Wait, let me get this out of the way—if you haven’t read Rich Clune’s post today on The Player’s Tribune, go read it right now. Then come back.
Did you read it? Good. Buckle in. This is a long one.
The first thing I want to say is this: Clune speaking out and telling his story has to be harder than any of us who are simply spectators can understand, because hockey is a culture that prizes strength above all else. Or at least, that’s the myth. The thing is, professional hockey doesn’t prize real strength. It prizes the appearance of strength. It prizes perceived strength, like fighting that goon who’s half a foot taller than you because you’re desperate to keep your spot in the lineup, or self-medicating and pretending everything is fine when you’re playing through pain. Clune called it a mask. I call it a problem.
Clune’s piece was very timely, given reports that Mike Richards’ termination by the L.A. Kings is connected to his alleged OxyContin-related arrest by the RCMP a couple weeks back. I’ll be honest. The first thing my mind went to was 2011. My mind went to the names I listed above, and how this year, we added Steve Montador to the list.
My mind went there again today when I read Clune’s piece about his addiction, and the culture that fed it for years.
I’m not going to try to speak to what addiction is like. I haven’t experienced it. It’s the culture that I want to talk about. Clune was self-medicating to deal with fear and pressure. Some guys self-medicate to deal with pain. The culture surrounding professional hockey—prizing the perception of strength at the expense of making everything that doesn’t fit that image look like weakness—feeds both.
As a whole, the sports community needs to do a better job of regulating how injuries are handled—not just what pain medication is prescribed and for how long, but what these guys are allowed to play through. I don’t just mean head injuries. It would be easy to look at that list of names at the top of the page, and to look at Clune, and say, “Oh, those guys are fighters, so we should just eliminate fighting”, or “It’s just that we don’t take concussions seriously enough”.
While both of those may be valid comments, it’s not the solution. Not even close.
Brendan Morrow spent part of the 2013 playoffs skating on a split kneecap. Andrew Shaw and Patrice Bergeron each played the 2013 Stanley Cup Final with a broken rib, and Bergeron’s led to a punctured lung. In the fall of 2014, Pascal Dupuis chose to play a handful of games knowing that he probably had another pulmonary embolism. This February, Henrik Lundqvist stayed in a game after being struck in the neck by a puck and experiencing lightheadedness and headaches, and it was later discovered he had a sprained blood vessel, a condition that if left untreated can lead to high stroke risk. Ben Bishop played most of this year’s Stanley Cup Final with a groin tear. Andrew Shaw had back pain so bad the morning of Game 6 this June that he couldn’t walk, and he played anyway.
Those are just a fraction of the injuries we’ve heard about since the 2013 NHL playoffs. There are countless others, including ones from seasons prior and ones that never made it to our computer, smartphone, or tablet screens. Simply put: this is a pervasive problem.
Pain is a stressor, and dealing with it is exhausting. If you’re in pain and you don’t let whatever the cause is heal, it won’t go away. Especially if you’re exacerbating it by trying to play between 10 and 20 minutes of hockey per night. When that culture of perceived strength tells you that asking for help makes you look weak, self-medication sometimes looks like the only option.
I hope Mike Richards gets whatever help he needs. I hope the countless others in this sport, no matter the league, who are in the same position as Clune was will read his piece and take it to heart. But mostly, I hope that someone somewhere, someone with more power than I have, chooses to stand up to this culture and say, “No”.
“No, you’re not going back out on the ice.”
“No, you’re not cleared to play tonight.”
“No. This player is a human being, not a commodity.”
If Clune hadn’t gotten help, he might’ve one day been on that list alongside Belak, Boogaard, Rypien, and Montador. If the reports are true, maybe Richards could have too. For any of this to change, hockey has to start prioritizing people over product, and safety over the perception of strength. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to add names.
Because It’s Your Brain — High Heels & High Sticks
In Hockey Enforcer’s Descent, a Flood of Prescription Drugs — The New York Times
Painkiller Abuse in the NFL: A Hefty Price for Entertainment — NIDA for Teens