The findings weren’t exactly startling. If you read enough reports and spoke to enough experts, a disturbing pattern emerged. The greater shock this week would have been doctors finding no evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in Steve Montador’s brain, not confirming they did.
Montador’s name officially has been added to a growing list of former athletes who suffered multiple concussions, experienced erratic behavior and depression, died young and had CTE show up in their autopsies. Others will endure similar problems and follow him to the grave. Yes, sadly, there will be more.
But when will it end?
Montador’s family is expected to follow through with a lawsuit he planned against the NHL, charging it neglected to inform players about long-term risks of concussions. The league will continue arguing, as it did in a statement released Tuesday, that there was no link between Montador’s death and his NHL career.
The former Sabres defenseman was 35 years old and a father-to-be when he passed away in February. The cause of death hasn’t been disclosed, but I’m not sure what exactly killed him really matters. He was a lost soul, no longer the person his family and friends knew before he reached the NHL.
There were reports that he abused alcohol and drugs. Did substance abuse contribute to his premature death or provide relief from lingering concussions and actually extend his life? Either is possible. It could be both. More important is that he suffered brain damage from repeated trauma.
Obviously, there was a problem. How many former athletes need to die young before adequate changes are made? How much is a man’s life worth? I don’t have the answers. I don’t have a solution. I’m not even sure where to begin, but I’m becoming much too familiar with the end.
The legal process will decide if the NHL should be held accountable for concussion problems. CTE is caused by taking hits to the head, but it’s no secret that hockey comes with inherent risk. Almost every player was concussed before reaching the NHL regardless of whether he was officially diagnosed.
Should the NHL pay for undetected head injuries that occurred long before turning professional? Should the pending lawsuit against the league also include minors, juniors, the NCAA, high school and local youth leagues? Do boyhood fights and other sports contribute to brain damage later in life?
Is the NHL responsible for 50 percent, 10 percent, 1 percent or not at all? At what point does one organization hand off culpability to another? Should hockey and other contact sports come with official warning labels making it clear that playing could be hazardous to your health or is that generally understood?
There are so many questions, so few answers and, unfortunately, no real remedy to a problem that isn’t going away. In fact, it will likely get worse so long as players grow bigger, move faster and continue meeting their customers’ demands.
Fans shell out big money to watch speed and aggression that players are paid handsomely to provide. We praise them for playing with little regard for their bodies while showing little regard for them. They have been reduced to names and numbers, salaries and stats, guys who represent our hometowns and fantasy teams.
The NHL and NFL tinkered with rules designed, in essence, to place restrictor plates on players, but there would come a point in which hockey and football no longer resemble sports we enjoyed in the first place. Sports are a large part of our socioeconomic culture. Safety could be ensured, but only with drastic changes.
Rather than turn hockey into a non-checking league, we make peace with the idea that injuries are part of the game. The NHL continues counting its money. Game Seven between the Rangers and Capitals couldn’t arrive soon enough Wednesday. The conference finals are around the corner.
Meanwhile, the league continues counting its money. People might be less engaged if they knew every big hit delivered could lead to the early demise of the recipient. Injuries are accepted, but who signed up for death? It shouldn’t matter if it happened on the ice or within a few years of retirement. It still comes back to CTE.
The NHL has attempted to crack down on hits to the head and limit concussions, but its efforts have produced minimal results. Fighting is down, but it still exists. Players are still playing through dings they deem minor. They continue refusing to report concussion symptoms because they fear losing their jobs.
In turn, we salute them for their toughness. We encourage them. On some level, we contribute to the problem.
Montador was a primary example of how the worst can happen. He was a physical player who battled through concussions and did whatever was necessary to stay in the NHL. He was hardly alone. There will be another name, another statistic, joining him on a long and disturbing list.
Yes, there will be more autopsies.
Sadly, there’s no end in sight.