Faces of concussions: NHL’s head-on battle with an epidemic
HOMER GLEN, Ill. (AP) — Wearing a black shirt with “Fight for your happiness” on the front and “Sick not weak” on the back, Daniel Carcillo eats an apple as his wife makes a cappuccino nearby and their oldest daughter scampers around the kitchen.
This is the family he always wanted, just not the life he expected.
Carcillo is hurting inside and out after seven documented concussions in the National Hockey League and what he believes could be literally hundreds of traumatic brain injuries. Once his wife Ela, son Austin, daughters Laila and Scarlett and dog Bubba left the house, Carcillo explained where his head is at. It has been nearly a year since his last round of neurological treatment and right now the bad days outnumber the good. Darkness has returned.
This is a bad day.
“I’m going to choose when I’m going to go,” Carcillo said. “I’ll make that decision of how much pain I’m going to put my loved ones through that are around me.”
He is just 34, hung up his skates in 2015 and wants to be known as Daniel Carcillo who used to play hockey, not Daniel Carcillo the hockey player. He spends his days now trying to manage the damage the sport did to him while also crusading against the concussions crisis that has hit the NHL over the past decade-plus. The league has taken steps to address the topic, but it has not faded from view by any means as the Stanley Cup Final opens Monday.
The league last fall settled a lawsuit for $18.9 million with more than 300 retired players after winning a key victory against class-action status. It included $22,000 for each player and provisions for testing but no acknowledgement of liability for the players’ claims the NHL failed to protect them from head injuries or warn them of the risks involved with playing. Commissioner Gary Bettman has consistently denied there is a conclusive link between repeated blows to the head and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Carcillo calls the concussions issue an epidemic, though even the players’ union and attorneys involved in lawsuits against the league cannot or will not provide an estimate of just how many former players might be suffering the same problems as Carcillo — the kind of problems loved ones of players like Todd Ewen and Wade Belak noticed before their suicides.
Carcillo doesn’t remember any of his first five concussions but can’t seem to escape the anxiety, depression, lack of impulse control and suicidal thoughts that creep in. He feels better in the immediate aftermath of functional neurology therapy but that only helps Carcillo get back to his “new normal.” It also costs $10,000 each time.
“My greatest fear moving forward is that I will contract some sort of neurodegenerative disease like early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, CTE,” Carcillo said. “And then my wife and my two daughters and my son will have to watch me deteriorate and die.”
Carcillo spends his days now speaking out about the dangers of brain injuries in hockey and other sports. He frequently takes to social media, hoping to use the platform for the greater good.
But time is running out for the journeyman forward who played most recently for the Chicago Blackhawks. Carcillo doesn’t have a full-time job and estimates he has two years until he goes bankrupt. He considers selling his two Stanley Cup rings to pay for treatment and support his family.
Carcillo wants his day in court with the NH, to chart a path for the rest of his life and to save others. It is also a battle just to save himself after those 429 NHL games over nine seasons.
“I keep up with my treatment,” Carcillo said. “I describe it as when you’re losing your quality of life. Good days and bad days are normal, all good days aren’t normal and all bad days aren’t normal but you just have to weigh it. I’ve been in really, really bad places, like on the edge of killing myself. I just kind of weigh it against that — not waiting until I get to that place.”
Eric Lindros is fine most days.
The jarring Scott Stevens shoulder-to-head hit on Lindros in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference final that was applauded and legal at the time is cringe-worthy now. It came two years after Lindros took another devastating hit from Darius Kasparaitis.
Lindros was concussed at least five times during a dominant but injury-shortened career that landed him a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Now a 46-year-old husband and father, he isn’t sure what the benchmark should be for how he should be feeling. He his own baseline.
“I’d like to think I’m pretty normal,” Lindros said. “I think so. We all have our moments.”
Lindros could easily be the poster boy for concussions in the NHL given his experience as a star whose career was cut short. He was aware of the lawsuit but didn’t join. Lindros doesn’t want the threat of concussions to deter kids — even his own — from playing hockey. Still, he ponders an uncertain future.
“You’d be a fool not to,” he said.
Carcillo can’t change the punch to the head that gave him his seventh concussion but wants to document every step of his journey so that if he can’t save himself, maybe he can save others.
“It’s been pretty, pretty miserable: a lot of searching, a lot of treatment and a lot of money spent, a lot of friends lost,” he said. “I need to get it figured out, or else I don’t think I’ll be here that long. If I continue to feel this way, it doesn’t bode well for my future.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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