headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take the temper of the game made it hard. At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1.

That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of common assault. Both had been find already by the referee, $15 a man, and at court that was enough for the magistrate: he said they’d been “amply punished.”

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to war Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”