MONTREAL — Most people who get a headache will reach for a pain reliever. Andrew Peters reaches into a dark place, one filled with frightening questions.
Is it just a headache caused by stress? Is it his sore neck acting up? Or is it the dreaded CTE, a degenerative brain disease that is devastating the lives of athletes who’ve suffered concussions – people just like him.
“I don’t know if I’m worried for no reason,” Peters said by phone. “I don’t know if I’m worried for good reason. I don’t know?”
The retired NHL enforcer has watched with interest as stories about the brain began mingling with tales of sporting brawn. He knows all about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE. He knows people who suffer from it. He knows people who are suing the NHL, saying the league didn’t do enough to protect them from concussions.
The organizers of the lawsuit asked him to join, but Peters conferred with his agent and decided against it.
“My day-to-day life is very good compared to the guys in the stories you hear, the guys that filed for the suit,” the 33-year-old said. “I don’t think I’m at that point yet, but some of them have 30 years on me.”
Peters knows there’s something wrong, though, and he believes concussions are the cause. He’s been diagnosed with seven since age 15, and he estimates he suffered another dozen that didn’t qualify back then but would meet today’s definition.
He hasn’t yet undergone CTE testing, which is another reason he declined to join the lawsuit that features fellow former Sabres Richie Dunn and Morris Titanic.
“I know there are some ongoing effects from my career,” Peters said. “I know there are. That’s blatantly obvious. I would rather find out more about me and what I’m going through before I just jump on and ride these guys’ coattails. They’ve done the testing. They’ve lived their life.
“It didn’t surprise me that I’d know some of the names on it. It didn’t surprise me that I wouldn’t know some of the names on it. I felt sorry for the guys that signed on because I understood.”
Peters, who wasn’t afraid to have a beer after a game, stopped drinking alcohol more than 18 months ago because his head couldn’t handle it anymore.
“A lot of that was the impact alcohol had on my symptoms and emotions,” he said. “I guess those can be natural with any person, any human being, but you factor in the head shots that I’ve taken over the years and it magnifies them. Alcohol magnifies them even more, and those are things you need to learn how to live with.”
Peters suffered most of his head trauma during fights. He dropped the gloves 187 times through junior hockey, the minor leagues and the NHL, according to HockeyFights.com. Pugilism is what got the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder to the top of the sport, and it’s what kept him around for six seasons.
“However many enforcers there were in the league, there were very few who enjoyed it, I can assure you of that,” he said. “I was one of the ones that did not enjoy it, but I knew it was a necessary evil for me to keep my job.
“Night in and night out you knew you were maybe one punch away from your career being over. It made it really hard to go to the rink. At the same time, you love hockey. Where else are you going to have an opportunity to do what you’re doing and live the life you’re living?”
The debate stirred by the lawsuit is whether anyone knew the fights, concussions and hits to the head were causing irreparable damage. The players in the lawsuit say they didn’t know but claim the NHL should have been aware based on growing scientific evidence.
“No one was sitting me down and warning me about the long-term effects,” said Peters, who began his junior career in 1995 and retired from the NHL in 2010. “No one was saying, ‘Andrew, just so you know before you go out this season, don’t get into too many fights.’ No one ever said that. I don’t think players were ever sat down and told that because they don’t ever want to skew the vision of what the job is.
“Do you know what you’re in for? I don’t think you know that you’re in for CTE and life-lasting traumatic brain injuries. I don’t think you ever think that stuff is a possibility. You feel invincible. You’re a National Hockey League player.
“I think it’s kind of like ignorance is bliss, but it’s also like don’t ask, don’t tell mentality.”
One question needs to be asked: Would he do it again? He earned more than $3 million in salary, but what’s the price for peace of mind?
“If I had to do it over again and I had to have the same role, no, I wouldn’t,” he said.
One of the most recognizable faces in the Sabres’ organization has been with the team since the start and has never played a game. Equipment manager Rip Simonick has seen them all, though, and he’s got plenty of stories.
His favorite memory involving Saturday’s opponent – Montreal – was the Sabres’ visit Jan. 28, 1977. The legendary blizzard was in full swing in Buffalo.
“We ended up getting out with 12 hockey players,” Simonick said. “Players got to the airport in snowmobiles if their neighbor or friend had snowmobiles. This was in the ’70s, so there weren’t that many four-wheel drives. Some emergency vehicles took guys to the airport, and we just took off. There was nothing we could do.
“When we’re taking off, the wheels on the prop plane hit a snow bank. We thought we were going down. The plane just tilted forward, the pilot pulled it back up and we got up. Those were harrowing moments.”
Despite being undermanned, the Sabres earn a 3-3 tie against the Canadiens.
On the fly
• Nashville is targeting Dec. 20 as the day injured goaltender Pekka Rinne will ramp up his activity. He’s been out since Oct. 24 after needing hip surgery because of an infection. “To be honest, there is never going to be a timetable that is going to be perfect for us until we see him back on the ice,” General Manager David Poile said.
• Tampa Bay was 12-5 and averaging 3.1 goals per game when Steven Stamkos suffered a broken leg Nov. 11. Without him, the Lightning are 5-5-1 and scoring 2.1 goals per game.
• Longtime Flames captain Jarome Iginla returns to Calgary on Tuesday with the Bruins. “I don’t think I’ll cry,” he said. “I’m not an extremely emotional person. Nostalgic? Well, my wife says I am.”