NHL Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine Shares His Story

As athletes you think you're invincible, and you have this macho image. My first concussion occurred in Madison Square Garden. It was 1990 in the playoffs, and there was about 2 minutes to go in the game. I remember getting hit and going into the net. Chris Nilan was following me. I think he's a Boston player--BU guy, wasn't he? And he was kind of leading me into James Patrick, and it was kind of an innocent play, but yet the defenseman was coming at me and I was going to the net, and I had full speed and he was coming full speed, and Chris Nilan was kind of steering me into it. And bang, I hit his shoulder. And the force of his shoulder that hit my head, I was out instantly. And looking at the tape now, the back of my head-- fortunately, I had my helmet on--hit the ice also. The only thing I can remember was that the trainer was trying to-- Coming in and out of consciousness, I guess I was starting to swallow my tongue, and I was going through a little bit of convulsions. And it must have seemed like an eternity, but I remember getting wheeled off, and the hostile fans at the Garden were yelling all kinds of things. That was my first real severe concussion, which was a Grade 3. I was sitting in the medical room with the doctors, and I was in and out 2 or 3 times, and I remember saying at one point to the doctor, "I'm fine. I'm ready to go. Everything's fine, doc. Put me out there." He said, "The game's been over for 5 minutes." I said, "Oh." And the next thing I remember I came to again. I said, "Could you call my wife?" Fortunately, I remembered the number. That night I remember being strapped to a headboard and going to the hospital and having all kinds of CAT scans. Fortunately, everything was okay, but I had the worst headache and felt like somebody had just taken all the energy out of me for about 10 days and just, as Dr Kelly had described, blurred vision and kind of glossy-eyed and no enthusiasm. But I had thought, "Well, this is a concussion. We're athletes. We'll overcome this." "This is only going to last for a week." Fortunately, it lasted about 10 days and right back at it, playing hockey again. And really, I kind of put that behind me and never thought that would come back around. And it wasn't until about 2 years later where I received another one. It just so happened that it was in the same building. I remember it wasn't as severe because I wasn't unconscious, but I remember skating around the rink and looking at my trainer, and everything was in slow motion. And I remember saying, "I've got to get off the ice. Something's not right." And at that point in time back then, it was talked upon that, "You just got your bell rung. Get back in there. You're fine. How many fingers?" There was a course of action that was more on the, obviously, lighter end of things. So I remember going into the locker room, and the trainer came in and he said, "So who's playing? Who's their goaltender, and what's the score?" And I said, "Boy, their masks look a lot alike. It's got to be Richter, and it's 3 to 2." And I felt pretty confident that that's what it was. It ended up being Vanbiesbrouck, and it was 2 to 1, we were losing. So of course I didn't play that game. But then I was feeling pretty good. I played 2 nights later. My third concussion--and I'm kind of going through this rather quickly-- my third concussion was against Quebec, where a guy by the name of Mats Sundin just happened to catch me blindsided with his elbow. I remember sitting on the bench, and I told my trainer, "Something's not right." He said, "Just stay here." "We're not going to play you for this period, "but just sit on the bench, and after the period we'll talk." I remember looking and all of a sudden the period was over and I was in the locker room. I remember turning to one of my teammates. This was further on in the period. I said, "What's the score?" He said, "It's 2 to 1." I said, "2 to 1." I said, "Who scored? Who scored? That's great. We're winning." He said, "You did. You scored and you got an assist." And I said, "Oh, man. I don't remember." And then I went and played that game, and fortunately, things started to come back to me and I was able to play the rest of the game. But the trainer knew that I wasn't all there. As these things went on, you just took it for granted. You got your bell rung. You're going to bounce back. Everything's going to be fine. Well, as your injuries escalate and as you know now, there is such a thing as a cumulative effect. But back then we just thought it was macho. Hey, you got hit, you got hit. You're going to bounce back. You're an athlete. You're supposed to overcome these things. Well, it wasn't too long after where I had another concussion. I actually took a stick across the jaw where my jaw was broken and I had to have my jaw wired and felt like a firecracker went off in my mouth, and I never even considered that I most likely received something then too. I never counted all the dings where you got hit so hard in the boards and you kind of were just disoriented but then things snapped back right in place and you were back playing. And you never considered those concussions either. And then I took a real severe one in Buffalo. It was 1996, and it was a 6'6" player who was 235 pounds. I was cutting across the middle like I've done for 15 years, and the next thing I know I was cutting back and at the last half of a second I tried to lean back, and that was it. I couldn't get out of the way. But the force of his shoulder had hit the weakest part of my body, which is my neck and head. And at 6'6", if the strongest part of his body is hitting the weakest part of my body, something's going to give. I remember rotating--well, I don't remember, but I'm watching it on video. I rotated and lost my helmet and was unconscious, and that's when my forehead slapped on the ice. And I was out for about 10 seconds--8 to 10 seconds because we reviewed it later. The thing that's scary was I remember waking up in the locker room and looking at the clock. This happened about 5 minutes into the game. I remember looking at the clock in the lounge, sitting in one of the couches, and I was looking and I said, "Wow. The period's-- What am I doing in my equipment?" "We're playing a game. I should be out there. Why am I sitting here?" The trainer finally came in and explained because I didn't know what was happening to me. Meanwhile, I had consciously got up from the trainer after I was knocked out, skated to the bench, I guess, and I was on there and it was almost like you're there but nothing was recording. And one of the trainers had come in, the skate sharpener, who I was real close with, because he had heard some voices. And he had come in and he had said, "Are you okay?" And I guess I told him I was fine, but at the time he said nobody was there but I was speaking, I guess. And so it's not to-- Some guys might think it's funny because they tell these stories. But as time goes on, it really scares you because at that point in time I turned to the doctor, and he had said, "You're not going back. That's it." "You're not going to play." I was scared to go back because for the first time it wasn't one of those things where you had the desire to get back in there. This felt different, but yet I didn't have any headaches and yet I just felt like something changed. But I listened to the doctor. Come to think of it later on, it was a Grade 3 concussion. I should have been sent to the hospital. I should have spent the night. I remember as an athlete that you're going to overcome these things. And so I had asked the doctor, "Yeah, I'm fine. I can drive home." "I'm sure. I've had these before." "Concussions, I'm out for a week, 10 days or something. I'm sure I'll bounce back." I had just had one about a year earlier. and I was out the same amount of time, about 10 days to 2 weeks. So the next course of action was I asked one of the players if he could follow me home. And when I think about that, how I ever did that and how the player-- We're at a level of professional sports where those things shouldn't be happening. I wasn't at a place rationally or consciously to even make a decision like that. And it's stated that that fall, Mike Liut of the Players Association gave every trainer, coach, and doctor strict rules that said, "If you're unconscious, it's a Grade 3, and you should be sent for tests in the hospital." I was literally a Grade 3 because I was out, I was unconscious. But they deemed me a Grade 2, and so I didn't have to see the doctor until the next day. Fortunately, nothing tragic happened driving home, but it was a little strange. Now I don't remember much about it. And then I was out about a week and I went to see one of the doctors and the physicians. I said, "I think I'm okay because I remember these symptoms, and they're not as bad." "Something's different, but I don't have any real bad headaches." He says, "Well, this is your fifth or sixth concussion now." "I think we should be careful here." "But if you're still feeling good and your symptoms aren't too bad, then you can skate on Tuesday." I think it was about 3 or 4 days later. I did that, and I still didn't feel too bad. Something wasn't right, but I wasn't going to admit that because I was captain of the team and I wanted to make sure I was there and supporting my teammates and taking on that responsibility to not show any of that weakness, of course, because it's a macho thing and you feel that responsibility. The next thing I remember I played a week later against Montreal. I remember being so tired and remember having to get myself so worked up. And I couldn't sleep that afternoon. I said, "Jeez, I just didn't feel right on the ice." "I'm sure I'm going to snap out of it. Everything is going to be fine." "You know what? The doctor said it's okay. I'll be fine." So it was 2 nights later we played another game. Same thing. I was having trouble sleeping. I guess I started saying some strange things and wasn't myself, and one of the sportswriters came up to me and he says, "Boy, you look real pale." "Is everything okay?" And I said, "Oh yeah, everything's fine. I'll be fine." "I'm probably just a little tired. A lot's been going on." He says, "All right. Fine." And so I went and played that night. I remember flying into New York after the game and I said, "I have never been so tired in my life." And all of a sudden I started feeling like something was being taken away, my enthusiasm, my drive. I wasn't sleeping, I just didn't care about things. I said, "Something's not right." And we went on that Western road trip, and it just started spiraling downhill. Then I started to have bouts where I became very emotional, and things were just starting to slow down and get strange. I remember telling my coach to the point where I said, "You know, "someday I look forward to just owning a bookstore and selling books." And he said, "What do you mean by that? I don't understand." I said, "Well, this stuff's getting old. Something's not right." "I'm not sure about this." We had a home game, and he kind of parked that away. Fortunately, he was a coach that was not only concerned about the player, but he was concerned about the person. We ended up going back to Buffalo, and I played against Philadelphia that night. Here I was, still hadn't been sleeping, and I'd been trying to hold everything together because you're the captain and you want to say everything's okay and just smile. And my face was getting more pale, and things were getting strange. I still tried to play that game. After that game everything slowed down. The speed of the-- I couldn't take a pass. I remember as though things were going in front of me. I remember hoping that game was getting over quick because I shouldn't be out here. And after the game was over, I stood up and talked to my teammates as a captain, basically in tears and saying, "I'm sorry, guys. I haven't been playing up to my capabilities." "I let you guys down, and I need to play better. I don't know what's wrong with me." The guys thought that was admirable but that something's not right. I remember that night just totally emotionally just letting everything go. And from that point on, things got strange. I wasn't sleeping, things were worse, and now I know that I was taxing a brain who has had multiple concussions that hasn't had a chance to heal. I remember seeing the doctor the next morning, scared, terrified, emotional. And he said to me, "This is normal." He said, "You're the captain of the team." He said, "You've just come off a World Cup championship with Team USA." He said, "You're a father of 3. Your team's lost a few games." "You haven't scored a couple goals." "Put that in a soup bowl, mix it together. It's no wonder you feel the way you feel." And I looked at him, and I was scared to death and I had tears. I said, "I'm telling you, doc, something's not right. I've never been like this before." He says, "Go out. I'm sure you get a couple goals, your team wins, "and everything is going to be fine." And I looked at him with tears in my eyes and said, "I don't care about scoring goals." I had no desire. I got in that car, and it was as though nobody understood. My wife was wondering what was going on, my teammates were wondering, the doctor didn't even understand. And those probably were the longest 2 weeks because it got to the point where I got so withdrawn. The next day I happened to go see Teddy Nolan, who saw me and said, "You know, that comment you made in Colorado about owning a bookstore." And I was still holding it together a little bit. He said, "What's going on? Something's not right. Are you okay?" And then again I broke down. And he looked at me and he said, "We've got to get you some help." We were leaving for Hartford that day. We were going to go there. This was just before Hartford moved down to Carolina. He says, "You're not going." He says, "I don't care what I have to tell the press. I don't care what." "You can't play hockey in this state. You're the captain of the team." "I've never seen you-- You're the one that's used to carrying things on your shoulders." "You can't even carry a conversation. Something's not right." So I went home, still unbeknownst to know what's happening to me, what's going on. I'm emotional, I'm depressed, I'm not myself, I can't sleep. Now the anxiety. I can't sleep. I'm starting to get anxiety attacks. I'm starting to get these headaches that are starting to come. But they didn't come initially, and that was a concern because whenever I had a concussion, I had a headache right off the bat. Now I started getting these headaches, and they got worse, to the point where they were migraine headaches where I'd be up. 3 or 4 hours they'd last, and then I'd be shot for the day. So everyone was wondering what was happening. Meanwhile, I was in bed. I couldn't leave the house. I didn't shower. The most I did was make French toast for the kids, those toaster oven ones, and send them off to school and go right back upstairs. And it wasn't until about 2 weeks later where my agent, Donnie Meehan, finally didn't understand either what was happening because this wasn't the guy he knew either. It wasn't the guy I knew. This was all strange. I didn't know what was happening. Finally he said, "Listen, we've got to get you some help." "We're going to send you out to the Mayo Clinic, "and the Sabres are going to help out. We think we need to get you looked at." Fortunately, finally I thought, "Maybe somebody does understand." And when I saw the doctors at the Mayo Clinic they said to me, "Listen, we saw your hit. We understand what's going on." "You've suffered a Grade 3. You've had multiple concussions." "You hit your forehead on the ice, and we feel that you might have vascular damage there." "We consider it a minor brain injury." "What happens is your right frontal lobe is responsible for your moods "and your personality, and what happens is in many cases it's almost like a numbing effect, "and then you're pushing through an injury that hasn't even healed." "And sometimes it doesn't come out right away, "and we've seen this happen in a lot of car accidents." "But because you lost your helmet and your forehead slapped on the ice "and all your migraine headaches are right here "tells us that that's most likely where you hit your head on the ice with your forehead, "and this is all very normal for somebody who's had multiple concussions "and just went through what you went through." You would not-- I broke down. I could not believe that finally, 14 years of playing hockey, and finally somebody understood what I was going through. And they said to me, the doctor and Dr Kelly, who helped me later on-- because I could go on and on with the story-- he said, "Fortunately, just be thankful that you didn't get hit again when you were playing "during that period of time when they let you go back." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, you've already had multiple concussions, "you're already coming off a bruise injury to your brain." "There's a good chance if you took another hit to the head "you could have had some permanent problems for the rest of your life." And that scared me to death. And I'm thinking, "Here we are. It's 1996." "Doctors, highest level of professional sports, captain of the team, "and I was put at that risk." Knowing what we know and knowing that here's Grade 3, unconscious, go to the hospital, don't play for a minimum of 2, 3 weeks if you've had more than 5 concussions, and I realized that I wasn't at a rational place to make any of those decisions. And if you come across a player most likely that's had a concussion or he's had one in a short period of time, he's not at a place either to make those decisions. And so what ended up happening was I went through a series of months where you're almost like in a punch drunk type of state. I remember talking with people and they said, "Boy, I haven't talked to you in a month, and you're a different person." Six weeks later I finally was able to leave and see the guys, although I was still very scared and very emotional, withdrawn, and depressed. I remember seeing the guys for the first time and having trouble walking into a rink. Here I had lived my whole life since I was 7 years old in a hockey rink, and now I'm having trouble walking into a rink. So it took me 6 months before I was back to my old self. I remember calling the doctor one night in Mayo Clinic and saying, "Now doc, this is all physiological, right?" "I mean, if I didn't hit my head, I wouldn't be going through the emotional "and the depression and the headaches." "Oh yeah, Pat. I'm a doctor. It's because you hit your head you're going through this." I said, "Doc, you're not just being nice? Because I feel like I'm losing my mind." He said, "No. It's physiological." And of course I went to bed that night, woke up because I woke up every night for 2 months straight at 2:00 in the morning with a headache and then had trouble all day long, and I said, "You know what? I think the doctor is just being nice." "I think really something's happening to me." I would become paranoid to the point where I'd have to pick up the phone at 8:00 in the morning, call the doctor and say, "Doc, tell me again now this is physiological because I hit my head." But when you're going through that at the time, you don't know. You only know what you're feeling. You only know what you're experiencing. You don't even know. It's almost like taking that enthusiastic person and taking him and setting him off to the side, the person who's used to being a father of 3, who's used to captain of the team, he's used to scoring goals, and used to doing all those things. Now he can't do any of those things, let alone get out and drive a car, leave the house. So, literally, just set that person aside and deal with what's happening to you now. And it's a scary, dark road. It's a scary tunnel because you don't remember. You don't know if that's ever going to come back because you're stuck in what's happening to you now. It's almost like dropping a computer on the ground and plugging it in and expecting everything to go back to the way it was and all the programs to fit and normal and everything to kind of connect. It just doesn't work that way, and I'm sure Dr Kelly has explained that. So the things that happen to you happen, and everybody who says they have concussions, well, I was just like that. "Oh yeah, I've had a concussion." But when there's a cumulative effect and when you've used up your reserve and that battery that supplies the healing process for your brain has started to become depleted, you understand that post-concussion starts to set in and you've crossed that line. So your ego tells you, "Yeah, I've had a concussion." But I can tell you from experience post-concussion is a whole different thing. You could take every injury--knee reconstructions, broken jaws, surgeries, all kinds of different things--and take the 5 concussions put together. This didn't compare to what you go through in post-concussion syndrome. My biggest concern as somebody who has experienced it and has to retire later on because at that point in time I sought out the best help in Dr Kelly and felt great for 7 months and realized and said, "Listen, I don't feel like I'm finished playing hockey, but I'm a father, I have a family, I have 3 children, a beautiful wife," and I said, "There's no way I'm going to put that at risk." I said, "I need to know and I need to find out if I have a chance to go back and play "after feeling great for 7 months." And once again I ran into all kinds of roadblocks, and I ran into doctors that were starting to become psychologists who wouldn't even-- "Well, if it was my daughter, I'm not so sure I'd be playing." I said, "I don't want to know-- I want to know from your medical opinion what you think." Talked with my wife, went through, explained to me everything that happened, everything that happens in injuries, explained to me the risks and the ramifications, explained to me that fortunately, that each concussion I had was usually spread out over a year period of time, and thank God I didn't get hit in succession because of the second impact and because of the exponential factor which if you get hit a second time in a short period of time, it compounds it maybe 5 or 10 times the damage. And after going through that and finally seeing the light there too, I was able to make a decision. 6 months ago there was no way. I never thought I'd ever be able to play hockey again. I never thought in my wildest dreams that going through what I went through-- That was it for me. I wasn't even going to go to the hockey rink. And then all of a sudden everything came back--the enthusiasm, the drive, the excitement, the passion-- and I told myself, "If I can go back and play, there's something telling me I'm not done yet." Plus I didn't want to have to live with this one hit that not only made me change my whole hockey career but maybe got me in life too. And I said, "I have to listen to what it's telling me." "But then not only do I have to listen to the passion, I have to find the best experts "out there who have researched this and are able to tell me what's in my best interest "and if I can go back and play and what the risks really are from as much data and expertise and experiments that they've had." And fortunately, I was able to do that and I was able to go back and make a decision. Exactly what Dr Kelly said to me would happen happened to me about ¾ of the way through last season. I took a flukey hit running into my own teammate. It was very innocent. I received a--I guess you could call it a minor concussion. But when you've had 5 or 6, no concussion is minor. I realized that it took me about 6 months for a minor concussion. The symptoms weren't as severe, the symptoms weren't as drawn out, I never had a real migraine headache, but the symptoms of the milder sort lingered for the long time, which he had said most likely could happen. But, "No, I don't see any long-term cognitive problems, "I don't see any long-term risks to your health." I said, "Doc, that's my biggest concern." I said, "My responsibility now is I've played 14 years. I don't have to go back." But thank God I did go back, because I needed to do what I had to do as far as finish things and prove to myself that I could go back and overcome this and play, which is a benefit too, because in some cases you can go back and play, and then in some cases I realize now that even if I take a minor hit or a minor concussion that it might take me even longer to come back. If I took a major concussion, I may not come back to 100%. There are no guarantees in life. But I said, "Doc, I know now what's at stake." And I've talked to players like Paul Kariya, and the thing that scares me is that we're talking about players that when I had my first concussion, I was 25. Now we're talking about players that have had them in high school, in juniors. By the time they hit the NHL, they've already had 3, maybe 4. Guys are bigger, they're faster, they're stronger. It's going to happen. I don't know if anyone saw ESPN the other night when a former teammate of mine, Jeff Beukeboom--I don't know if anyone saw that on ESPN. It just makes me sick to my stomach when I see a guy come from behind and punch a 6'5" guy in the back of the head when he's not looking and knock him out and his head hits the ice. And that's what's happening in our game at times. They're trying to clean it up. They're making an effort. They're saying that there's no respect, but yet when you talk about the NHL, it's easy to blame the players and just say there's no respect, but then there's an environment that's created that allows it. Everybody is responsible; nobody is to blame. And so in your situation, whether it be football or hockey, the players will come across at some point. My agent was a big help to me. He knew that something wasn't right. And the way we're headed--and Dr Kelly probably could second that-- is that the only reason why it hasn't just blown out, came out and said, "This has got to change," is because nothing tragic has happened. Our society waits for something tragic or crisis to happen before it changes. And unfortunately, it doesn't see the change coming or the crisis that's going to happen. I just hope that players that come into the game nowadays don't have to make a decision because they've had so many hits and bruises to the brain that they have to retire. I have a young son and 2 daughters now, and I played that, I went through that macho part, and that was part of the game, and I didn't mind a physical game, but I'll tell you, looking back now, if those intentional hits weren't allowed and anything above the neck wasn't allowed, I'd still be playing today. I could probably play 3 or 5 more years and have fun. Just to share a story with you that it's very real, it's very scary, it can happen. I think of Steve Young often because he's had multiple concussions. But he hasn't gone through post-concussion, and I hope he never has to experience that. He's kind of like-- Watching his career, I think he's gone along the edge, and fortunately, he hasn't had that one hit that's put him over and then all of a sudden he wakes up one day and things are strange. And I hope he never experiences that. But you don't know. Just like I was in his shoes, I would have kept playing too, but you don't know until you've been there and you've experienced it. And it's very hard to say it, to tell an athlete that, because the power of being out there on the ice is so much stronger and the macho part of it that the education and awareness that we don't know can happen.

Hear hockey great Pat LaFontaine recount his story and the steps he took during his recovery after several brain injuries. Produced by BrainLine.

Transcript of this video.

Posted on BrainLine January 7, 2009

Produced by Noel Gunther and Christian Lindstrom.

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