Players living with concussions looking for answers with lawsuit

Levy and Melrose: On concussions (3:41)

Barry Melrose and Steve Levy discuss old-school concussion attitudes and today's new knowledge about head injuries, and recommend possible solutions for tomorrow's players. (3:41)

MINNEAPOLIS -- For a moment there is a lightness in the room, deep laughter at the memory of one of Dennis Vaske's shining moments as a player, his role in one of the iconic goals of this generation.

Sure, it was a second assist, but his name will forever be connected to David Volek's overtime winner for the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the 1993 Patrick Division finals over the powerful defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Vaske recalled how he'd been invited to a friend's wedding the same weekend that series finale was scheduled to be played. His friend started naming off the Penguins' lineup: Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Kevin Stevens, Tom Barrasso, Paul Coffey.

"I'll see you Saturday," the friend told Vaske.

The game is replayed on TV occasionally and Vaske invariably receives a handful of texts from friends when the iconic goal is shown.

"It was probably one of the top two things that ever happened," he said. "That was a pretty amazing year. We made the playoffs by two or three points. We were total underdogs in that whole situation."

Two and a half years after that goal, on Nov. 22, 1995, while retrieving a puck in his own end, Vaske was driven into the end boards by Eric Lacroix of the Los Angeles Kings. Vaske's helmet came up, exposing his head as he crashed into the dasher boards.

Blood stained the ice in a great pool and leaked into his skull.

"That was the beginning of the end," Vaske said.

He fingers the scar on his head.

"I was out," he said.

Vaske can remember snippets from the dressing room, doctors and trainers yelling in an effort to communicate with him. And something about a fading pulse.

"Have you seen the video? Well, it's disappeared from YouTube. If you saw the video," he said, shaking his head. "It's bad. There's blood like this," he extends his arms wide. "I'm out. I wake up and then I go out again.

"I just remember waking up in the locker room with people slapping me in the face. I guess I had a faint pulse."

Did anyone ever suggest whether he came close to dying?

"That was never relayed to me, but I was not in a good situation," he said.

Is it possible to draw a line from A to B, from that moment of contact that crushed Vaske's skull into the boards in a game he'd been playing since he was a child to how his life would unfold over time and will continue to unfold into whatever the future holds? It's a question at the crux of the lawsuit filed by Vaske and now close to 120 former players against the National Hockey League.

Should Vaske have known what might await him in the aftermath of such trauma?

Did anyone know?

Vaske would miss the rest of the 1995-96 season with post-concussion syndrome symptoms.

"I still have all those symptoms today," Vaske said. "Bad sleep. Headaches.

"I just went through a few episodes here recently in the middle of the night. The first time it happened, I had to go to the convenience store because I ran out of Advil and Tylenol to take care of it.

"I don't know what normal is," continued Vaske, 48. "I think I'm normal. I really do. But it's just because you just learn how to deal with the situations that present themselves. Go to do something and you stand there and [you're] like, 'Why am I here?' and you have to walk away and it clicks why you went over there to do this and you go back. There's times that you walk out, you go to the mall, a little shopping, whatever, and you've got to hit your emergency thing on your remote to remember where your car is.

"It's not a fun thing to live through. But in the same breath, you have to learn just to deal with it to get through your regular day activities."

When Vaske eventually returned to the Islanders, one night he was clocked after clearing the puck into the opposing team's zone.

"When I got hit at center ice, I think we'd just scored a goal in Tampa," he recalled. "I went to dump the puck in and I just got hit from the side. And just everything went blank.

"I kind of get my way back to the bench and I knew that I was right back to where I was. Back to where I was four or five months previous. I don't know the scientific terminology to say, but it's almost like your brain gets like a bruised peach. You get hit and you get that soft spot."

After the Lacroix hit, Vaske played in just 39 more NHL games before having to retire at age 31.

The toll?

He works with a triple-A youth hockey program outside Chicago and admits it's a challenge to keep his emotions in check, to keep everything in perspective while dealing with parents and coaches and players.

His family life? He has two daughters -- figure skaters -- but his voice cracks when he talks about them.

"I just don't want to get into my personal life," he said. "My oldest was probably more effected because she saw ... the temper tantrums and everything else.

"I'm sorry I opened up that can of worms. They're good kids, and leave it at that."

Clearly, a price has been paid by Vaske and his family.

"Emotionally? A lot," he said. "Personal life? A lot.

"Here's the thing. I don't want to get emotional, but it's a dark place. Put it that way."

The players in the lawsuit allege that the NHL either did know or ought to have known more about the potential neurological damage players were exposed to and, further, that the league profited from the game's reputation as a violent sport, even as its players were being put at risk.

The NHLPA did not want to comment specifically on the lawsuit -- "We are not a party to the litigation, but we are of course monitoring the proceedings closely." -- Don Fehr, NHLPA executive director said -- but there are a number of options available to former NHLPA members for assistance when their playing days are completed. Retired players who have reached out to the NHLPA's medical consultant have been referred to specialists pending the nature of their injury or injuries. All salary forfeited through suspensions and fines goes to the players' emergency assistance fund, which is administered jointly by the NHLPA and the league. The amount paid into that fund, of course, fluctuates season to season but is regularly in excess of $1.5 million and the total fund remains pretty consistently in the $8 million range.

Also, for the first two years after retirement, players have access to the NHL/NHLPA substance abuse and behavioral health program, which includes confidential counselling for a broad range of issues. Doctors will make exceptions on expanding the time players can take advantage of the program after they are done playing. In terms of insurance, players who play more than 160 NHL games (backup goalies get credit for games in which they dressed but did not play) may purchase insurance that covers them into retirement as long as they meet the time frame requirements for signing up as outlined in the collective bargaining agreement.

This season the NHL introduced independent spotters, who would attend games and work in conjunction with team spotters in identifying and tracking players who might have sustained concussions. These league-trained spotters could act as the lead spotter at games or, if teams preferred to designate their own spotter as the primary spotter, as a secondary layer of vigilance, keeping logs of players who might have sustained a concussion or who sustained a significant blow to the head. Those logs are sent to the league by the first of each month. There is at least one league-trained spotter and sometimes two at each game and they are off-ice officials who cannot be performing any other task while performing these duties.

The spotters are in communication with trainers on each team and report to them if they see a player who might have sustained an injury that could be concussion-related. Team doctors make the ultimate decision if a player comes out of the game and if he can return to play. The added layer of concussion identification was designed to bolster the initial concussion protocols established in 2011.

While the complainants are all under the same legal umbrella, the situations that define each of them is unique. If, as some suggest, this is simply a money grab, a group of down-on-their-luck players seeing the settlement of a massive suit by former National Football League players with the NFL and looking for their own payday, then how does that explain Reed Larson?

The former Detroit Red Wings captain often had a young Steve Yzerman to dinner in the early days of Yzerman's Hall of Fame career. When Larson retired in 1989 at 33 after playing 904 games, he was named to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and has for years run a successful Minneapolis-area business.

Until he joined the lawsuit, Larson was a regular visitor to Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold's private suite, although the two agree it's better, given the suit, to now maintain some distance. Larson raved about Leipold and his former owners in Detroit, the Ilitch family. But he followed the tragic stories of Steve Montador and Todd Ewen -- Montador died prematurely after suffering from depression and Ewen took his own life; both are believed to have sustained severe neurological trauma during their playing careers -- and he decided he needed to get involved. (An autopsy performed on Ewen, who reportedly died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, did not discover that he suffered from degenerative brain disease or C.T.E.; Montador was found to have suffered from C.T.E. and his estate is part of the lawsuit.)

"I just think that there's more than enough room to help the people that need it," Larson said during a recent conversation in his office outside Minneapolis. "If Reed Larson never needs it, hey, don't want a dime. You know what I mean? But I can't promise that. From talking and the studies, it could hit me 10 years from now. But there are definitely players that need it now."

Although there are a number of complainants who are by definition tough guys or enforcers, such as Dale Purinton, who recently joined the suit after a career in which he accumulated 578 penalty minutes in just 181 NHL games, Larson also represents that group of players whose litany of injuries illustrates why this suit is about so much more than tough guys.

He recalled one night charging at an opponent who'd levied what Larson thought was a dirty hit against a teammate. The two collided with sticks perpendicular, Larson's horizontal and exploding, shards of stick shrapnel slicing into his mouth and lip. The doctor told Larson the bad news was his tongue was pretty much cut in half but the good news was it would heal itself in a few weeks.

Another night, Larson was in a fight and took a powerful blow to the nose area. Later he noticed his face was slightly swollen and when he blew his nose, his cheek area inflated like a balloon. Turns out the sinus membrane had been torn, opening up a hole into the inside of Larson's face.

"Two elbow operations, three shoulder separations, 290 stitches from the neck up," Larson said, listing his physical trauma. "Ligament damage, broken fingers and thumbs ... false teeth, stitches in the tongue. Put my teeth through my lower lip three times. Plastic surgery. Fifty stitches with a slap shot."

Regrets? Nary a one.

"So, when you ask me if I would do it again, the love I have for the sport and what I wanted to accomplish and do, I would do it again," said Larson, 59. "But I would certainly make sure that the doctors trainers, owners, leagues handled it then like they do now."

Then? Standard protocol was for players to watch teammates who'd had their bells rung at night to make sure they weren't bleeding from the ears or throwing up, Larson said, a buddy-watch system. There was no concussion spotter to flag players who might have sustained a concussion, nor a quiet room for players to recover in while being observed afterward.

The league's perspective on the suit is cut and dry: Executives do not believe a line can be drawn between the NFL's settlement and the dynamics of the claims being made against the NHL.

As part of the NHL suit, potentially embarrassing emails involving league officials and their treatment of concussions have been unsealed by the courts, although it is far too early to tell whether the damage will be confined to tittering over "salty" language contained in some of the emails, as commissioner Gary Bettman described it, or whether those emails will add substance to the claims of indifference to head trauma or the concealment of possible remedies that could have been made available to players.

"I'm very comfortable with our record," Bettman said during All-Star weekend in Nashville, after being asked by reporters about the emails and the suit.

So much remains unknown even now about neurological problems stemming from blows to the head, let alone how little was known when many of these complainants were playing several decades ago.

And the league says it has done much in recent years to address the problems of blows to the head in terms of changing rules and punishments meted out for breaking those rules. Protocols are in place, at least in theory, to deal with players who might have been concussed during a game, although the Dennis Wideman situation reinforced there are gaping holes in those protocols.

Could the NHL be doing more to reach out and help former players? Possibly. But the league's position is that if it did more in reaching out to this group of former players, it would be opening the door to culpability given the pending lawsuit.

"This commissioner and our owners have always respected the contributions of our former players and have continually taken steps to improve their post-career benefits and opportunities," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com in an email. "But we take great issue with any contention that the league did not at all times give appropriate attention to the health and safety of our players or that we did anything inappropriate or wrong. We fully intend to establish those facts through the judicial process."

Both sides seem prepared for a protracted legal battle.

In the interim, more and more former players are joining the suit, even though for most it is not taken lightly because many are still connected to the game at various levels and in various capacities. Most, if not all, hold the game and the league in great esteem.

"They don't come to us and say, 'I'm looking for a bunch of money to make my grandkids wealthy,'" William Gibbs, of the Chicago-based law firm Corboy & Demetrio of the group of lawyers handling the suit, said recently.

"They come to us and say, 'I've got all these issues and I've seen so many guys have similar issues and I'm scared.' It's a real human thing that these guys are feeling and dealing with.

"If the perception is that this is just a money grab, nothing could be further from the truth."

Brad Maxwell was a smooth-skating offensive defenseman selected seventh overall by the Minnesota North Stars in the 1977 draft. After he retired in 1987 at 29, he stayed in Minnesota and became a cabinetmaker. He's now the head of the local alumni association -- made up former North Stars as well as former players who live in the area -- and he joined the lawsuit, but not because he has an ax to grind with league.

"I'm not involved in this to kill the NHL," said Maxwell, 58. "It's a great organization.

"When I first got involved in this, I was like, I feel that I've worked really hard over the past years to make a name for myself here in Minnesota. Is this the right thing to do? There's been a lot of thought."

At the heart of it for Maxwell is that he doesn't know if the bursts of anger that surface occasionally in his life -- his father threatened to stop helping with a home renovation because Maxwell was so enraged at the process -- are connected somehow to his 691 NHL regular season and playoff games.

"I'd like to see medical monitoring," he said, referring to having a player's neurological status regularly checked. "I just think that's so important for guys because we're all getting older. We all need help. That's the least that the NHL could do for us. That'd be awesome.

"Nobody's out here saying, you know, 'I need a couple of million dollars.' Most of the guys I know all have their own businesses. We're all happy with what we do. We got family and kids, but that's not it. I just want to know. It'd be really great that I could tell my wife that when I get to be 75, if I'm seriously messed up, I have help."