TSN Original: Finding Murph
The following is an excerpt from Finding Murph: How Joe Murphy Went From Winning a Championship to Living Homeless in the Bush by Rick Westhead ©2020. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. The book will be released on Oct. 13.
It’s possible that I was more prepared than Trevor Kidd to accept at face value what his friends had told him. I had spent years documenting the struggles of former NHL players. I had heard from the exhausted, grief-addled families of players who were coming to terms with the prospect that their sons and husbands might have a horrible disease with no known cure.
In 2016, I interviewed Mike Peluso and Dan LaCouture, former players who said their lives were in ruins. Both of them told me they had repeatedly suffered concussions while playing in the NHL and had been cleared by team doctors to return to the ice while they were still suffering symptoms of those injuries.
A one-time fighter whose NHL teams included the New Jersey Devils, Peluso couldn’t recall my name five minutes after we met. He told me that he didn’t call for help anymore after suffering seizures because he couldn’t afford the cost of an ambulance. He shared that he had contemplated suicide many times and had once filled a candy bowl with prescription medication, but changed his mind at the last moment when he realized no one would be left to care for his dog, Coors.
LaCouture, a gritty New Englander who played for the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, was going through a divorce from his wife, Bridey, when I met him. The couple had two children. LaCouture didn’t understand why he would so often fly into an uncontrollable rage and become moody, depressed and forgetful. Bridey said her husband had changed since they had first met. He was a different person.
LaCouture told me about his fight at Madison Square Garden on January 5, 2004, against Calgary Flames defenceman Robyn Regehr. LaCouture fell backwards after he was hit by Regehr and was knocked unconscious when his head slammed into the ice. In the hours after his injury, LaCouture said he was not taken for a precautionary CAT scan, nor for an MRI. He said he wasn’t even sent to a neurologist for an exam.
The Rangers stitched LaCouture up and sent him home with some painkillers. He told me he’d had 17 or 18 concussions while playing in the NHL and he wondered how much the quality of care he received following those injuries had to do with his current problems.
Months before Kidd and I met, I had also reported the story of Matt Johnson, a former enforcer with the Minnesota Wild who was homeless in Santa Monica, California.
Johnson’s family explained that Matt had become addicted to painkillers after being prescribed so many by NHL team doctors. They were bewildered and grief-stricken, and while they wanted Johnson to come home, they were also afraid of what he might do if he did make his way back to the family farm in Ontario’s Niagara region.
Johnson’s father, Lee, shared that when his son had lived at home a few years earlier, he would creep into his parents’ bedroom and stare at them as they slept. Lee and his wife, Brenda, were so unsettled by the behaviour that they installed a lock on their bed- room door.
Was Murphy’s story a similar one, or had other factors led to his decline?
In November 2013, a group of former NHL players joined a lawsuit that was filed in US District Court in Minneapolis. The players, Joe Murphy included, alleged that the NHL had not done enough to safeguard the long-term health of players who suffered brain trauma during games and had ignored medical research about the long-term implications of repeated blows to the head.
The litigation set off a venomous years-long legal battle that tarnished the NHL’s image and its relationship with its former stars. Players wrote first-person accounts of their health problems in major newspapers. They wrote about suffering from memory loss, confusion, dramatic mood swings, poor judgment, anxiety and depression. The NHL argued in court filings that players didn’t have the mental capacity to write their own stories and were being manipulated by greedy attorneys. The league alleged that players waited too long to file their claims and that, thanks to the publicly available information about concussions, players should have “put two and two together” about the consequences of repeated brain trauma.
Some former players worried that their behavioural changes might indicate they were suffering from neurological disorders such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain-withering disease linked to repeated head trauma that was first diagnosed in 2005 by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who worked in the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously. The disease’s calling card is a distinct tangle of brain protein called tau that collects in the brain’s dense forest of folds and swirls.
The NHL had a major crisis on its hands.
Former players Derek Boogaard, Bob Probert, Wade Belak, Zarley Zalapski, Todd Ewen, Jeff Parker and Steve Montador all died young after showing symptoms of CTE. One-time NHL players Larry Zeidel, Reggie Fleming and Rick Martin—who were 86, 73 and 59, respectively, when they died—were also post-humously diagnosed with CTE.
There were other cases in the hockey world. But even as the number of positive tests for CTE increased within the hockey world, the NHL shrugged off the science.
The league claimed in court documents filed in 2014 that the medical establishment’s knowledge of CTE was in its infancy. It ignored repeated requests to publicly address the players’ allegations and refused to engage in a debate about what, if anything, the NHL had done to explore the connection between repeated concussions and long-term brain illnesses.
The anecdotal evidence about the league’s collective attitude towards brain injuries was concerning. Consider the attitude of Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
In February 2016, during a press conference with media to mark his 1,000th game as an NHL head coach, Babcock was asked for his views on player brain injuries. While many doctors would say that a concussed player would have no better judgment about returning to play than a drunk driver would have about getting behind the wheel, Babcock said he preferred to leave it to players to decide when they were ready to get back on the ice.
“I think when a player says he’s okay to play and keeps playing, he’s okay to play,” Babcock was quoted saying in a February 5, 2016, story in the Toronto Star. “I put an unbelievable amount of duress on my poor trainer when he’s taking some player off the ice who should be killing the next penalty. You have no idea how kind I am during that interaction… On our team, when someone is unconscious or dazed or looks like they’re supposed to go to—what do they call it?—the dark room or whatever, I mean, some of these things aren’t even anything. They’re going to a dark room? I don’t quite get that.”
It wasn’t as if alarming stories weren’t making the rounds to every corner of the hockey world. Only weeks after Babcock shared his skepticism about removing players with possible concussions from games, Ottawa Senators forward Clarke MacArthur shared in a March 28, 2016, story in the Ottawa Sun that, after he was diagnosed with a concussion, he had used toothpicks for weeks at a time to keep his eyelids pried open. MacArthur couldn’t focus on anything, including his 10-month-old son, for more than five minutes at a time.
Some NHL executives—former players themselves—wrote in emails that they should turn a deaf ear to medical experts. Most doctors had never thrown a bodycheck, never taken nor received a pass, never played the game, they said. Their message was that “hockey people” would manage the NHL’s troubles.
One string of internal NHL emails, sent in 2009 after Chicago Blackhawks forward Martin Havlat had returned to action in the playoffs two days after being levelled and left unconscious on the ice after a hit by Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall, highlighted the concerns an unidentified NHL team doctor had raised about the “situational ethics” involved with clearing players to return to the ice after brain injuries.
“I am once again disappointed in my colleagues in the NHLTPS [National Hockey League Team Physicians Society],” the doctor wrote in an email to Willem Meeuwisse, a Calgary-based doctor who consulted to the NHL. “We all sit around and talk and talk about concussion management. Then it’s the playoffs, someone suffers an obvious loss of consciousness and is back playing in less than 48 hours.”
Even today, more than a decade after that troubling email was sent to Meeuwisse, the NHL’s player safety record remains suspect. The league has been celebrated by many in the hockey media for introducing concussion protocols that include so-called spotters in each NHL arena whose duties include watching players on the ice and communicating with team trainers when anyone shows obvious signs of concussion.
But how much credibility can a program claim when the identities of those spotters remain a closely guarded secret?
When a player’s head slams hard onto the ice or rink boards and they hold their head, their knees buckle or they stumble and struggle to maintain their balance during the final minutes of a close, must-win game, who makes the final call allowing them to remain on the ice?
Why hasn’t the NHL followed the National Football League’s lead and hired qualified neurologists who have no affiliation with any team to attend games and given them the final say over players continuing in a game after a brain injury?
In May 2019, following a government hearing in Ottawa, I asked NHL commissioner Gary Bettman whether disclosing the identities of spotters might add credibility, accountability and transparency to its program. He dodged the question before pivoting to other reporters and asking whether they had anything they wanted to discuss. They were happy to shift the conversation to the Ottawa Senators’ ownership troubles and a new NHL expansion team coming to Seattle.
When Bettman sat down to testify in Ottawa, posing for photos with members of Parliament before giving his testimony, it had been 14 years since Omalu announced in July 2005 that he had discovered CTE in the brain of Mike Webster, a former NFL star who had died three months earlier of a reported heart attack at the age of 50. Webster, a lineman with the Pittsburgh Steelers, had suffered thousands of blows to the head during his career and had been living alone in a trailer parked by a river before his death. Webster was in so much pain that he had bought a Taser gun and used it on his stomach or thigh—he would zap himself unconscious to get to sleep.
“Why had no one ever found this [brain] damage before?” Omalu wrote in his autobiography, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side. “There is only one reason: no one else had ever looked for it. No one wanted to know the truth! If they had, they would have discovered it years, perhaps decades, before I ever met Mike Webster. Mike Webster was the first case, but… he was not the last. Over the past decade and a half, more and more brains of football players have been studied, and CTE has been found to be widespread. And it is not only in the brains of football players, but in the brains of other athletes who play high-impact, high contact sports like wrestling, ice hockey, boxing, mixed martial arts and rugby.”
The NFL, Omalu wrote, had sponsored some medical research in the past, studies that alleged there was no reason for fans to be concerned, even after watching players wobble and stumble after hard hits, wincing while they held their heads in their hands, sometimes even staggering to the wrong team’s sideline.
“The NFL… told fans everywhere exactly what they wanted to hear… we can watch and enjoy without guilt,” Omalu wrote. “The games will go on. We should all sit back and enjoy.”
The fame and fortune that come with life as a professional athlete can vanish in an instant. The distance between NHL stardom and an unforgiving forest floor isn’t as far as you might think.