Head injuries, hockey and youth sports

Because the Bruins amazing streak of no losses has coincided with my own housebound medical rehab, my enthusiasm for hockey is strong these days and I anxiously await each game (tonight v Winnipeg at 8:30 on NESN). Last night’s 3 to 1 victory over Pittsburgh was especially noteworthy, with the Bruins aggressive defense relegating superstar Sidney Crosby to “just another guy” status.

But the good karma of last night’s game, for me, was interrupted by a third period fight between Gregory Campbell of the Bruins and Joe Vitale of the Penguins. I’m ambivalent about fighting in hockey and the catalyst last night – Campbell was reacting to Vitale crashing into the Boston goalie – fell squarely within the universe of “legitimate” fights (as opposed to Slap Shot like carnivals).

What caused me to view this fight in a different light was a New York Times three-part story on the life and death of NHL super-enforcer, Derek Boogaard, who had played for the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers and who died in May 2010 at age 28 of a drug overdose. The story traces Boogaard’s boyhood dream as he grew up in the emptiness of western Canada of making it to the NHL. Lacking the skills of a top high school player but of immense size and determination, Boogaard quickly discovered that his path to pro hockey ran through the penalty box. He soon became one of the most feared fighters in hockey.

While Boogaard’s role brought him million dollar contracts, it also brought him a lifetime of injuries that led to serious prescription drug addictions that ultimately led to his untimely death. Beyond that, however, was the discovery after his death, when his family agreed to donate his brain to the Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, that Boogaard’s brain was already riddled with evidence of advanced C.T.E. – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – an Alzheimer’s like condition that results in dementia and changes in mood and behavior.

With increasing frequency, we are learning of the long term negative effects of frequent blows to the head, particularly in football and hockey. A flurry of rule changes intended to reduce head injuries and to provide safer and more effective treatment once they occur have been but into place.

My suspicion is that none of these measures are sufficient, especially for players younger than 18 years old. Before 18 and perhaps even 21, a young person’s brain is developing and is much more susceptible to long term damage. I’m no expert on brain development, but two items have always stuck with me. About 20 years ago I attended a seminar on head injuries sponsored by the Massachusetts Association of Trial Attorneys. What I learned there is that the human brain floats in liquid within the skull. When a blow to the head occurs, there is that initial force – something that might be minimized by protective headgear – but there is also a secondary impact as the brain smashes into the inside of the skull in response to that blow. No helmet can protect against that.

The second thing that’s always stuck with me was a comment made to me by an eye surgeon several years ago. As treatment for glaucoma, the doctor zapped my left eye with a laser, yielding an excellent result. But my right eye, which hadn’t been touched by the laser, showed a similarly positive result. When I asked for an explanation of this illogical but very welcome development, the doctor, who was head of the glaucoma department at one of Boston’s top hospitals, said “You’d be shocked if you understood how little we know about how the human body works.”

Applying that disclosure to the realm of head injuries, I predict that we will learn, with increasing frequency, that head injuries, especially to young people, have a serious long-term effect and that incremental measures like better headgear and changes in rules will be ineffectual in counteracting such injuries. To borrow a phrase from US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner (who was writing about Roe v Wade), “Sports in America today are on a collision course with modern science.”

I’m not advocating the abolition of hockey, football or any other sport. They are fun to play and to watch. They are part of American culture. This is just a prediction that during our life times, we will be presented with strong evidence that our enjoyment of these sports comes at a high price to the young people who participate.

And please be sure to read the entire NYT series on Derek Boogaard. Because of embedded multimedia features, they may take a while to load, but they are worth the wait:

“Learning to Brawl”

“Blood on the Ice

“A Brain Going Bad”

One Response to Head injuries, hockey and youth sports

  1. Eric says:

    I was fortunate enough to watch Joe Vitale and several others play some excellent hockey from 2007-2009. Fighting in college hockey is a little different than in the NHL, and certainly it isn’t legitimized by the refs, but the reasoning behind fighting is the same. When tensions are high against powerhouses like Boston College or Boston University, there might be some sort confrontation after every whistle. Suffice to say, when Vitale played for Northeastern, he spent a great deal of time in the penalty box. It would be a shame to see him and the other great players I’ve watched in college have their careers cut short for health reasons, but it comes with the territory.