As hockey players, we grow up with a passion for the game. There are few words to describe the adrenalin rush of playing on the world’s biggest stages — scoring a point during the playoffs or the honour of participating in an All-Star game.
Unfortunately, many of these great memories are overshadowed by a fear for what I and many other retired NHL players could be facing in the future. With all the information that has surfaced about concussions leading to permanent neurological damage, I worry that the years of hard hits have turned my brain into a ticking time bomb.
Growing up in Toronto and playing in youth and junior leagues, I always dreamed of someday making it to the NHL. I was prepared for some of the physical toll that my body would have to take. I even pushed through the pain of knee and back injuries, eventually retiring for fear of permanent spinal damage.
But I never considered, nor was told about, the permanent brain damage I would face caused by repeated blows to the head.
During my 10 seasons in the NHL, I sustained several concussions. Looking back, there were multiple times when I was knocked silly yet was put back into the game. Doctors and coaches would tell me that I merely “had my bell rung,” and provided some smelling salts and a quick break. The break never lasted more than a period, and I never missed a single game. Had I been warned that these head impacts could lead to serious neurological conditions in the future, I know I would have reconsidered immediately returning to the ice.
At age 56, I am already starting to experience some of the effects. Those closest to me have noticed a range of issues from memory loss to irritability and aggression. My loved ones try to be patient with me, but these symptoms have almost cost me my marriage, and I’m very concerned about what else the future may hold.
Dozens of retired NHL players, including myself, have filed suit against the NHL over their treatment of these injuries. Much of the damage that we have incurred cannot be repaired, but we deserve to have some semblance of a normal life and the ability to receive medical attention to manage and hopefully slow the progress of these conditions.
Unfortunately, I know of many retired NHL players who are suffering with symptoms much more severe. Every year I see my former teammates at various charity functions or alumni events, and I can name more than a handful that are showing increasing signs of damage with each passing year. Beyond fear for my own future, I felt a sense of duty to join this litigation for the former players who are suffering from devastating neurological injuries — injuries that could have been prevented had the NHL been honest about the risks.
For too long, the NHL deceived its players about the risks of concussions and repeated head impacts. And for too long, the league did not do enough to protect them. The time has come for the NHL to be held accountable and finally provide care and security to those who helped make the game as successful as it is today.
- Steve Payne played 613 career NHL games, scoring 228 goals and 238 assists for 466 points. He played in the 1980 and 1985 NHL All-Star games, and for Team Canada in the 1979 World Championship and the 1981 Canada Cup