Former NHL Players Want You To Pay Attention To Hockey Concussions, Too

Ex-hockey players met with members of Congress to show how damaging the brain injuries can be.
Dale Purinton, left, suffered multiple concussions during his career as an NHL enforcer.
Dale Purinton, left, suffered multiple concussions during his career as an NHL enforcer.

WASHINGTON ― The tears began to flow from Temple Greenleaf’s eyes not long after she began describing the pain of watching her husband, former NHL defenseman Dale Purinton, deal with the havoc concussions had wreaked on his brain. Depression. Anxiety. Alcohol abuse. A near-complete loss of memory.

“I describe it as watching someone in a fire, in a house, and I couldn’t pull him out,” Greenleaf said, dabbing her eyes. “There was nothing I could do. There was no help I could give him.”

“I took on the role as if he was my fourth child,” she said. “I did everything for him.”

Purinton suffered multiple concussions during his 15-year pro hockey career as an enforcer ― the euphemism the sport uses for the big, physical defensemen whose primary charge is to fight.

He long denied the problems that went along with the head injuries, but Greenleaf said the effects were noticeable as early as 2003. She even reached out ― behind her husband’s back ― to people in the NHL in an effort to get him help that never came. He also tried to get help years later, but the closest he came was when doctors in Canada tested his brain and deemed him not ill enough to receive assistance.

Purinton left hockey in 2008, but the demons still rattled around in his head. He began to “self-medicate,” Greenleaf said. Alcohol. Painkillers. It made everything worse. Then, in August 2015, he hit bottom: Purinton was arrested after breaking into a home in upstate New York.

Today, Purinton can’t ignore what those concussions did to his life and those around him ― even though the league that once employed him, the NHL, still is. So he came to Washington last week to tell his story.

Purinton, along with other former players and their family members, met Obama administration officials at the White House and sat down with several members of Congress ― among them, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Reps. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) ― over two whirlwind days in the nation’s capital.

He hopes someone will listen, and that he will help draw attention to the effects concussions can have on the brains of hockey players like him. Purinton is one of the dozens of former NHL players suing the league, alleging that it mishandled concussion treatments and concealed the long-term effects of brain injuries. The suit is similar to one more than 4,500 former football players settled with the NFL, but it has received relatively little attention compared to the one against America’s most popular sport.

“Players of this iconic, treasured sport deserve more medical research into the link between concussions and brain disease later in ‎life,” Blumenthal said in a statement after meeting the players.

“This can’t be tucked under the rug anymore,” Purinton said. “We were all young children aspiring to be NHL hockey players. And we finally get to that point, and it’s led us into so many situations of depression, anxiety, addictions. And the root cause is concussions. We’re here to tell our story, to make a difference for current players, future players, and past players ― and players who are no longer with us.”

Purinton says he isn’t the same man he was when he busted through that door last August. He has received treatment for depression and anxiety, and has a support group that helps. The fire that once engulfed him has been largely reduced to embers. But embers still burn.

“He’s better today,” Greenleaf said. “He’s still not great.”

“We were all young children aspiring to be NHL hockey players. And we finally get to that point, and it’s led us into so many situations of depression, anxiety, addictions.”

- Former NHL player Dale Purinton

Dan LaCouture would love to be that lucky.

Like Purinton, LaCouture spent his time in the NHL as an enforcer. They were actually teammates on the New York Rangers for two seasons, defensemen who dealt out blows on the same backline. LaCouture started to lose control after a concussion in 2004, which he suffered after falling to the ice during a fight. The team doctor, he said, didn’t even send him to the hospital for an MRI.

He initially turned to alcohol to deal with the depression and anger that started to boil in his head. Two bottles of wine a night. Then Ambien, which he said he started taking when team trainers gave it to him in a hotel on a road trip. He spent nights on the couch wondering how to quit the only game he’d ever loved.

“A lot of times in the [last] six, seven years I was shocked I actually even woke up. ‘Cause I had maybe popped two Ambien and had two, three bottles of wine in me from the night before,” he said. “Just fucking stunned that I even woke up.”

“Sometimes,” he continued, “I was pissed off I even woke up.”

Dan LaCouture still struggles with the effects of concussions he suffered during his NHL career.
Dan LaCouture still struggles with the effects of concussions he suffered during his NHL career.
Dave Sandford via Getty Images

LaCouture hit bottom too. His marriage fell apart, and he can’t regularly see his two kids anymore. He was arrested twice in June, once for assault.

As he watched the calm, almost zen-like way Purinton discussed his issues, LaCouture said he hoped to make similar progress soon. He’s one year clean of his Ambien addiction, on medication and in therapy. But he’s still angry and anxious.

“I’m angry at how I was taken care of,” LaCouture told The Huffington Post in an office off of Capitol Hill.

Not taken care of,” his father, sitting across the table, said.

LaCouture’s head whipped around at the interjection. It was the second or third time his dad had interrupted, however sincerely. His voice rose.

“Yeah,” he snapped. “Not taken care of. That’s what I said.”

But a second later, confusion draped LaCouture’s face.

“Wasn’t it?” he asked, his tone suddenly sheepish.

It was hard to watch. They’re hard to talk to, at least not without tears filling your eyes too. That their stories are so tragically common makes it even harder.

There are so many questions about what has happened, and why no one seems to care. Especially the NHL, which hasn’t even taken the baby steps the NFL has made on concussions in recent years.

The NFL acknowledged a link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy at a congressional hearing earlier this year. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, by contrast, responded to an inquiry from Blumenthal in July by again denying such a link. Unlike the NFL, which fought back against its former players but ultimately agreed to a settlement, the NHL seems committed to battling its former players all the way to court. There’s little evidence, at least from the outside, that the league is willing to even acknowledge the plights of players like Purinton and LaCouture, or the families living alongside them.

“None of us want to live and feel this way.”

- Former NHL player Dan LaCouture

“We are completely satisfied with the responsible manner in which the League and the Players’ Association have managed Player safety over time, including with respect to head injuries and concussions,” the NHL said in a statement when former players initially filed the lawsuit.

Which seems confusing and frustrating when you spend time with former players who clearly are not satisfied.

“Dale and I aren’t here because there’s some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” LaCouture said. “There’s no friggin’ money. It’s medical monitoring. None of us...want to live and feel this way.”

Purinton and LaCouture don’t want to battle hockey. They still love it too much. Purinton’s three children play. They just want the NHL to provide treatment to the guys who need it. To take necessary steps to protect players. To ban fighting and aggressive open-ice play, the type that leads to the nastiest of head-rattling hits. Make the sport safer for everyone, including those who won’t make it to the NHL. If nothing else, do it for guys like Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador, two former NHL players who died with CTE in their brains.

“The stuff that’s keeping us sick started there, and it needs to be addressed,” Purinton said. “I’m not here to bash the NHL. What I want from them is to protect that level and through all levels of sport.”

“I don’t think that’s too much to ask,” LaCouture said.

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