NHL players live with concussion effects

Scott Thornton estimates he had 10 to 20 concussions during his career Photo: Noah Graham/NHLI/Getty

Scott Thornton positions himself philosophically, somewhere between Gary Bettman’s, “We believe this is a lawsuit without merit,” and the class action lawyers’ assertion that “The NHL has known or should have known” about the long-term effects of concussions. As we speak however, the 1989 Toronto Maple Leafs first-rounder and current Battle of the Blades champion is sitting behind the wheel of his Ford F-150, driving home from a consultation with an orthopedic surgeon. “Likely another shoulder operation before Christmas,” he reports, “This will be my 15th surgery.”

Give blood for the 15th time and the Red Cross lady hands you a cheesy lapel pin. Have 15 post-career surgeries and you get less than that. Depending, of course, on how much value you place on scar tissue and early-onset arthritis. Thornton played 941 National Hockey League games, most all of them the hard way. He was a first-rounder who soon figured out he wouldn’t last on the perimeter, so he got involved to the tune of 1,459 PIM, or a little less than 100 per  season. Naturally, Thornton suffered concussions. “I probably have about 10 on record, I would think,” he muses. “But going back to junior hockey, or early in our careers, we didn’t know what a concussion was, even. You would get hit hard in a fight and it would take you a few minutes to get your wits back about you in the penalty box. Or you’d take an elbow in a scrum, and see stars… I don’t know. Somewhere between 10 to 20 I guess.”

I’ve asked that question to more than 100 men who played the pro game for any length of time, and the answer is always the same. The first two words are, “Who knows?” And then the stock-taking begins, like a guy walking around a cluttered garage counting cans of nails. “Well, I spent a night in the hospital one night in Swift Current when I was in junior…” a former player told me only last night, by way of recounting head trauma.

Thornton lives with the obvious scars of 14 surgeries, and the invisible scars of his estimated concussion count. At nearly 43, he doesn’t fully buy that players were ignorant to the possibility of long-lasting injuries, as Monday’s class action suit claims. “We paid insurance companies a lot of money to carry us through potential lost revenue or income if we were hurt. Especially career-ending injuries,” he notes. “But there are guys who, 10 years after your career is over, are starting to say, ‘Man, I’m just not getting over this.’ Sure there is a risk to play, but we’re talking about injuries that are debilitating. Injuries that aren’t going away.

“They’re suffering, man. Before I cast judgment on anybody, I know there are some guys out there who are probably deserving of some kind of reimbursement. Something.”

Thornton’s career spans, for the most part, the seasons after Gary Leeman, Rick Vaive and the rest of the 10 plaintiffs had left the game. But he was clearly handed an identical culture from those players and their brethren.  Rookies, Thornton recalls, didn’t want to risk “losing your chair at the table. Players always feel guilty (for being hurt), no mater what the injury is. I had a coach in my career that wouldn’t call me by my name when I was hurt. He’d talk to the trainer right in front of me and say, ‘Is 17 coming back? When is 17 going to be ready?’ I mean, I’d had shoulder surgery. It wasn’t like I was faking it.”

Thornton earned, according to Hockeyzoneplus.com, nearly $15 million during his career. In return, he gave the game every ounce of blood and pain he could spare.  “I’m proud of the fact I played or fought through it,” he says today. “It’s how you gained the respect of your teammates—right or wrong. It’s a culture you played in. It’s how I was raised.  I will say, though, we didn’t now the severity of what I was doing. I played through a shoulder separation, like lots of guys. If a Doc had said to me, ‘You’re not going to be able to raise your hand over your head when you’re 40 years old,’ you might have thought differently.”

Nearer the end of his career, Thornton missed half a season in San Jose with a concussion. He had three minor concussions in a week, from three every-day incidents, and the trainer shut him down. He’s thankful now, but also well aware that post-concussion syndrome is something he’ll likely live with forever.

Thornton stays exceptionally fit, eats right, and tries not to get worn down, lest the symptoms creep in. Still, “It never goes away,” he says.  “You can’t find a word in a conversation. Or you have trouble focusing on a discussion you’re having with someone. You’re always kind of counting on your wife or someone else, ‘What’s the title of that movie again?’

“In my house it’s always the joke, ‘The concussions,'” he says, making light of it, the way so many former players tend to do. “I can use it if I forget my wife’s birthday: ‘The concussions.’  It’s a half-joke, really.”

A half-joke. One that gets less funny all the time.

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