NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly recently acknowledged receipt of a report linkingReggie Fleming, a former NHL player who passed away last July, to serious brain injury. Authored by Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University and the Bedford Veterans Administration Medical Center in Massachusetts, the report connected for the first time a pro hockey player to the post-career brain health risks that are already linked to boxers and what seem to be terrifying numbers of pro, college and even high school football players.
Testing on Fleming's brain, which had been donated for study, found damage from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease thought to be the result of repeated head trauma. Daly's response that the NHL would have no comment until it "had a chance to read and digest" the report may smack of the insincerity associated with the "investigation" of the recently-arrested drug dealer in Florida who claimed to have -- without providing a single piece of evidence -- a client list that included members of the Washington Capitals. But rest assured that the NHL did look into that little unseemly matter and it will look hard, very hard, into the report from Dr. McKee.
Fleming, whom I saw regularly when he skated for the Buffalo Sabres near the end of his NHL career, is hardly a prototype case. He played defense and wing and the traditional role of tough guy for a number of teams. Tough guy was the reason he managed to last for 20 pro seasons, including several memorable ones in the NHL. Fleming gave, and took, a ridiculous number of blows to his helmetless head. He also lived the life of hockey at that time, rarely showing restraint and often coming back to play even though he knew he was hurt.
It was a different time and a different game back then. Fleming spent years in the minors hoping for his shot at the NHL. The moment his abilities slipped a bit, he played several more years in the minors and even in what amounted to pretty much a beer league in Wisconsin before he was finally through with hockey and hockey was through with him. So it came as a surprise to almost no one that in Fleming's post-hockey life he suffered what the report and family members say were problems with cognitive decline, behavioral abnormalities and, as chronicled by videotapes his son Chris made of his last days, dementia.
I mention all of this because when Christmas comes around every year, I am haunted by the late John Lennon's song Happy Christmas (War is over). It starts with a simple but unforgettable refrain:
So this is ChristmasAnd what have you done?Another year overAnd a new one just begun
I can't help thinking that Mark Messier knows that song. While I'm certain the NHL will get around to addressing the vexing problems of blows to the head, concussions, and what appears to be a scientific link to long-term damage, Messier is already attempting to do something. It's called the Messier Project in conjunction with Cascade Sports.
If you're cynical (even at this time of the year), yes there is money to be made in promoting Cascade's concussion-preventative helmet that has won support from athletes in sports where head trauma is a very real issue. But Messier buys into the argument that hockey is a dangerous game, and unlike a great many commentators, he doesn't just accept that head injuries have to be part of it.
"I think hockey players are 25 times more likely to have a concussion than a football player," Messier says. He suspects there are legions of players who suffered like Fleming, largely because Messier saw what happened to himself and his teammates during his playing days. "I don't know how many times I was actually concussed. I know I was knocked out a few times and dazed several times, but I was able to get back and play. That's not the case for everyone."
That would include his former New York Rangers teammates Jeff Beukeboom, Mike Richter, Nick Kypreos and Pat LaFontaine. "Mike Richter had small children but couldn't even pick up his own baby for the longest time without feeling dizziness and nausea. Jeff suffered depressions," Messier told The Toronto Globe and Mail in an interview that was prelude to a chat session with fans. "When you see close friends of yours hurt to that degree, you wonder what could have been done. Mike Richter still can't lift any weights. If he gets his heart rate up, he feels sick."
Messier's response was to do something before a new year had begun. The helmet he's championing has merit. Not surprisingly, it's called the M11 (Messier wore number 11 virtually throughout his NHL career). Cascade, which has won support from almost every pro lacrosse player, appears to be making inroads into hockey, largely from the bottom up. It has a following in youth and junior leagues across the US and Canada, and it gained a foothold in the AHL after Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke saw Messier make a presentation. Burke ordered trial helmets for the players on the Leafs' AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.
The M11 helmet seems to stand alone in several essential areas. For one thing, the inside is lined with pods that absorb blows and disperse the force over the entire inner area of the helmet. Messier claims the material does a better job than traditional padding that sometimes breaks down or wads up. The M11 also has an adjustable system that provides a much snugger fit while remaining comfortable. That's an issue with hockey players who have long argued that they prefer a loose fitting helmet despite the fact that it generally lessens overall protection.
''We've raised the bar of protection,'' said Messier, who in hindsight faults himself for wearing flimsy helmets that likely never truly protected him or any other NHLer of his era from serious blows to the head. ''In 50 years, the technology hadn't changed and that was obviously a problem. As custodians of the game, we have to make sure that everyone is protected.''
The M11 likely isn't the ultimate solution, but it appears to be the best one out there right now. As Lennon wrote in his second verse:
A very merry ChristmasAnd a happy New YearLet's hope it's a good oneWithout any fear
Being able to go out on the ice without fear of permanent long-term brain damage woule be a good way to start.