*On Thin Ice. For more than a decade, the biggest story in sports has been concussions in football, diverting attention from the other major American sport with an alarming concussion problem: pro hockey. And despite the mounting crisis, the NHL denies that a link between concussions and the degenerative brain disease CTE has been proven. Critics charge that in failing to admit the game has a problem, the league’s leadership has also been slow to reform rules and policies that would protect their players, while about 150 former pros have filed a lawsuit against the NHL for failing to protect them from head injuries.
Now, a growing chorus that includes Hall of Famers Ken Dryden and Eric Lindros (who suffered multiple concussions during his career) is calling for change. REAL SPORTS correspondent David Scott speaks with both former stars, and Dryden describes that their beloved game is in crisis and in dire need of change. Also interviewed is Paul Montador, the father of former NHL defenseman Steve Montador, who passed away in 2015 with CTE. Montador played for Calgary, Florida, Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo and Chicago.
Producer: Jordan Kronick.
HBO correspondent David Scott voiceover:
When Steve Montador died in 2015… with a cocktail of drugs in his system… he was just 35 years of age… recently retired from the NHL… and expecting his first child in days.
Paul Montador believes his son’s 10-year NHL career… which included nineteen concussions by one count… had ravished Steve’s brain… and, near the end, had forever changed his son… from a guy who lit up a room… to a recluse with no impulse control and severe memory loss.
PAUL MONTADOR: “He was not the same person that he was ten years before or five years before. The difficult part for him and for those close to him was you didn’t know whether it would ever get better.”
It only got worse… and after he died, Montador was diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE… the brain disease that causes memory loss, depression and dementia… and is often accompanied by substance abuse.
DAVID SCOTT: “As we sit here today, Mr. Bettman and the NHL take the public position that there is no link between hockey and its head hits and CTE. What do you say about that?”
PAUL MONTADOR: “The Earth is flat.”
KEN DRYDEN: “If you’ve got a bunch of players that are experiencing these symptoms, significant depression, problems with anxiety, terrible problems in terms of memory, you might say to yourself, you know, maybe there’s something we should do about this.”
Dr. Blaine Hoshizaki is an expert in brain trauma in sports. Over 20 years, he’s analyzed thousands of hockey collisions… and published his remarkable findings in dozens of studies in peer-reviewed journals.
DR. BLAINE HOSHIZAKI: “The fundamental thing is that trauma to the brain does not care if that trauma’s coming from football, hockey or boxing. They’re all the same.”
Ken Dryden was once the poster boy of the NHL, a six-time Stanley Cup winner and an icon of Canadian hockey.
KEN DRYDEN: “This doesn’t have to be the way it is.”
DAVID SCOTT: “What is the action the NHL has failed so far to take that gives all of hockey a way out of this?”
KEN DRYDEN: “No hits to the head, no excuses. It’s not whether it’s intentional or accidental. No. Forget about all of these artificial distinctions. They do not matter. The only thing that matters is the player got a blow to the head.”
DAVID SCOTT: “Period.”
KEN DRYDEN: “Period. And the worse the blow, the more severe the penalty.”
And Dryden isn’t the only hockey legend calling for the NHL to face reality.
Eric Lindros was once considered the greatest player of his generation… bigger, stronger and faster than anyone else on the ice. He was often the one dishing out the punishment.
But even his NHL career was cut short due to hits he took like this one. (video)
DAVID SCOTT: “What were your symptoms?”
ERIC LINDROS: “I was tired a lot. I used to hate crowds. Never used to hate crowds. I was fine and I started to really hate rooms with a lot of people.”
DAVID SCOTT: “Headaches?”
ERIC LINDROS: “Sure.”
DAVID SCOTT: “What about emotionally?”
ERIC LINDROS: “I was furious because here I went from being a really good player to being just a shadow of myself.”
DAVID SCOTT: “Doesn’t matter how big you are. The brain isn’t any safer because you’re big, strong and fast, right?”
ERIC LINDROS: “No.”
ERIC LINDROS: “I wanted nothing to do with the game. I was sour. I was angry.”
But he also left motivated… to pursue a new calling… sounding the alarm on concussions in hockey. On the very day he retired, Lindros gave $5 million of his own money to the medical facility that helped him with his concussions.
And last winter, along with Montreal Canadiens doctor David Mulder, he asked the NHL to fund research to protect its players.
ERIC LINDROS: “We thought that a million dollars a team, $31 million, was the right number.”
DAVID SCOTT: “Modest start for a $4 billion league. And what do they say?”
ERIC LINDROS: “You know, we didn’t hear a whole lot back.”
To date, the NHL… the multi-billion dollar league… has donated zero dollars to any of the major centers of concussion study in North America.
ERIC LINDROS: “We can do better. Fu__ing, yeah, we can. We can do a lot better.”
The NHL says it has taken action, by relying on so-called “spotters” at games to get concussed players off the ice. But these spotters don’t have to be medical experts… and are often just team coaches. Time and again, they’ve failed… as brain-injured players are kept in the game.