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.

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 disorderly conduct. At court, while both Hall and Skinner pleaded guilty, the magistrate presiding deemed that they already been “amply punished” by the referee who fined them $15 a man at the rink.

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 wear 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.”

 

my first hockey game: stan fischler

No-one has talked and written more hockey in the past 50 years than Stan Fischler. Today in Puckstruck’s occasional series, the man they call “The Hockey Maven” recalls the first NHL game he saw in person.

Eighty-five now, Fischler got his start on the page in the mid-1950s with The Brooklyn Eagle and The New York Journal-American. Nowadays he’s on air for MSG’s broadcasts of games involving New York Rangers and Islanders and New Jersey’s Devils. Born in Brooklyn, he’s an authority on New York’s subways and American-Jewish humour as well as all things puckish. He’s bylined stories over the years for The New York Times and The Toronto Star, Sports Illustrated, and Hockey Digest. He’s a columnist for The Hockey News, and has been publishing his own weekly Fischler Report for more than 20 years.

Stan Fischler

Fischler has been publishing books since 1967, and his bibliography, which runs to more than 100 titles, includes biographies of Gordie Howe and Stan Mikita, memoirs by Brad Park and Maurice Richard, along with team and oral histories, and …. there’s not much in the game that hasn’t caught Fischler’s attention. Among the best, in my books: Those Were The Days: The Lore of Hockey by The Legends of the Game, his 1976 compendium of interviews with greats of the game going back to Cyclone Taylor and Newsy Lalonde; and Metro Ice: A Century of Hockey in Greater New York (1999).

 In 2007, Fischler won the Lester Patrick Trophy, which recognizes significant contributors to the cause of hockey in the United States, adding his name to an all-star roll that features the likes of Jack Adams, Eddie Shore, Scotty Bowman, and Art Ross.

 His first NHL game? Here’s his recent recollection of how that happened in 1942, followed by some further historical fleshing-out of the night in question.

I saw my first hockey game at Madison Square Garden in 1939. It was an “amateur” doubleheader: Met League game at 1:30 Sunday, followed by a Rovers Eastern League game at 3:30 p.m.

I was seven years old at the time and not allowed to go to Rangers or Americans games because they did not start until 8:30 p.m., and I had to get up early to go to P.S. 54 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in those days.

Of course, I yearned to see an NHL game and finally got my wish in November of 1942. World War II was on in its intensity and every NHL team had lost players to the armed forces, including the Rangers. Having begged my father to take me and a friend named Jerry, he finally agreed.

However, the rain was coming down in torrents that afternoon and Dad hesitated because of that. Finally he agreed and we took the subway to the old Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street. Dad bought the cheapest seats — side balcony — and it was Rangers vs. Chicago Blackhawks.

Problem was the side balcony seats — except for first two rows — had obstructed views and we couldn’t see anything that happened along the side boards right below us. Nevertheless, we were thrilled beyond belief. Chicago still had the Bentley Brothers, Max and Doug, while the Blueshirts were reduced to lesser stars.

I was so dazzled by the mere viewing of my first major league game that I was more observer than fan. Besides, I was a Maple Leaf fan and could no summon any rooting interest.

As it happened, I continued going to every Sunday afternoon game and did not see another NHL game until the 1945-46 season when my Dad took me to see Toronto vs. Rangers. New York won by a goal and while I was very disappointed, I enjoyed seeing my Leafs in person.

A year later I started going to Leaf games at MSG on a regular basis and became a season ticket holder for the 1947-48 season.

Stan Fischler’s first obstructed-view experience of NHL hockey came on a Tuesday night, November 10, 1942, along with 8,558 other fans at Madison Square Garden. It was the Rangers’ fifth game of the season, the second they’d played on home ice. Neither New York nor Chicago would fare well that season — both teams missed the playoffs — but on the night, Rangers prevailed, 5-3, in overtime.

 One of the stories for the Rangers that nascent season was in goal. Sugar Jim Henry was gone to the war, and to replace his preventative measures, GM Lester Patrick had brought in a 25-year-old rookie, Steve Buzinski, from Saskatchewan’s senior-league Swift Current Indians. When he wasn’t watching for pucks, Buzinski worked as a wheat and cereal expert with Swift Current’s Dominion Experimental Station. As one newspaper wag, Harry Grayson, was writing in ’42, Patrick was considered “the smartest man in the dodge,” so when he plucked up Buzinski, “everyone expected he would have another ace to show them. Hadn’t the Rangers had such illustrious netkeepers as Lorne Chabot, John Ross Roach, and Davey Kerr?”

 It didn’t go so swimmingly. The Rangers lost three of their four first games, including a 12-5 loss to Detroit and a 10-4 Montreal drubbing, with Buzinski surrendering 32 goals as they did so. “By now,” Harry Grayson cruelly reported, “the boys were calling Steve ‘Sieve.’”

 He rallied under Fischler’s young gaze. Joseph Nichols wrote it up for The New York Times. “Aided not at all by the Rangers defence, which had trouble with the fleet Black Hawk wings, Buzinski nevertheless had the creditable total of thirty-nine saves.” Tied 3-3, the teams headed for (non-lethal) overtime, which saw Bryan Hextall and Lynn Patrick score to secure the Ranger win. Wartime cutbacks would shelve regular-season overtime, so this, as it happens, was the last one the NHL would see for 40 years.

 True to Fischler’s memory, the Bentleys were on show that night, with Doug counting two of the Chicago goals and Max adding an assist. Brother Reg was with Chicago that year, too, his only season in the NHL, though he wasn’t in the line-up for this Ranger game.

 And Buzinski? He didn’t last the month of November. Stan Fischler’s first game was the last one Buzinski won in the NHL. He guarded the Ranger net for four more games after that, losses all, whereupon the Rangers brought in a Detroit farmhand, Jimmy Franks, and Buzinski’s NHL career was over. While the Rangers sent him down to the AHL New Haven Eagles, he didn’t last there, preferring to head back to Saskatchewan, where he was reinstated as an amateur. He enlisted not long after that. He did get back into the nets, post-war, with the Swift Current seniors.

 Around the time he was shipping out of New York in 1942, he wrote a letter home to the editor of The Swift Current Sun. “These New York sportswriters are really something to fear,” it read, in part.

Brothers In Arms: Chicago’s own Saskatchewaners coming at you, in 1942, Reg Bentley on the left alongside Max and Doug.

 

mad-pace rangers (and one-armed ott heller)

This record-breaking streak of the Rangers’, in 1942, the one where they’d failed to be shut out for 78 consecutive games, it was a big deal, in 1942. In New York it was, anyway. It didn’t hurt that they were the hottest team in the NHL that February, leading the league, looking like (according to the papers) they’d regained the form that won them the Stanley Cup in 1942. They had a sharp rookie goaltender in Sugar Jim Henry, not to mention the league’s top three scorers all playing all together on a line, Bryan Hextall, Lynn Patrick, and Phil Watson. The loss of defenceman Ott Heller hadn’t fazed them, apparently, and nor did the prospect of facing Toronto’s Turk Broda, deemed by several New York sportswriters the goaltender mostly likely to blank them and break the streak. Didn’t happen. On February 1 they beat the Leafs 7-2 at Madison Square Garden, their 11th win in the 13 games they’d played since Christmas, and their 84th non-shutout in a row. In 31 games, they’d tallied 125 goals. “If they maintain this mad pace through the remaining 17 games,” Lester Rice wrote in the Journal-American, “they will have put all previous scoring records to shame with 193 goals.”

 

There was good news on the Heller front, too: he was back on the ice, skating, taking shots — well, one-armed swings, at least:

ott one armed