Odjick’s mental health struggles underscore need for NHL to do more on concussion-support front for retired players

Adam Proteau
Gino Odjick skates on the ice

My journalism career began toward the end of Gino Odjick’s NHL career, so I never had a chance to cover him in any great depth. But thanks to his Twitter account, I’ve come to know him a little bit.

And what I’ve seen from him I love a whole lot. He’s a proud and caring First Nations leader, an incredibly positive person and, perhaps most of all, a protector. That’s who he was on the ice for 12 NHL seasons. That’s who he is to this day.

And that’s why it was so tough to hear about Odjick’s recent mental health struggles. Odjick’s stay in a Quebec psychiatric hospital – his second trip to such a unit since September – alarmed his close friends and business partners. According to the article, Odjick and his friends attribute his woes to the concussions he suffered as one of hockey’s most feared enforcers.

But now that the 43-year-old is in a vulnerable state, who is the enforcer protecting him? That’s supposed to be the rest of us, folks. And by “us”, I mean the same fans who stood and cheered him with every thrown and absorbed punch; simply because we purchased tickets to watch him play doesn’t mean we can forget about him now, too. Yes, Odjick is responsible for his actions and the choices he made, but anyone who callously says “he knew the risks” and just forgets about him hasn’t owned up to their complicity in the post-career condition of players.

But more importantly, by “us”, I also mean the NHL, which profited off of those punches.

To be sure, the NHL has made strides in caring for its current and former athletes. In the current CBA, the league and NHL Players’ Association established a joint Health and Safety Committee with tools to help players deal with mental health issues and that’s a good start; so too is the presence of league player safety people such as Brendan Shanahan and Patrick Burke; and the efforts of the NHL Alumni Association don’t go unappreciated.

Is that enough? Sorry, but I don’t think so. Not when there are other examples of sports and entertainment operations that are doing as much, if not more for former employees.

To that end, look at – and part of me can’t believe I’m typing this – Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment business. Although he’s a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, McMahon stepped up in the wake of numerous pro wrestler tragic deaths – drug and alcohol-related, for the most part – to offer fully paid rehabilitation for any performer who worked for his outfit. Dozens of wrestlers have taken him up on the offer – and while not every one of them has found success and full health after doing so, it’s simply the least that WWE could do for people who gave their blood and brains to help the company’s bottom line.

Imagine Gary Bettman doing something similar. Imagine the NHL commissioner calling a news conference tomorrow and saying something like this:

“Once any player skates under our league’s banner, he is a member of our family for life. That’s why I’m announcing that all players, past or present, will have the option to be tested for the presence of (harbinger of significant brain trauma) CTE and afforded the best treatment for their physical and mental health symptoms at no personal cost. Players don’t have to identify themselves publicly. They just have to reach out for help, and we’ll happily be there for them.”

That type of assistance is what Odjick and his fellow former NHLers deserve. The NHL doesn’t have to wait years like the NFL did before settling with players desperate for assistance. NHL team owners can do it anytime they choose. They can still help and acknowledge that players’ sacrifices in the name of our insatiable desire for entertainment must be recognized and respected to a much greater degree than they are at present.

For the best years of his life, Odjick and tough guys like him made everyone on their team feel safer. It’s time hockey returned the favor.