During the playoffs, the NHL posted a video on Twitter in conjunction with its broadcast partners that was billed as, The Price to Pay. It was the typical maudlin stuff laced with toxic masculinity that the league tries to peddle to its customers, highlighting the physical sacrifices players endure in order to win the Stanley Cup. “Every bruise, every ache, every scar,” the video proclaimed, “is worth it.”
The same day, TSN aired a 30-minute documentary called The Problem of Pain, which was the culmination of a year-long investigation into painkillers and the culture of pain in the NHL. Amid an avalanche of criticism, the NHL pulled down the video almost immediately.
The reporter for the documentary was Rick Westhead, who has made a career out of holding the best league in the world to account for its treatment of players and for a culture that values violence and measures a player’s worth on his willingness to keep playing through any and all kinds of injuries. And while it may win Stanley Cups and garner admiration, it also leaves some of those same players permanently damaged and with almost no quality of life in their post-NHL years. And when they turn to the league for answers, they and their families are often abandoned by their former employer.
Westhead’s latest work is a book called Finding Murph: How Joe Murphy Went from Winning a Championship to Living Homeless in the Bush. It chronicles the story of former NHLer Joe Murphy, the first overall pick in the 1986 NHL draft who went from NCAA and Stanley Cup champion and multimillionaire to wandering the streets of Kenora, Ont. The book opens with Westhead and former NHLer Trevor Kidd driving the streets of the northwestern Ontario town in the summer of 2018 in search of Murphy and spends the next 350-plus pages telling the story of a prodigious hockey talent through his NHL years and beyond. It is not a pretty picture, but Westhead has never shied away from asking difficult questions and providing even more difficult answers. Prior to chronicling Murphy’s story, Westhead also exposed the troubled lives of former NHLers such as Mike Peluso, Dan LaCouture and Matt Johnson, all of whom suffered significant head trauma and whose lives have been on a downward spiral.
And that’s consistent with what happened to Murphy, whose problems began in 1991 not long after he won the Stanley Cup with the Oilers and while he was in the midst of his most productive years as an NHL player. During that season, he took a vicious hit along the boards from Shawn Burr of the Detroit Red Wings and was in the lineup the next game. People close to Murphy noticed the changes almost instantly. The book reports that Murphy had a six-hour assessment done by a neuropsychologist in California who concluded, “Based on the patient’s neuropsychological testing, there is evidence to suggest organic brain injury whish is likely the residual of repetitive concussions sustained during his professional athletic career…In all medical probability, Mr. Murphy has suffered cognitive and probably psychological injuries as a direct result of the physical injuries sustained during the course and scope of his employment as a professional hockey player in the NHL.”
“I don’t if you call it a smoking gun or what you want to call it,” Westhead told TheHockeyNews.com. “But this is the big thing everyone is looking for. If you recall in Mike Peluso’s case, the NHL was quick to say, ‘It’s because of self-medication and drinking.’ And here was a doctor saying, ‘No, it’s the repeated brain trauma that he had from hockey that has led him, in large part, to where he is today.’ ”
The league, as we have all come to discover, seemingly in the face of a mountain of evidence that suggests it, has long dismissed a direct link between head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). That attitude is on full display in Westhead’s reporting. Much of it takes us into the inner workings of the league and much of its internal correspondence, from league officials claiming the league is “overdoctored” to outright dismissals of the claims of the medical community. It paints the league as what it is, an enterprise that always wants to keep things in-house and thinks it knows more than anyone else. And it does not like being told what to do.
The NHL has outwardly scorned a Hall of Famer in Ken Dryden, who has called for an outright ban on blows to the head. In 2017, Eric Lindros and former Montreal Canadiens team doctor David Mulder approached the NHL for a commitment to fund $1 million per team to research brain trauma and they still don’t have an answer three years later. There is still little to no education available to the players that looks ahead to the consequences of their actions, whether it’s coming back from a concussion too early or taking medications to mask the pain. That part is largely left to the players and their families and it takes place long after the cheering stops and reality sets in.
“Look at Ryan Kesler…36 years old in what should be the prime of his life and he’s got crohn’s (disease) and colitis and is going to the bathroom 20 or 30 times a day and passing blood when he goes because he took too much Toradol,” Westhead said. “The question is in the case of shared liability, how much is on people like Joe Murphy and Ryan Kesler and how much is on the medical staffs of the teams they play for to protect them from themselves and warn them about what the dangers of these drugs are?”
It’s a vexing question. But for a league that makes $5 billion in revenues when times are good and calls itself a family, we do know that it hasn’t been treating its family members very well in their old age. Joe Murphy isn’t the only example of that, but you can never have too many cautionary tales.