisy to its advantage; one big talking point involves deflecting blame toward the Players Association for not being proactive about identifying and communicating risks. (This then allows cynical eyebrows to be raised when the NHLPA advocates on behalf of a player like Tom Wilson, who was given a 20-game suspension this fall that was eventually reduced by a neutral arbitrator.)

There are signs that ex-players are fighting back. Some of those involved in the lawsuit, like fighters Mike Peluso, who began suffering seizures while he was still playing and says the New Jersey Devils and other teams did nothing about it, and nine-year veteran Daniel Carcillo, decided to opt-out from the settlement in order to continue to pursue separate action against the league. Carcillo has become an increasingly loud voice in the realm of traumatic brain injury awareness, calling the $18.9 million deal “insulting” and publicly castigating Wayne Gretzky for not lending his voice to the cause “to help the men who protected him throughout his career.”

Gretzky, who famously sported a useless salad spinner of a helmet, responded diplomatically when asked about it before this year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “We didn’t know what concussions were,” he said.“Hopefully we’ve got enough knowledge now that we protect the players of today, hopefully we take care of the players the best (we) can from the past and we move forward.”

Hockey is physical, and being a professional athlete means that you’re always one brutal instant away from being someone whose Wikipedia entry has the phrase “career-ending.” Sometimes it’s a shattered femur and sometimes it’s a rattled skull. But at least in the first scenario there is no systemic shadiness, and there are no team owners staring innocently into cameras and insisting they’ve never heard of a permanent limp. And there is also far less of a chance that the injury might ultimately render life unrecognizable.

Nash’s story isn’t particularly exceptional; the only difference between him and hundreds of other players is that he got a brief, beautiful goodbye on his way out the door. On the big screen in Columbus on Sunday night, a montage of his hockey highlights flashed by, set to John Coltrane. On the ice, Nash’s wife held their baby as two older kids took turns dropping the puck. Blue Jackets fans who maybe harbored grievances about the way Nash left Columbus (via a requested trade to New York in 2012) softened their stances. Ordinarily salty coach John Tortorella had only kind things to say. It all had the uplifting, retrospective sheen of a jersey retirement, which was what made it feel bleak. Like so many other guys over the years, Nash shouldn’t have to be reminiscing already. “I’m just trying to get by, to work through it, and I’m trying to enjoy family life,” Nash later told MSG Network, trying to move forward to avoid looking back.