How much have concussions really changed hockey?

The life of ex-player Joe Murphy could be a cautionary tale for the NHL. But critics argue the league isn’t doing enough to reckon with the issue of concussions
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Feb 03, 2021
The Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby missed the better part of two NHL seasons after sustaining a concussion in 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)



On Monday’s episode of The Agenda, author Rick Westhead tells the story of former NHL player Joe Murphy — the subject of his book Finding Murph: How Joe Murphy Went From Winning a Championship to Living Homeless in the Bush.

Drafted first overall in 1986, Murphy went on to score more than 200 goals in the NHL and helped Edmonton win the 1990 Stanley Cup. But, by 2018, Murphy was in Kenora, where he could often be seen outside a convenience store accepting food and drinks from passersby.

According to Westhead, many believe that Murphy’s struggles with homelessness, mental health, and addiction can be connected to his playing career — and the multiple head injuries he sustained.

Public awareness of the seriousness of concussions has grown since Murphy’s days on the ice, leading to increased scrutiny of college and professional football, in particular. But hockey is not immune. Several former NHLers have died young after showing signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — the brain disease associated with repeated head injuries. Others, such as Hockey Hall of Famers Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros, have had to cut their careers short because of concussions. And, while future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby is still in the game, he missed the better part of two NHL seasons after sustaining a concussion in 2011.

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Rick Westhead and former NHL goaltender Trevor Kidd tracked down Joe Murphy in Kenora in 2018.

So how much have things changed since 1991, when Murphy continued playing in a game even though his head had been slammed into the boards so hard he couldn’t see straight?

Shortly after Crosby’s injury, the NHL introduced a concussion protocol that mandates that players who show concussion symptoms be removed from play.

But it’s still not clear that the NHL is taking the threat of head injuries as seriously as it should. Experts, for example, have raised concerns that the protocol has loopholes that leave it open to interpretation — leaving players vulnerable. And league commissioner Gary Bettman has at times downplayed the link between concussions and long-term brain disease.

Then there’s the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. In recent weeks, it has faced criticism — and not for the first time — for making the game less safe by being too lenient on players guilty of dangerous hits. (The current head of the department is George Parros: one could, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking the league doesn’t take concussions seriously enough given that the man it put in charge of player safety is an ex-enforcer who used to sell baseball caps emblazoned with the slogan “Make Hockey Violent Again.”)  

While the effect of head injuries on athletes has gotten considerable press, less well-known but just as serious is the issue of concussions people get at the workplace, at home, and elsewhere.

Westhead, for his part, is skeptical of the league’s commitment to dealing with the concussion problem. In his interview with Steve Paikin, he tells an anecdote from 2017 about a meeting that Lindros and the chief surgeon for the Montreal Canadians had with NHL executives.

“They asked the NHL for a simple request,” he says. “They said, ‘Will you please commit $1 million per team to researching brain injuries?’ It’s been three years. They still don’t have a response from the NHL.”

And Joe Murphy? To the best of Westhead’s knowledge, he is now somewhere in Saskatchewan, still without a home.

For more on this issue, you can also read this interview with a researcher who measures the impact of concussions caused by intimate partner violence and watch an earlier discussion on The Agenda about the state of concussion research and awareness.

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