Simply put, Mike Robitaille was cannon fodder.
He learned his harsh reality in 1977 while lying partially paralyzed, his legs lifeless but every hair on his arms and chest standing at attention. As the 28-year-old suffered through a fractured neck, spinal cord injury and the lingering effects of a concussion, an NHL team doctor told Robitaille’s wife everything was fine.
“He says, ‘Oh, he’s just a little shaken,’” Isabel Robitaille recalls of the postgame conversation with Dr. Michael Piper. “‘He’s collecting himself right now. He’ll get dressed, and when he comes out, just take him home and give him a shot of Courvoisier.’”
All the cognac in the world couldn’t help Robitaille then. He’s not sure what can help him now.
Unable to stay on his feet at the end of his playing days, Robitaille needs help to rise to them these mornings. Isabel puts her foot on his back and shoves, giving the barrel-chested 68-year-old enough momentum to get out of bed.
From there, he struggles to pull up his socks, walk down the stairs or sip his coffee.
That’s a wildly different Robitaille than Buffalo is accustomed to seeing. The longtime Sabres announcer still appears on local television, smiling broadly while selling artisan cheese, powerfully urging men to have health exams and showing off his tanned skin and pearly whites in dental commercials.
There’s often pain behind that smile.
“My health is getting worse and worse and worse and really going fast now,” Robitaille said. “The easiest part for me is to get through a day physically, and it’s hell. The hard part is what goes on between my ears here. That’s what you have to control, and that’s what really drains you and pulls you down. It’s more emotional than physical. You put both of them together and, man, you’ve got an explosion. You’ve got a sorry, goddamn mess on your hands.
“The damage has been done many years ago from the concussions and the brain stem injury.”
Robitaille is firm in his belief that undiagnosed or mistreated concussions received during his NHL career are to blame for his deteriorating health. He’s not alone.
The Williamsville resident is one of 104 former players who are part of a concussion lawsuit filed against the NHL. The men claim the league was negligent in its care and fraudulently concealed the long-term risks of head injuries. They are seeking medical monitoring and compensatory damages.
“They signed up to play hockey knowing that they might get injured and dinged, but they did not sign up for avoidable brain damage,” lawyers state in the complaint being heard by the U.S. District Court in Minnesota.
The first court filing came in November 2013, not long after the NFL settled its $765 million concussion lawsuit. Several other complaints followed. Robitaille joined in February.
“I want to see justice,” he said from his family’s real estate office. “I want to see the National Hockey League be exposed for what they were, not that they can hide this. There’s a lot of people living miserable lives because of their actions.”
The NHL has failed in its two attempts to have the lawsuit dismissed, including its latest motion last month. The next big ruling is expected in September, when U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson will decide on the motion for class certification.
If the case becomes a class-action lawsuit, six former players will appear in court on behalf of the plaintiffs and every other retired NHL player. Dan LaCouture, Mike Peluso, Gary Leeman, Bernie Nicholls, Dave Christian and Reed Larson are slated to become the six class representatives. A seventh, one-time Sabre Steve Ludzik, withdrew in March because the Parkinson’s disease sufferer doesn’t have the physical strength to continue the litigation.
The proposed class is a mix of former players, all of whom had concussions. Some were enforcers who are suffering physically, mentally and emotionally. Others were scorers who have not shown ill effects from their time on the ice but worry about neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
If class certification is denied, the players in the lawsuit will have to fight the NHL in smaller, separate cases. Robitaille is ready.
“I’m willing to go forward with this and support it as much as possible,” he said. “I can’t hold back on a wrong. I just can’t. That’s not my makeup.”
A litany of anguish
The hockey establishment is already aware of Robitaille’s legal prowess and determination. The Supreme Court of British Columbia ordered the Vancouver Canucks to pay Robitaille $355,000 in damages in 1981 for the circumstances that ended his career. The court said the NHL team had a duty to care for its players, and the club − including the medical staff, coach, trainer and management − breached that obligation with “high-handed, arrogant” conduct and a “reckless disregard” for Robitaille’s rights.
While Robitaille’s most troubling times came in Vancouver, he had medical problems during all of his NHL stops. In addition to the spinal and brain stem contusions that forced his retirement, Robitaille suffered six “full-blown” concussions during an eight-year NHL career that started in 1970 and included four seasons in Buffalo. According to the lawsuit:
• While playing for a minor-league team owned by the New York Rangers in 1969, Robitaille suffered a concussion after hitting his head on the ice and getting a bad beating from two players while he was down. His extremities would not work “for some time,” yet he did not receive medical attention. He flew home the next day and played the following night. He was ill, confused and had no focus.
• Robitaille was hit over the head with a stick while playing for the Detroit Red Wings during the 1970-71 season. He received stitches and went back on the ice. He told the doctor he couldn’t straighten his eyes or think and was vomiting. There was no follow-up by the team.
• In 1972, while playing a road game for the Sabres against the New York Islanders, Robitaille hit the back of his head on the crossbar at full force and absorbed at least four punches. The Sabres sent him to the dressing room to sit by himself until the period was over. He was totally “out of it” and vomiting. His hands wouldn’t work right. He had a shocking sensation across his chest, and he couldn’t control his mouth, especially his speech. There was no medical attention. He played the next game, and no one would listen to how he felt.
• The helmetless Robitaille had a head-to-head collision while playing for the Canucks in 1975. He couldn’t focus his eyes, was lethargic and sick to his stomach. Vancouver helped him to the dressing room, where he was left by himself until the period was over. He did not receive medical treatment. He played the next period and the next game. Depression set in, and he couldn’t get his thought process straight for about a week.
• A Montreal goaltender took a two-handed swing with his stick and struck Robitaille between the eyes in 1976. The Canucks defenseman received numerous stitches and finished the game. He felt stunned, sick to his stomach, depressed and had no strength. He did not receive further medical attention.
• Lastly, in 1976, a cross-check to the back sent Robitaille into the boards. He didn’t know names or where he was. For the first time, a Canucks doctor gave him a neurological test. He received instructions to see the doctor if he threw up overnight. Otherwise, he could practice the next day.
That hit started a monthlong tailspin.
“I was still on my feet, but I’m seeing white,” Robitaille said. “The noise in the arena, I’m hearing white noise. You know what I mean by white noise? That, ‘Ssssssss,’ that’s all I could hear. I get to the bench. My hands are starting to act up. I could feel them biting. My mouth, it doesn’t want to work right. Now I can’t get my breath. I’m losing it.”
Still, Robitaille joined the Canucks on a six-game road trip. During the second game, Jan. 2, 1977, he spotted Rangers forward Nick Fotiu, a 6-foot-2, 210-pounder, cutting across the middle. Robitaille stepped in to deliver a hit.
“I went flying and he went flying,” Robitaille said, “except he got up. When I went down, everything went. Everything went. All four hands and legs were involuntarily shaking. I didn’t have any control. It’s like I was having a grand mal seizure. It lasted, somebody said, about 30 seconds.
“They don’t even take me off the ice after this happens. I go to the bench. I ended up playing, not a lot, but I ended up playing before that game was over.”
He received a cursory exam after the game − the doctor gave him a patdown like he was looking for a gun, Robitaille says − and was told he’d get a more thorough look in the next city. He had also been told that while in Vancouver, and for the second time it didn’t happen.
On Jan. 12, Robitaille suffered a minor contusion of the spinal cord during a game against Minnesota. By now, the Canucks and their doctors had become convinced Robitaille was a con artist and malingerer, so the ignored player didn’t press for a checkup. His final blow came one week later. He got blindsided, and all the problems Robitaille suffered in New York struck again.
“I’m down on the ice and the shaking is all starting over again, but this is really bad,” said Robitaille, who was lifted off the ice by a teammate and trainer and led toward a stretcher near the bench. “I couldn’t keep my leg straight to glide off. He’s yelling at me, giving me” grief “because my goddamn legs aren’t straight.
“They bring a stretcher halfway out, on the ice and off the ice. Now they’re trying to get me down. I fall. Boom, down I go, right on the ice. You could hear a pin drop in that whole place. Somebody yells out clear as a bell, ‘Why don’t you kill him and get him over with!’
“They get me in the dressing room. They set me down. The doctor comes in, lifts the leg up, boom. Lifts the other leg up, boom. They cut my equipment off. I can’t take any pressure. Nothing. Every hair on my body is sticking straight up. I couldn’t believe it. I’m lying there, and I’m looking. All the hair on my chest and arms is sticking straight up. They’re like trees. Now they want to give me a shower. I can’t take the water hitting me. I couldn’t take the water hitting the floor and bouncing up my legs. I couldn’t hold a cigarette between my fingers. I couldn’t take the pressure. They couldn’t run a feather down my fingers, my spine was so red-hot. I couldn’t walk.
“Finally, they got me in the trainer’s room, put me on a chair, wrapped me up in a big towel, and they all left. They were gone. I sat there for the rest of the game.”
His wife was in the arena, and she came down to check on him. That’s when the doctor told her liquor was the ideal cure for Robitaille’s ailments.
“They treated everybody like cannon fodder,” Isabel says.
The following morning, the team finally suggested Robitaille go to the hospital. Under normal circumstances, he’d have gone weeks earlier to see a doctor not affiliated with the team. The Canadian courts agreed that was not an option.
Robitaille signed a contract with the Rangers at age 14 and dropped out of school after eighth grade. He’d relied on team physicians ever since. Players were discouraged from seeking outside opinions, and doing so could have cost them their job.
“You were a chattel,” Robitaille’s wife said. “They had such a grip on you.”
A physician ultimately determined Robitaille had a permanent disability caused by his spinal injury, but not before the team tried to trade him while he was bed-ridden, ordered him to the arena for failed, embarrassing skating attempts and withheld paychecks.
“He told me that my career was over, which should be the worst thing you ever want to hear,” Robitaille said, “but they had told me so many times that I was a con job and I was letting everybody down, that when they told me that I was actually happy to hear it. It gave me some credibility.”
A matter of principle
Robitaille regained his footing in Buffalo in 1980. The Sabres hired him as a broadcast analyst, and he developed a devoted following on television and radio as an insightful, candid, no-holds-barred commentator. He spent more than three decades on Buffalo’s airwaves before retiring after the 2013-14 season.
His hockey injuries had caught up to him.
“Broadcasting was about only thing I was physically capable of doing,” Robitaille said. “At the end, probably the last three or four years, I was coming through the door and I’d tell Isabel, ‘Call Chrisanne (Bellas, the Sabres vice president of broadcasting) in the morning, tell her I’m done. There’s no way.’
“Nobody has to go through this pain for anything. I could barely walk up the stairs when I got home. My hands didn’t work. I couldn’t talk. It was all from the brain stem damage that was done and the concussions. Truth be told, that’s why I told them I was going to have to pull the plug on this.”
In addition to the physical pain, Robitaille noticed a loss in memory skills.
“They decide what I have is acute chronic pain,” he said. “I’ve got to take medication to get through a day. Medication equals side effects. You get lethargic. Your mind doesn’t work as quick. The last couple years I was doing that job, man, I had to write everything down and write it down right away or else I’d forget it. I can’t hold it.”
Retirement has given him time to reconnect with old friends. During those visits, he’s learned he is hardly the only one suffering. He sees many who are much worse off, including teammates from the 1970s and players he covered in the 1990s.
“It’s unbelievable to see the shape they’re in,” he said. “With most of them what’s really bad is depression. They have no hope. Their minds, their brains, their cords have been damaged to the point that every year they get older it gets worse.
“All this happens later because of trauma to the brain, trauma to the spinal cord that they elected to ignore.”
Robitaille joined the lawsuit to help those former players who are less fortunate. While he has rough moments, he and his wife have carved out successful careers. They enjoy life and its luxuries. Too many others in pain don’t have the wherewithal to seek help and medical care.
“I want them taken care of,” Robitaille said. “That’s my No. 1 goal. If anyone says it’s for money, they can kiss my royal Canadian ass. I’ll take it if it’s there. If it’s not, that’s fine.
“Whatever I have to do to fight for the guys that are there now, I’ll put my neck out there for them. They can chop it off. They can do anything they like because when my neck was out there − literally, my brain and my neck − nobody was there to help me.”