Former National Hockey League enforcers Nick Kypreos and Ryan VandenBussche were no strangers to hiding concussion symptoms during their playing days, a problem the two believe still exist in today’s league.
In a Rogers Sportsnet special Thursday night — Crisis on Ice? — the two players spoke face-to-face for the first time about their fight in a September 1997 pre-season game that saw Kypreos suffer a career-ending concussion.
In the candid interview with Bob McCown of Sportsnet Radio FAN 590, both players discussed the impact that fateful night had on their lives while relating to the issue of head injuries in the current NHL.
“You never, ever want to end a guy’s career, especially in that nature,” VandenBussche said of leaving a bloodied Kypreos face-down on the ice with a left-handed knockout punch. “I’ll never forget that feeling of going to the penalty box, looking back and seeing what I saw. And I’m going to be quite honest with you, it made me sick to my stomach.
“After that, I didn’t know how to react.”
While Kypreos was the one on the receiving end of the knockout punch, that night also changed the way VandenBussche viewed fighting in hockey. He continued, “I fought out of fear … When I was in the penalty box after that incident, it actually scared me (the thought of) fighting. I didn’t have that before. When I was young and anxious, I’d look forward to it sometimes but after that incident I was like, ‘That could’ve been me on that ice like that.’
“You had to have a certain mentality when you’re on the ice and you’re going to do battle with guys twice your size. Nick’s not a big guy either, and seeing something like that, that could happen to me … It’s a weird mentality, it’s almost sadistic to say, but you have to want to get that guy down. Was I happy that I knocked Nick down on the ice? Yes I was, but I wasn’t happy that I ended his career, by no means.”
Kypreos, an eight-year NHL veteran at the time, was trying to retain a spot with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He knew he had to drop the gloves to prove he could still perform as an NHL enforcer, even waving off the linesman who wanted to break up the fight.
“I was at the end of my career,” Kypreos said. “That was a fight that was much different than anything I experienced the last 10 years because that was one of the fights that I needed. For the first time, I felt that I had to win. Not even tie, because I was fighting for a roster spot and I knew that.
“I got to basically knock this guy out myself to keep my job and I knew that. That’s when Ryan got his left hand free and brought my shoulder pads in towards him and got me. Ultimately, we knew both what we had to do coming out of training camp to keep a job and we were both willing guys to do it,” he said.
While Kypreos’ career came to an abrupt end that night on the first shift of the game, he’s never received — nor wanted — an apology from VandenBussche.
“No, and if he apologized, I’d probably kick his ass because there’s no way that anyone should have to apologize for doing their job. That’s not something I ever looked for out of Ryan VandenBussche,” Kypreos said.
Kypreos and VandenBussche also discussed the reality of players covering up concussion symptoms, something that was common when they played and may still be an issue in the current NHL. VandenBussche admitted to suffering more than a dozen concussions in his career.
“I don’t have one recorded concussion with the league, but that’s nobody’s fault but my own,” VandenBussche said. “It wasn’t the trainer’s fault. It wasn’t the league’s fault or the coach’s fault. It was my fault because I chose not to express it to anybody.”
VandenBussche, who played nine seasons in the NHL with the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, recalled the 1996-97 season when he suffered three concussions in a four-week span. Following one fight with Stu Grimson of the Hartford Whalers, a dazed VandenBussche refused to show any signs of injury to his coaches and teammates.
“I get to the penalty box and I couldn’t even read the scoreboard. I get to the bench and (then Rangers coach) Colin Campbell says, ‘Get off the ice. Take a rest in the dressing room.’ I refused to go to the dressing room because I didn’t want anyone to think I was hurt.”
The refusal to recognize possible head injuries is a problem Kypreos believes may still exist with the modern player.
“I think these guys still try to live in denial in terms of acknowledging what they’ve gone through,” he said.
Watch the rest of Sportsnet’s special “Crisis on Ice?” here.