PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Known as “Mr. Devil,” Ken Daneyko lost front teeth playing hockey, had a pretty stout fight card, and often displayed ruthless aggression en route to winning the Stanley Cup three times.
He laments the fading of the pure “enforcer” role, and the on-ice code of justice that was so ingrained in hockey’s culture.
But Daneyko, who spent 20 years with the New Jersey Devils, understands the game had to evolve. The elbows to the head, the vicious checks, the cheap shots absorbed for most players not long after they were toddlers on skates add up, and take a brutal toll on a man’s health.
While the game is still violent, it clearly has changed. With a greater emphasis on head injury awareness these days — in all sports — it pretty much had to.
But look no further than hockey for proof.
“I know certain guys have had some serious head injuries over the years,” Daneyko said. “But we play a game with a lot of risk. We understood that at the time. I knew the risks. I played the game hard and got out of it — fortunately — relatively unscathed.”
He’s a lucky one.
But check the headlines and it’s easy to find retired athletes who built careers in contact sports like hockey and football, who now suffer from brain trauma or other ailments directly caused by years of taking — and delivering — the big hit.
And for one league, the bill has come due.
Just a month after scores of former NFL players were awarded damages in a highly publicized lawsuit against the NFL, might it be time for some of the NHL’s retirees to do the same?
The NFL agreed to pay out more than three-quarters of a billion dollars to settle lawsuits from thousands of former players, perhaps the kind of action that could be on the horizon for the NHL, where each blow to head is as punishing as the ones dished out on 100-yard fields.
The crux of the NFL lawsuit wasn’t as much about players — living with the miserable effects of dementia or other concussion-related health problems — wanting their cut of the bounty, but how they instead accused the NFL of concealing the long-term dangers of concussions.
That might not be the case with the NHL, but there is enough to draw a comparison.
“Medically and scientifically, the similarities are there,” said Philadelphia lawyer Larry Coben, who filed the first concussion lawsuit against the NFL. “Legally, there may be distinctions that are tougher and easier.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman declined comment on the impact of the NFL lawsuit. But he said the league has been proactive for decades in addressing head injuries.
“We have, on our own, a long history, going back to 1997, of taking concussions very seriously,” Bettman said. “We spend a lot of time, money and effort working with the players’ association on player safety.”
He’s right. And the commissioner, who has endured three player lockouts and several off-the-ice issues, is quick to point out his work in this area. Indeed, the NHL was active early with concussions and injury awareness, despite the overall dangers of his game.
“Whether we were the first sports league to have a working concussion study group with the players, our doctors and trainers, or the fact that we were the first sports league to have baseline testing, or the first sports league to have protocols for diagnosis and return-to-play decisions, or the rule changes we’ve done, or softening the environment, the boards and glass, or having the department of player safety, these are all things that we do on an ongoing basis,” he said. “Because we want the game as safe as possible.”
Daneyko, a key part of New Jersey’s dominant defensive system for parts of three decades who is now a television analyst for the team, believes the NHL should get credit for rules changes that addressed player safety.
“The league continues to do everything they can to protect players,” Daneyko said. “We didn’t even know about concussions back then, really. Our trainers’ diagnosis would be, ‘if you see three, take the guy in the middle.'”
A rough-and-tumble center who meshed offensive skill with plenty of grit, Keith Primeau suffered for years with the cobwebs in his nerves that caused dizzy spells and headaches. Sometimes, it got the best of the former Philadelphia Flyers captain.
“I’ve been approached by a couple of attorneys over the last several years who have tried to jump on the cause for hockey players,” he said. “It’s not something that I’m pursuing.
“The game’s been very good to me, and I recognize and appreciate that.”
Primeau has said he had four documented concussions over his 15-year NHL career, but had no idea how many others he may have suffered since he started playing as a 5-year-old-boy. His first diagnosed concussion came in 1997, while playing for the Hartford Whalers. Team doctors simply ordered him to rest for one week — no physical contact, practice or games.
Primeau said it took until 2012 for his health to regain some sense of normalcy. He’s back in the gym and has managed his symptoms thanks to prolotherapy, a series of shots that sparks the body’s immune system, regenerates damaged tissue and strengthens joints.
He also co-founded stopconcussions.com, which aims to reduce, research and manage concussions.
Enthused by his improvement, Primeau has been fortunate, and even coaches his kids now.
Another former Flyers captain, Eric Lindros, is in a long line of stars who played through concussions, as well. One of the more ballyhooed players to ever come into the league, Lindros played from 1992-2007 and helped to maintain a proud Philadelphia NHL tradition, though he never won a Stanley Cup there.
Incidentally, one of the Flyers’ biggest rivalries during the Lindros era was with the Devils of Daneyko and more noticeably, captain Scott Stevens. The latter delivered a crushing, open-ice hit to Lindros in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals in one of the NHL’s more famous checks. Stevens, now an assistant coach with New Jersey, retired himself after suffering effects of post-concussion syndrome.
Lindros declined comment on the lawsuit issue.
Three former NHL enforcers — Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak — died in 2011 under circumstances consistent with post-concussion syndrome. Boogaard died from an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone; Rypien had been suffering from depression; Belak hanged himself.
Joanne Boogaard, Derek’s mother, and other family members filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in May against the NHL, blaming the league for brain damage her son suffered playing the game and for his addiction to prescription painkillers.
The NHL has declined comment on the lawsuit.
Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, said it would be difficult for the Boogaard case to turn into the kind of massive, class-action lawsuit the NFL faced.
“An injury itself isn’t enough to prove legal harm,” he said. “There has to be some type of misconduct on the part of the league and I’m not aware of that being alleged.”
As for the NFL lawsuit, the settlement applies to all past players and spouses of those who are deceased — a group that could total more than 20,000.
“Everybody who has represented players in this case since the settlement has gotten lots of calls,” Coben said. “There have been lots of new players calling and signing up.”
But a similar movement among retired NHL players appears about as quiet as the crowd at a Florida Panthers game.
“I’ve never been motivated by money,” Primeau said. “There are more important things.”
AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham contributed to this report from Los Angeles.