Monday, March 25, 2019

I cheered as a generation of NHL players gave each other concussions. What do I owe them now?

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I’m​ going to warn​ you​ up​ front​ that​ this​ post is​ going to be​ heavy on the​ questions.​ It’s going to​​ be a lot of smaller questions, all piling up toward one bigger question. And the answer is going to be unsatisfying, because the answer is going to be: I don’t know.

Maybe I should, because I’ve been struggling with this for years. Maybe you have too. And if so, I wish I could wrap it up for you with a nice easy answer we could all agree on. That’s where I wanted this to end. I didn’t get there.

But I still think there’s value in the questions because for too long most of us didn’t ask them at all. Or at least, we didn’t ask them out loud, even as they might have been lingering somewhere in the background.

I have questions about concussions, the players who are still feeling their effects, and the shared experience of being a hockey fan and what that should mean. I find myself asking those questions a lot these days. But to get to right now, first I need to go back almost three decades.

It’s 1989, and I just finished opening up my Christmas presents. I don’t remember exactly what I got that year, but I’m sure there was a nice pile of clothes, books and computer games. I do know which gift I want to turn to first: a VHS copy of “Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey.” I’ve been getting hockey tapes for years now, but this one is different. It’s the first in the series, before we even knew there would be a series, and it isn’t just the usual bloopers and silly sketches. This is Grapes. This is going to be good.

And it is good. All the hockey fans in the house quickly gather around the TV to watch the hits and goals and other highlights. Then comes a segment of big hits, after which Cherry thanks us for watching and gives a big thumbs up as the screen fades to black. There are probably a few puzzled looks for a second or two, but then Cherry is back and he chuckles at the fake out. “Hey you, folks, I know what you’re thinking out there. What’s a Don Cherry video without the odd tussle?”

But before we get to that, we arrive at what Cherry would eventually start calling “tea time.” That’s where he gives all the “sweethearts” out there who don’t like fighting a chance to turn off the TV. At my house, nobody even thinks of turning it off.

First up is a scrum involving a clearly uninterested Wayne Gretzky that’s played up for laughs, complete with rag-timey piano music. Then comes “two guys that aren’t fooling”: Bob Probert and Craig Coxe. The fight is from early in the 1987-88 season, more than two years before this time, but in the days before YouTube or 24-hour sports highlights, most fans have never seen the whole thing start-to-finish.

Coxe and Probert go toe-to-toe for nearly a full minute, and it’s all bombs. Cherry says there are 71 punches thrown; it seems like more. A lot of them don’t land. A lot of them do. “Way to go, Craig, and way to go, Bobby,” Cherry exclaims when it’s over. I’m sure I was nodding along.

Next up is another super heavyweight bout, this one featuring John Kordic and Jay Miller. Then another non-fight that’s played for laughs, and the video ends. I can remember feeling vaguely disappointed. Only two real fights? I thought there’d be more. Ah well, let’s rewind and watch Coxe and Probert again.

That scene became an annual tradition at my house. Christmas day was about stockings, family and a nice turkey dinner. But it was also the day to tear open the latest “Rock’em Sock’em” and gather around the TV to watch Grapes walk us through another season of goals, saves, crushing hits and, at the end, the odd tussle. I’m willing to bet there were plenty of families across Canada that did the same.

Bob Probert died in 2010. The cause was heart failure, but he donated his brain to researchers who found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease that’s been linked to blows to the head. His wife described him as experiencing memory loss and uncharacteristic behavior in his final years in an article in the New York Times. Click that article today, and you’ll be greeted by a photo of Probert in mid-fight, blood pouring out of his forehead, while a young fan beams just a few feet away.

John Kordic died in 1992 after a drug-fueled altercation with eight police officers in a motel room; the official cause of death was listed as heart and lung failure. He’d abused steroids during his career and had long battled drugs and alcohol. He’d attributed his struggles in part to his father, who never approved of his role as an enforcer because he wanted his son to be a real player. Sports Illustrated wrote about Kordic’s passing in the weeks after it happened. They ran the article under the headline “Death of a Goon”.

Should we have turned it off?

Even then, even as a kid, I can remember feeling just the slightest twinge of guilt over watching players absorb haymakers. Or maybe I didn’t, and I’m just wishing that part into existence. But if it was there, it was easy enough to extinguish. This was hockey, after all. These guys knew what they signed up for. As Coxe and Probert are pummeling each other, Cherry bellows what we’re all thinking: “Two tough guys going at it. They want to go, let ’em go!”

And then, the fight fans’ mantra: “They’re not hurting anybody but themselves.”

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