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Screen Shots: Hockey's culture must change when dealing with head injuries

Ian Laperriere had 20 points in 82 games last season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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Ian Laperriere had 20 points in 82 games last season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

I like Ian Laperriere, as a player and as a person, quite a bit. In fact, I was one of the chief advocates for giving the Flyers’ winger THN’s now-annual award as the toughest player in the NHL last season.

To me, ‘Lappy’ represents the ultimate team player – the glue guy from whom never is heard a discouraging word season-in-and-season-out; the humble, good-natured soul off the ice you’d want as your next door neighbor.

That’s why it’s so awful to see him enduring the same type of concussion-related suffering as Marc Savard, Eric and Brett Lindros, and Adam Deadmarsh (among a troublingly long list of others) have endured over the years. For too long, there has been too much debating and dithering and not enough genuine action on head injuries; as a result, a new group of unfortunate players will continue to suffer each and every year until direct and meaningful change is made in that regard.

But I’m not going to tell you that commissioner Gary Bettman and the rest of NHL ownership and management have to be the sole driver of change that will allow all players to fully enjoy their lives after hockey. Of course, the league could be doing more – and there’s an argument to be made that team doctors could be inclined to make health judgments that err on the side of athletes remaining in lineups – but just as much of the impetus for change must come from the players themselves.

Laperriere implied as much in a conference call with reporters earlier this week.

By his own admission, he was the one who, after taking a puck directly off the forehead in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs, returned to action for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinal and played all six games of the Stanley Cup final. He’s now the one who has had a recurrence of post-concussion symptoms and whose future playing the game has been jeopardized.

And he did it for the same reason every NHLer does it – because hockey’s culture demands players “man up” and play through any degree of pain.

“When you want to play, you always find excuses,” Laperriere said in a conference call. “There are people who are going to say, ‘He’s crazy, why did he do that?’ But you have to put yourself in my shoes. I’ve been in this league for a long time, I’ve never experienced what I did last year and I wanted to play after learning test results had come back normal.”

I can’t blame Laperriere for his deep-seeded urge to compete in the Cup final – a level he’d never played at before and may never again. But I do think the hockey world, for its own good, needs to redefine and re-educate players as to what it means to be “tough” in this game – what it is to “suck it up” or to “man up” or whatever lingo is used by hockey people to repress and undermine the natural human instinct to stay healthy.

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I think “sucking it up” should be seen by players as understanding the serious (and still not-fully-known) ramifications of putting your brain on the line and concluding that having a natural, unimpeded relationship with your wife, children and extended family is worth far more than any hockey game.

I think “manning up” means being tough enough to tell your teammates that, although you’d move heaven and earth to deliver them to the height of sporting success, you’d never surrender your cognitive abilities for any financial payoff or prestige.

An increase in players’ willingness to put themselves and their families first doesn’t mesh with the glorified notion of self-sacrifice that permeates the sport. But it is absolutely necessary to ensure that hockey stops cannibalizing its top talents because of some misplaced machismo. 

“It's tough for people to understand,” Laperriere told the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman this week. “I know this is a sport, but since we were little boys, we've had the hockey mentality. Whether it's your brain or your knee, suck it up.”

I’m all for sucking it up in the traditional sense, but only when it comes to knees, legs, hips and other body parts that can be repaired.

The brain, however, doesn’t have that capacity – and by now, everyone should know not even the NHL’s toughest player can have his damaged on the battlefield and emerge a winner.

Follow Adam's hockey tweets at twitter.com/TheHockeyNews, and his non-hockey observations at twitter.com/ProteauType.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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