Twelve years ago, NHL defenseman Dale Purinton was supposed to tour the White House with his New York Rangers teammates when the team came to town to play the Washington Capitols. Unfortunately, days beforehand, he suffered a concussion when a skate hit him in the chin and knocked him out during a game against the New Jersey Devils. He didn’t make the trip.
But this September —eight years after ending his pro hockey career and one year after he hit rock bottom following his arrest on first-degree burglary charges— Purinton made it to the White House at long last, this time to meet with legislators about the concussion crisis in the NHL. He is one of more than 100 former NHL players suing the league for its mishandling of concussions and for failing to warn its players about their short-term or long-term effects.
“I’m so grateful to be here and to be a part of this,” an emotional Purinton, who just celebrated a year of sobriety, told ThinkProgress after his long day on Capitol Hill with his wife, Temple Greenleaf, and other plaintiffs.
“I’m not trying to wreck hockey, I’m just trying to make it safer so people don’t struggle the way I have, or lose their lives the way that some people I played with have.”
This week, as the 99th NHL season kicks off, the relationship between hockey and brain injury is getting more attention than ever. Last Friday, one of the league’s biggest stars, Sidney Crosby, sustained a concussion during a preseason practice, and is already on the sidelines.
On Tuesday, the league unveiled new concussion protocols that aim to take the decision-making power out of the team’s hands, as reported by Matt Vasilogambros of The Atlantic:
The league will employ a staff of certified athletic trainers to act as spotters for potential concussions. Spotters will both be at games and at NHL headquarters in New York watching live broadcasts remotely. If spotters see signs of concussions, they can tell teams to remove players from the game. Players can return only after the team’s medical staff clears them. If teams do not cooperate, the league will impose sanctions and fines.
That certainly sounds like a step in the right direction, but it’s hard to take any of the NHL’s moves seriously when commissioner Gary Bettman refuses to acknowledge a link between hockey and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repetitive brain trauma. CTE can lead to mood swings, depression, and dementia.
“ The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of CTE remains unknown,” Bettman said in July.
Additionally, in March, unsealed emails revealed that after three prominent young defensemen died in short succession in 2011 (two by suicide, one by an accidental overdose), Bettman and other top NHL officials discussed the role concussions might have played in their deaths.
“An interesting question is whether being an NHL fighter does this to you (I don’t believe so) or whether a certain type of person (who wouldn’t otherwise be skilled enough to be an NHL player) gravitates to this job (I believe more likely),” Bettman said in one email.
But Purinton has no doubt that hockey and concussions led directly to his struggles, which is why he’s speaking up now and taking part in the lawsuit. He wants the NHL reckon with how an ambitious young man who didn’t drink or do drugs became a husband and father of three who just wanted to quit life.
“It was my dream to play in the NHL. I worked tirelessly at it,” he said. “And when you get to that point it’s supposed to be the happiest moment in your life, but it was actually the most miserable.”
Purinton spent 11 years in professional hockey, including five seasons with the Rangers in the NHL, but the sport has been an integral part of his life for as long as he can remember. His father also played pro hockey, and was a part of a generation that simply popped Tylenol and drank beer to get rid of “headaches.” Purinton believes he got his first concussion when he was 17 and playing junior hockey — although he wasn’t knocked out in the fight, he did spend hours throwing up in his hotel room, which he now recognizes as a concussion symptom. He doesn’t remember anyone checking on his health, but he does recall his coaches congratulating him on the “great fight.”
In the 1997–98 season, his first full year as a pro, a puck hit him directly in the mouth in a minor league game with the Charlotte Checkers. He lost a tooth, had a hole through his lip, and needed stitches inside and outside his mouth. But he just missed five minutes of the game and was back on the ice in the second period.
“I remember my coach coming down and saying, get your ‘effin head in the game,” Purinton said. “He was an old-school guy — it was either you play hard or you don’t play at all.”
He estimates that he had 10 concussions during his career, but doesn’t recall ever taking part in concussion protocol. He noticed his personality and tolerance begin to change around his fifth year as a pro, and he started self-medicating to deal with the anxiety and pain. When his wife — then his girlfriend — discovered his drug use in 2003, she reached out to the NHL, but beyond the general manager of the Rangers telling Purinton that if he was going to party he needed to be the “hardest working guy in the office,” nothing happened. And Purinton, who was a talented enforcer but not one of the stars of the league, didn’t dare address his own concerns.
“It’s really a fear-based job. If you fall out of line, they’re going to replace you.”
“You don’t have a voice when you’re on a team, because once you start to ask questions or you push back by any means, they say, ‘Oh, he’s uncoachable. He’s the cancer of the team,’” he said. “If you get labeled like that you’re going to lose your job, so there’s so much pressure that way. It’s really a fear-based job. If you fall out of line, they’re going to replace you.”
Although Purinton spent his entire career as a fighter on the ice, protecting his teammates first and foremost and putting his body on the line, at the end of the day he felt like nobody was there to protect him. By 2008, after he’d spent three years in the American Hockey League, he couldn’t wait to get out and turned down a contract offer.
“I was doing everything I could not to play; I was just so unhealthy,” he said. “I didn’t want to be there.”
Purinton was able to hold things together during his first few years of retirement, but his depression only got worse as he got older — a common occurrence for those dealing with chronic brain trauma. In the past few years, found himself constantly in arguments with his wife, having suicidal thoughts, and distancing himself from his three sons. His wife managed everything in their day-to-day lives. Her husband essentially became her fourth child.
“I started noticing things I think after our third son was born, things that were not right,” Greenleaf said through tears. “He had lost he had lost his shine, and I didn’t know if he was going through a midlife crisis or if he was unhappy with me, but all the life had been sucked out of him.
“It got deeper and deeper, he was nothing like the man I married or the man I met. I thought he was going to die. It was sad to see such a charismatic, bright human being go so low before your eyes.”
As Purinton’s drug and alcohol abuse and mood swings worsened, Greenleaf began to research the impact of concussions on the internet, and found out that her husband was not alone, and that there were treatment options. About five years ago, she urged him to reach out to the NHL, but the league told him he didn’t qualify for any assistance. After that, he completely stopped trying to get any help.
Then last August, Purinton broke into a house in upstate New York and assaulted the owner. He was arrested on felony charges and found himself facing up to 25 years in jail. He had practically thrown away his life, and nearly taken someone else’s life in the process. But instead of giving up, he gave in. He agreed to seek treatment and got his felony dropped to an assault. He got sober. He went to therapy. And he decided to join the lawsuit and begin standing up the NHL. Though his wife was initially worried that he would be blackballed if he spoke out against the league too much and his hopes of climbing the coaching ranks would be dashed, he decided it was worth the risk.
“I thought he was going to die. It was sad to see such a charismatic, bright human being go so low before your eyes.”
There are signs that the NHL is moving in the right direction. Fighting is down, the protocols are more stringent, and players are becoming better about reporting their own symptoms. In fact, Crosby is the one who alerted trainers last weekend that he wasn’t feeling well, which led to his addition to the protocol.
But Purinton knows that there is a long way to go. There needs to be room for everyone, not just the stars, to speak up about concussion symptoms without fear. There needs to be education from the youth to the pros. All hitting and contact needs to be minimized. Treatment should be mandatory for anyone experiencing troubles with drugs, alcohol, or mental health, and guys need to be monitored at all times as they try to recover, because isolation is the worst thing for someone who is struggling. The hockey community has to start looking out for its players, not just when they’re useful on the ice, but long after their career is over too.
He’s used to fighting for other players on the ice; now, he’s figured out that fighting for them off of the ice is even more important.
“It’s worth it to make sure that guys are protected,” Purinton said. “The former players and the guys who have passed away, I have to do this in their honor.”