Keith Primeau has been one of the leading voices on concussions in the National Hockey League, speaking from experience after his career ended due to a brain injury in 2006. As he told The Sporting News recently:
There would be those who say that "we can fix you" and "we can heal you," but at the end of the day, I've damaged my brain, and you can't fix it, you can't heal it. There's nothing that says you can. It depends what day you catch me on, whether I feel there's hope for full recovery or not. I'm in a much better place than I was three years ago, four years ago, five years ago, six years ago, but there's no getting around the fact that I damaged my brain repeatedly, and there's a price to be paid.
He is a co-founder, with Kerry Goulet, of StopConcussions.com, an organization dedicated to reducing the incidences of concussions in all sports — through education, not through scare tactics.
He's written a book that's an offshoot of the site called "Concussed", that chronicles Primeau's journey back from brain trauma and other families' stories.
He's also prominently featured in director Steve James's new film "Head Games", that's an insightful look at the concussion issues in sports and the science that's helped diagnose the damage. The film debuted in New York and Los Angeles last week and is available now via VOD through iTunes, Amazon VOD and a dozen cable and satellite companies. (Our interview with James is here.)
We recently spoke with Primeau about concussions, their affect on young athletes' desire to play hockey and whether players from his generation would seek lawsuits against the NHL as former NFL players have filed over player safety.
But first, the news of the day facing the NHL:
Q. How much déjà vu are you getting watching this lockout play out?
PRIMEAU: [Laughs] I went through three work stoppages. I understood what they were about. But that doesn't mean it was necessarily the right thing.
Nobody wins in a situation like this. They're hurting the game, and above all else, they're hurting the fans. That's who you need in order to support the game.
You're featured as a pundit on "Head Games", a new film about concussions in sports. Were you at all surprised that the NHL was that eager to participate? It seems like on the concussion stuff, they can be proactive but they can also flinch at diving into the CTE/hockey enforcers thing.
I think they feel as thought they need to take it head on. Ignoring it doesn't make it go away. You saw that in the NFL, in the early stages of that debate. [I agree with] Bill Daly when he said we're not going to get rid of head injuries in contact sports. [It's about] that ability to stand up and say, "OK, we recognize there's an issue. Let's deal with it."
Do you agree with the NHL's stance that the majority of concussions are the result of hitting rather than fighting?
One hundred percent. For me, the argument where fighting is the precursor to neurological disease, it's not a fair assessment. It's totally hypothetical. [But] do I think it makes them more susceptible, in that line of work? Yeah, sure, absolutely.
How have you felt about the Dept. of Player Safety initiatives to reduce violent hits, like the Shanahan videos?
I applaud Brendan for the work's he's done. He's made he effort. It's not the easiest job to have, dealing with 30 different teams and often times an old-school mentality.
Do you ever take a step back and think, "Out of all the people they could have picked, it ended up being Brendan?"
[Laughs] Often times it takes a player similar to that to understand. He played a long time, and a certain style, and recognized a reason to change.
If this stuff was around when you were playing — the Dept. of Player Safety, the science on concussions, the tragedies — do you think that players might have approached the game differently?
I think we might have approached some things differently. I would like to think that I might have, if I had a greater base of knowledge. It just so happens this is the year where we're getting better science and more heightened awareness.
Where do you stand on the notion that the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak in Summer 2011 were somehow tied to brain injuries suffered during their NHL careers?
I don't know. My assumption would be totally hypothetical, but I believe that there's some kind of correlation. To what degree, I don't know. Whether it was the cause of their demise, I'm not sure either. But history is showing that those suffering through depression, may be suffering through other ailments.
Having gone through what you've gone through with concussions, what's your reaction when you see a Marc Savard or a Chris Pronger have their careers dramatically altered?
It's not something you wish on anybody. I get their wish to be private, to withdraw. It's just easier — to be private, to try and recover in the peace of your home. But I know what they're going through.
It seems like for fans and media, we only really give concussions attention when there's a stretcher involved.
The biggest misnomer is that there are different degrees of severity. A concussion is a concussion, whether they leave on a stretcher or whether he's just dealt a blow that causes a concussion. They're severe enough where they need to be dealt with in the same manner.
What was the motivating factor in writing the book?
It was the continuation of the work we're doing on StopConcussions.com. Educating people as best we can. Not trying to heighten the fear but heightening the awareness. There are also several personal stories in there, giving it that personal touch, a human element.
Steve James, who directed "Head Games", mentioned you told him that fears about concussions and player safety have trickled down to the youth levels and are affecting participation. What have you noticed?
It would be a broad statement, but if we're dealing in generalities I'm sure there are households out there where parents have made a decision for their child not to put them in that environment. But if you look at the broad spectrum, I don't think that's the case.
Again: The position is education and awareness, not fear.
A lot of the film deals with the NFL, and in turn with the former NFL players' decision to sue the League for negligence in concussion prevention and treatment. Have you ever had any discussions with former players about a lawsuit against the NHL? That they somehow put the players at risk over the years?
No. You can say they didn't do a good enough job. That's up for discussion. But I never felt that. The NFL players have a direct grievance, when you look through their suit. Their information was being withheld.
I was blessed to play in the NHL for 15 years. I would never say the game was responsible for putting me in the situation I'm in.