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In 2004, Keith Primeau took the Philadelphia Flyers to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals. He would only play nine more NHL games after that series, seeing his career end prematurely due to concussion-related injuries.
Primeau, who has become one of the most prominent voices in the ongoing head-shot debate in the NHL and has donated his brain to science for further research upon his death. He talks about the affect concussions have had on his day-to-day life and the need for a culture change in contact sports.
What it's like as an athlete to suffer a concussion?
I don't know if it's, when I reflect on my situation, I don't if it's a per concussion basis it's kind of the cumulative and where I was all of a sudden after three or four documented and who knows how many times being bumped on the head. Um, and the deterioration that I felt from a state of mind that, you know, never felt any kind of difficulties, to this waking up every day, not feeling well, not feeling right, having a headache and how I am going to feel today, and what point in the day is it going to feel normal, and go away and, um, very exacerbating and deflating, and so very emotional as well.
How much of your day to day life did that effect?
Early on it impacted most of the day. I spent a lot of time, especially when I was trying to return to play, if I was at the rink I was focusing on trying to get through a workout at that point, going home and trying to get through the rest of the day, without becoming fatigued, or having a headache and needing to lay down and really in my head see how I felt. And so it was a minute to minute, day to day, project that was very difficult.
Do you know many concussions you had in your career?
I get asked that question a lot and I can't say that I would really truly know that exact number. I, you know, remember getting hit on the head even, you know, playing youth hockey. Then I know for a fact that I played through concussions in junior and playing professionally. And, when they began to document, or in my case my first was 1997 I had four documented, but I know well north of ten.
When you look back, to what extent do you believe you tried to do too much too soon?
No question, I think the last one was the one that, and I still don't know cause I don't know the science of it, but, I think I errored in trying to return to play instead of giving it the proper time to heal. I was on the bike every day, I was out on the ice and I was told it wasn't going to effect the recovery rate, or the symptoms and I feel as though it did, strain the symptoms and I also think that it's probably extended it.
What long term effect do you continue to deal with?
The most notable, on a day to day is the headaches and the head pressure and stiffness in the neck and still a lot of vision. I kind of feel like I've got to shake my head sometimes trying to get my vision about me, which is obviously very bizarre. And then I'm still not able to exert any kind of physical energy cause then I get dizziness, light headed, and definitely fatigue.
What's your state of mind in dealing with that?
I'm in a much better place now then obviously I was following my last concussion and for an extended period of time. We're not talking six months or a year, I was two, three, four year out that emotionally it was very difficult. I went through the entire gambit, depression, anger, sadness, fear, um, and ultimately I felt as though I was the by-product of my concussions not necessarily the symptoms.
What's your reaction when you see the studies and you're starting to learn about the issue?
I'm not surprised, I'm saddened by it, and I don't live in fear by it. I understand the reality of it, but as players whether it's hockey or football or whatever profession it may be, or sport that it might be, there's real danger in damaging your brain. I don't know if people truly understand that severity. The Bob Probert findings, I can't say that it really surprises me. Especially knowing the line of work that Bob was in, how hard he competed on the ice, and that at the same time is very sad.
When you were coming out of junior hockey, how aware were you of this kind of stuff?
Not aware, you know, it was you get your bell and rung and you're fine, you just got a littie bump on your head. You know, you just got a ding, get back out there. I wasn't aware of it at all. Really, when I reflect again I think a professional hockey player that brought recognition was Eric Lindros, and that's when they began to make a change in protocol.
In my first documented one in 1997, you know, I remember staying at an emergency room over night and being told at that point seven full days of rest, no physical activity and no contact I thought, "wow, how novel, that's so great that's really taking care of my well being." Only to get further into my medical history and concussion difficulties and understanding that it's not a light switch.
Was your NHL career worth it?
Absolutely, and that part of the mindset we need to change because I'm asked that often.
If I knew then what I know now, would I have changed my course, and I can't honestly say that I would and that's, it's sad because that's just the way we were brought up. It's the mentality to compete and play hard and play through and do whatever you can and I don't know if that's the right mentality because at the end of the day it's still just a game.
Is it worth it later on in life for what you were able to experience in your 20's and 30's?
Yeah. I've always been a firm believer in, the cup is half full as apposed to half empty, and I feel extremely blessed to have the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League for 15 years, and I can't say that I would change that course.
What's your opinion on violence in hockey right now? Is the line (to be drawn) in the right place?
It's not in the right place, and really for me it boils down to a moral conscience. You know, I never went out there with the intent to hurt an individual. I can't say that I didn't, but it was never intentionally. I know when I was trying to win I was going to compete as hard as I could, but there's a line there that can't be crossed. If you believe that it's more important to take out your opposition in order to win that contest than your moral convictions are very skewed.
Do you believe they're players in the NHL whose role is to take out other players?
I would certainly hope not. I would certainly hope that would never be their intent, but I can't honestly sit here and say that is doesn't cross someone's mind.
How do you know when the threshold's been crossed – too much violence in the game?
That's a good question. I suppose when we continue to see recurring injuries and the number of concussions, and the same, the continuing number of illegal hits. Listen, it's a fast moving game, the game is reactionary, injuries and accidents happen but if we can remove the intent then in a lot of situations we can curb the extent of the violence.
You're a hockey parent. What are your thoughts on the next generation when you look at your own son?
I think the mentality that I grew up with, and that the majority of us grew up with, and philosophy and approach that we played with, is the now philosophy and approach that so many of our coaches are instilling in our children. And that, it's got to change.
If you believe the only equalizer for your kids is to go out and hit the man as apposed to trying to win by your ability or your skill, your determination, that's a wrong message, completely the wrong message to deliver to our youth. I talk to parents all the time, "you know I see, somebody is coming around behind the net with their head down my kids going, I'm hollering for him to hit him, you know I want him to take him out" and, you know, it's so upsetting for me because it can done in the proper manner without any casualty without hurting anybody.
Are parents aware of the dangers that exist today?
They're certainly more aware, I think to the point where, in some instances it's fear. And I don't think we should fear the injury. There's a possibility you could cross the street and we've all heard that adage, and get hit by a bus. Well, yeah of course, we don't live in that fear. And the game can be played in tremendous grace and a competitive spirit that allows everyone to go out there and enjoy the game. But, when that line is crossed and the intent isn't to teach them the game the right way, then we're headed for danger."
What extent do you think the violence will have an impact on parents decision to put their kids in hockey?
Eventually it becomes a personal decision. We're in charge of our children, we're in charge of their safety and it gets to the point where parents say "enough is enough." And, you know, I'm not going to jeopardize my child's health for a sporting event. Who can say that they don't have a strong argument?
You know, for the work that I do with playcool and stopconcussions.com, those platforms are designed to teach kids how to play the game the right way, yet any time they turn on the television they a guy take somebody out in the neutral zone and the parents say "yeah, but". I can't argue with "yeah, but", it's too tough a hill to climb, and so there is trickle down effect. There needs to be, a certain recognition by all professional leagues, in our case the national hockey league, to understand there's a real problem and we need to fix it.
Why did you feel so compelled to be upfront on this issue?
The biggest reason is probably because I live it. I was one of the guys, I saw guys career's ending because of post concussion. And I saw guys I played with suffering through difficult times and I though, I feel really bad for them and that's terrible but that's not me, I've never had those types of issues with my head or any real lingering injuries, and then it was me. And I don't think people are recognizing, truly, the severity and the impact these injuries having on our youth and our culture. And, I'm here to say that it's very real and it's not going away."
If I was a parent on the fence about hockey, what would you tell me?
I would tell you there's a proper way to play the game. The game can be played gracefully, the game can be played competitively, and the game can be played the right way. And then my discussion would stop because I'm trying to convince them to play. If I was to continue on with the conversation it would go something like "but, every single coach out there, doesn't teach our kids to play the right way, every coach out there doesn't teach our kids to compete hard, but recognize that it's still just a game, and that at the end of the day the end of the result isn't the biggest concern."
What do you make of Brian Burke's mindset? (Hockey is a full contact sport now and it will be 100 years from now – bowling is fun sport, if you don't like hitting you can always try bowling)
My personal opinion is it's a little bit archaic. Yeah I agree that the game is...I'm not advocating getting rid of hitting or checking or contact, that's part of the game, I'm a hockey traditionalist too, but, but what I am here to say is guys are bigger, guys are stronger, guys are faster they're playing environment is the same size, the injury is real, it is impacting individuals, and if you continue to have that mentality, we are going to lose numbers because people are going to play volleyball, and then 100 years from now, we don't have a fan base, we don't have the players, um, and you're fighting for, you know, fighting for your lives.
If you're running the NHL, what's your opinion of what you should do with players who don't seem concerned with the safety of other players on the ice?
I guess part of that to extend on that is my fear is that they believe it's the injury de jour, you know, and it's the ACL of the mid-90's, or the sports-hernia of the mid 2000's, but it's not. It's, it has long lasting repercussions. Long after the game is gone, players are suffering, and just because there's the finality of your career, doesn't mean that all of a sudden you're well.
I would like to see, from a personal standpoint, a very solid line drawn, what is acceptable, what is not acceptable. And, I guess, I don't want to make it trivial I don't wan to make it seem simple, but there are things that can be implemented that can make huge change. And one of those for me is no head contact.
I love the game the way the game's being played, the skill when we watch the players, and the speed at which they move but I'll tell you what when I sit down and watch hockey games, it even happened last night, when guys go near each other I cringe, because the speed at which they're traveling, the velocity at which the impact happens, um, there's no reason that, – (pauses) – I completely understand how guys are getting hurt.
Is it hard for you to watch hockey now? Especially playoff hockey like you saw last night?
It's difficult cause you want to be out there, but, I enjoy watching the game but as I said it's, whenever players, you know, are going near each other, somebody doesn't see someone coming I sit up in my chair because I just fear what the outcome's going to be.
What are the reasonable risks someone accepts when they become a player in the NHL?
When I lace up my skates, I always accepted there's inherited risk in what you're doing in the job description. And I accepted that, you know, you drop your gloves to fight you accept there's a risk to injury. You go in to make contact with somebody, there's a risk you could get injured. What I never accepted, was coming through the neutral zone, from the blind side getting an elbow to the side of the head. That was never part of the deal. And, so when I see that happen, that is upsetting to me and very discouraging.
What do you think of the expectations from peers and coaches to get back out there?
I was very fortunate through my entire situation and end of my career, the time I spent in Philadelphia, never to have felt any external pressure other than the pressure I placed on myself internally. The organization was tremendous with me. They gave me every opportunity to see every doctor I wanted to see, needed to see in order to try and return to play. But never did I walk in their office and hear "Keith you got to get back out there".
It was also at my own behest. But that's again part of my own competitive drive to be out there contributing. You, you don't want your teammates thinking less of you or any ill will towards you or questioning your competitive spirit. So that is the diving force for players and another part of the equation that needs to change is subjective part, you know, that we still rely on the players for an assessment of their well being and their health.
Medical staff and management teams subjectively want to see their players out there as well and, so, that's a troubling area and I can't say that I dealt with it but, when you're talking big business it's part of the equation.
Do you think the Crosby hit was the tipping point for this whole discussion?
I think he's a strong advocator whether he recognizes it or not. Unfortunately, he's not playing but for those of us who are on the front line, he doesn't have to be a spokesperson, just an example, of, you know, that risk and, the severity.
You know here's a kid that got hit, what four months ago, three and a half four months ago, he's still trying to return to play. It's not like he's got a concussion history, you know, I think we're talking about his first documented, so he definitely brings a level of awareness for those of us out there trumpeting his cause. And from that point we have to try and capture people and educate them.
What do you say the population of viewers who don't care what players go through because they get paid a lot of money for what they do?
That's one area I can't really say I have a strong opinion on. I feel very fortunate I made a great living playing in the National Hockey League and I would never say I didn't. So the argument saying players are well compensated, you know, I'm here to tell you that I still have a young family and I want to live a long and meaningful life. The game is only a short period of time, and just because your career ends doesn't mean there's any finality to it. I live with it every day, and if that's the punishment that I face for, the god given ability to play in the National Hockey League for 15 years, I accept that and I'm not going to argue people's position.