Dave Hannigan: NHL’s attitude to concussion cuts no ice with families of victims

America at Large: Huge hits keep coming as tragic case of Mark Pavelich shines light on issue

Mark Pavelich pictured back in 1987. Photograph: Donald Black/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Mark Pavelich pictured back in 1987. Photograph: Donald Black/Star Tribune via Getty Images

 

With 90 seconds remaining in the first period, the Boston Bruins’ Brandon Carlo was near the boards, eyes down searching for the elusive puck, when the Washington Capitals’ Tom Wilson blindsided him with a shoulder that drove his head into the plexiglass.

As Carlo’s 6ft 5in five frame crumpled to the ice in slow-motion, Jakub Vrana skated in and crosschecked him to the back of the neck with his hockey stick. Yet, referees assessed no penalty on the play and Carlo, looking distinctly groggy and unsteady, was assisted from the arena and immediately taken by ambulance to hospital.

“If this is a suspendable play, then all hitting is probably going to have to be removed,” said Capitals’ coach Peter Laviolette, after the National Hockey League subsequently banned Wilson, whose career has been hallmarked by dirty play, for seven games. “Because he didn’t take any strides, he didn’t target the head, the player was upright, and Tom hit him hard. I hope the player is okay, but for me, the call was correct on the ice. This kind of hit happens so many times during the course of the game.”

And that may be the problem.

Twenty-four hours before that incident, staff at the Eagle’s Healing Nest in Minnesota discovered the body of Mark Pavelich, a resident of the facility who was being treated for psychiatric problems under orders of the court.

Forty-one years ago, Pavelich set up Mike Eruzione’s goal to ensure a squad of plucky college kids defeated the mighty Soviet Union in an Olympic hockey semi-final upset forever cherished around here as The Miracle on Ice. There followed a decent pro career with the New York Rangers, the debilitating physical and mental toll from which culminated in his death at the age of 63.

“There was a lot of people that could have helped Mark and didn’t,” wrote Barry Beck, his one-time Rangers team-mate. “They know who they are. Mark’s sister Jean believed Mark was suffering from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) as his demeanour became more aggressive. Now not one NHL team will discuss CTE or any of their players, staff or employees . . . They don’t discuss it because they’re cowards. The only thing that matters to them is money. That’s it in a nutshell. It’s always been that way. Ask the lawyers . . . yeah just money!”

Brandon Carlo in action for the Boston Bruins against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on February 10th. Photograph: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Brandon Carlo in action for the Boston Bruins against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on February 10th. Photograph: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s impossible not to draw connections between the plight of Pavelich, the ambivalent reaction to the hit on Carlo, and the National Hockey League’s distinctly unimpressive approach to the issue of concussion. The family of the dead star are so convinced his mental health problems were a consequence of repeated blows to the head sustained during his glory days on ice that they have sent his brain to be autopsied for CTE. Yet, the debate about the suspension of Tom Wilson – his Capitals team-mates called it a joke – shows a sport remaining in thrall to an outdated strain of machismo, perversely insisting that such concussive hits are just part of the game.

The NHL can hardly be depended upon to take decisive action on the matter of player welfare either. Its response to head-related trauma among its alumni was to agree a pathetic 2018 court settlement. Under the terms of that agreement, each applicant is entitled to $22,000 compensation and up to $75,000 in medical expenses but, crucially, the league admitted no fault for their deteriorating mental states. Paltry sums and a particularly brazen stance since the Boston University CTE Center has found the disease present in every hockey player’s brain they’ve ever examined.

Pavelich never applied for his NHL entitlements because by that point, he had already started to undergo the type of disturbing personality transformation common to many athletes who shipped too many blows to the head. After retiring to his native Minnesota, his quiet life had been pockmarked only by the tragic death of his beloved wife in a fall from a balcony in 2012. Then, in 2019, he returned from a fishing trip with James T Miller, a neighbour and friend, accused his pal of spiking his drink, and beat him with a metal pole, breaking his vertebrae, cracking his ribs and damaging his kidneys.

None of his team-mates could recall any such violence in his career but his sister stated that out of character behaviour, mood swings, paranoia, and anger issues were becoming a problem leading up to the assault. Court-appointed psychologists found Pavelich to be suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, among other mental health problems. Declared unfit for trial, he was initially committed to a secure mental institution and his stint at the less restrictive Eagle’s Healing Nest was part of an ongoing rehabilitation that appeared to be progressing okay. Until last week.

A couple of years back, Ken Dryden, a hockey Hall of Famer who won six Stanley Cups and served in Canada’s parliament, wrote a disturbing book called Game Change, detailing the struggles and premature death of Steve Montador, another former NHL star and CTE sufferer. A constant, eloquent voice in the wilderness advocating for rules changes to give players more protection against headshots, Dryden has been dismissed by some in the sport he once bestrode for being dramatic and alarmist.

Tom Wilson returns to the Capitals team on March 20th but the Boston Bruins have no idea when Brandon Carlo will be fit to play again. Or what long-term damage that hit did to his brain.

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