NHL: Faces of concussions

Wearing a black shirt with "Fight for your happiness" on the front and "Sick not weak" on the back, Daniel Carcillo eats an apple as his wife makes a cappuccino nearby and their oldest daughter scampers around the kitchen.

This is the family he always wanted, just not the life he expected.

Carcillo is hurting inside and out after seven documented concussions in the National Hockey League and what he believes could be literally hundreds of traumatic brain injuries. Once his wife Ela, son Austin, daughters Laila and Scarlett and dog Bubba left the house, Carcillo explained where his head is at. It has been nearly a year since his last round of neurological treatment and right now the bad days outnumber the good. Darkness has returned.

This is a bad day.

"I'm going to choose when I'm going to go," Carcillo said. "I'll make that decision of how much pain I'm going to put my loved ones through that are around me."

He is just 34, hung up his skates in 2015 and wants to be known as Daniel Carcillo who used to play hockey, not Daniel Carcillo the hockey player. He spends his days now trying to manage the damage the sport did to him while also crusading against the concussions crisis that has hit the NHL over the past decade-plus. The league has taken steps to address the topic, but it has not faded from view by any means as the Stanley Cup Final opens Monday.

The league last fall settled a lawsuit for $18.9 million with more than 300 retired players after winning a key victory against class-action status. It included $22,000 for each player and provisions for testing but no acknowledgement of liability for the players' claims the NHL failed to protect them from head injuries or warn them of the risks involved with playing. Commissioner Gary Bettman has consistently denied there is a conclusive link between repeated blows to the head and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Carcillo calls the concussions issue an epidemic, though even the players' union and attorneys involved in lawsuits against the league cannot or will not provide an estimate of just how many former players might be suffering the same problems as Carcillo — the kind of problems loved ones of players like Todd Ewen and Wade Belak noticed before their suicides.

Various studies have tried to determine how many concussions there are in any given season in the NHL. There's little doubt to retired players that the total among 700-plus players over nearly 1,300 regular-season games, whatever it may be, is too much.

"It's definitely a problem that players are suffering from," said Reed Larson, who played 936 NHL games and was among the first to sue the NHL over head injuries. "It's a real threat."

Carcillo isn't fine and he knows it.

He doesn't remember any of his first five concussions but can't seem to escape the anxiety, depression, lack of impulse control and suicidal thoughts that creep in. He feels better in the immediate aftermath of functional neurology therapy with Dr. Matt Antonucci, but that only helps Carcillo get back to his "new normal." It also costs $10,000 each time.

Dennis Maruk is fine for now.

Three decades removed from a 922-game NHL career, he is 63 and knows all about his counterparts who died between 60 and 65 — if not younger.

"Everything's going good," Maruk said. "I worry about myself in the future. What am I going to be like in two years down the road?"

Maruk, who joined the concussion lawsuit, hears about former players developing dementia and wonders about the day when his brain might desert him. All the hits to the head absorbed from hockey were worth it then.

"I have grandkids and I'm concerned about that and me losing my mind," Maruk said. "I'm not a very good sleeper and I think a lot has to do with being concussed."

Eric Lindros is fine most days.

The jarring Scott Stevens shoulder-to-head hit on Lindros in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference final that was applauded and legal at the time is cringe-worthy now. It came two years after Lindros took another devastating hit from Darius Kasparaitis.

Lindros was concussed at least five times during a dominant but injury-shortened career that landed him a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Now a 46-year-old husband and father, he isn't sure what the benchmark should be for how he should be feeling. He is his own baseline.

"I'd like to think I'm pretty normal," Lindros said. "I think so. We all have our moments. We all have our moments with a few things. Overall I feel pretty good."

Glenn Healy has no choice but to dwell on the subject sometimes. As executive director of the 3,800-member NHL Alumni Association, he fields countless calls from retired players' family members and for so long could only say, "I'm sorry."

"It's from the wives, it's from the kids saying, 'I want dad back, so how do we get dad back?'" Healy said. "We're trying to find some answers."

T.J. Oshie said he is fine and tries not to think about it.

After his fifth documented concussion and his longest absence from the game yet, the Washington Capitals winger said he doesn't put much thought into the subject.

"While you're in it here, when it happens, you just want to get back on the ice," Oshie said. "You just want to play. You want to be back in your normal routine, and you want to feel normal."

Oshie is 32, a Stanley Cup champion and two seasons into a $46 million, eight-year contract that sets his family up for life. But he also has a father who six years ago was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. On the ice last June, moments after winning the Stanley Cup, Oshie said to a huge audience: "My dad, he doesn't remember a lot of stuff these days."

Carcillo said his own family history should force him to get checked for a gene associated with Alzheimer's and thinks Oshie should get looked at, too.

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