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Rick Westhead on Joe Murphy & the NHL’s Concussion Problem

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Credit: HarperCollins Publishers

Every Sunday at Peng to the Point, we talk about the world away from the San Jose Sharks.

“He drove Darryl crazy.”

That’s how goaltender Steve Shields recalled Joe Murphy’s relationship with San Jose Sharks head coach Darryl Sutter in Rick Westhead’s Finding Murph.

The 30-year-old Murphy was already well into his downward spiral when San Jose acquired him in March 1998.

This freefall — precipitated by a significant concussion in 1991 — would culminate in Murphy living on the streets.

In his searing new book, TSN senior correspondent Westhead spoke with Murphy, Shields, Sutter, Bernie Nicholls, Jeff Friesen, and many others about the 1986 No. 1 overall pick’s rise and fall.

San Jose Hockey Now caught up with Westhead to talk about Finding Murph, the concussion problem that still casts a large shadow over the NHL, and how hockey media can improve its coverage of concussions.

Sheng Peng: Tell us about Finding Murph.

Rick Westhead: Finding Murph is a biography, but not a traditional hockey biography. What I attempt to do in the book is help people have a bit of a glimpse into the life of a guy who at one point was on top of the hockey world. The No. 1 overall pick in 1986, a Stanley Cup winner, a player who made many millions of dollars, and then somebody who, when he left the NHL, just fell off the map.

It was a puzzle. What happened to Joe Murphy?

It deserved more attention than we were able to offer in a 15-minute video a couple years ago. That chapter of his life, after he left the NHL, is completely unreported, even in the TV piece that we did. We were able to fill in some of the holes.

The other reason I wanted to do this was to try to help document the history in the NHL of brain injuries. Because the league has continued through the years — recent years — to push the narrative that no one was talking about brain injuries until just recently. You know, before 10 years ago, who’s ever talking about concussions? We can’t judge the NHL’s actions in the 1980s and 1990s based on what we know today.

To some degree, that’s fair. However, the NHL has known for years and years, for decades.

And they did not have to subscribe to the Lancet Medical Journal or the New England Journal of Medicine. If they just read the newspaper, they would see all of this coverage in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, where people who were experts in the field warned that if you have repeated brain trauma, it can lead to serious long-term consequences.

It’s amazing. The same time that you have these journals out, which were reported by the mainstream media, you still have NHL players woken up at center ice with smelling salts, given a pat on the butt, and sent right back into the same game without missing a shift.

SP: For those who have watched the TSN short, what does your book add?

RW: I talked to a number of coaches and players, guys like Glen Anderson and Chris Chelios and Darryl Sutter and Steve Shields. Dozens and dozens of hockey people.

Mike Keenan, who knew Joe intimately.

They talked about who this guy was and how his personality changed. There was one hit — we documented it in the video — when Shawn Burr hit him in 1991. And that seems to have been a watershed moment for Joe Murphy.

What happened to this guy after that?

Hockey is a real monoculture. The players, for the most part, talk and look the same. There’s a pressure on players not to put themselves ahead of the team.

I wanted to show that.

I also wanted to be able to dig through the records.

I’d forgotten about general manager meetings that I have the meeting notes for. I wanted to understand the culture of hockey.

So many general managers, the people who run the league are former players, right?

Yet at the general manager meetings, I was seeing things like a GM saying, “I think we bring the stretcher on the ice too soon. It’s too dramatic.”

How can that be? Imagine a player who is now a general manager thinking that a guy who’s injured on the ice should not have a stretcher brought out for them so fast.

Another general manager is saying, “I’m wondering if these guys are faking because they want time off during the middle of the season.”

It’s just really hard to reconcile this sport that likes to call itself a family, like Gary Bettman referred to the NHL when he testified in 2019 in Canada.

Does that sound like a family?

This is the league whose commissioner, to this day, still does not concede that scientists have established the link between repeated brain trauma and long-term illnesses like dementia and CTE and others.

You know, the case of Todd Ewen? I also talked about this in the book, some of the other cases, not only about Joe.

Todd Ewen died by suicide. And because a researcher in Toronto examined his brain and said that she did not find any signs of him having CTE, the NHL went to town on this. The NHL sent out press releases, talked about how he was a great example of media hype. He thought he had CTE, but he didn’t.

Except he did.

After the Toronto researcher said it wasn’t there, Boston University found CTE in Todd Ewen’s brain.

Was there ever an apology from the NHL? No. They still to this day have not made that right.

And when I talked to the researcher in Toronto about that case, that people at Boston University found CTE, her answer to me, on the record, was “They must have looked for it really hard.”

Well, if I’m going to donate the brain of my husband who’s dead by suicide, I want a medical researcher to look pretty hard for it, wouldn’t you?

SP: Why is the NHL so adamant against admitting this link? I assume it’s money.

RW: I think it must be. This is a league that profits from violence, and it always has.

There was a time when the New York Rangers owner would have ambulances parked outside Madison Square Garden to try to draw in more fans.

They’ve always profited off of this.

One of the things that we talk about in the book is some of the research the NHL has done through the years. This league loves research. And one of the things that they looked at was the reaction of fans when players fight and what songs [should be] played? Should it “Hells Bells” by AC/DC? What are the best songs to get people riled up?

So you have this kind of market research being done, but the NHL won’t spend a dollar understanding the health of its retired players. Does that make any sense?

SP: As an individual fan, how do we reconcile this game that we love to watch, but does indeed profit off violence? How can we not feed into that or not feed into that as much?

RW: That’s a good question and that’s one of the best questions I’ve been asked.

When we did our documentary, “The Problem of Pain,” the same day that we were airing that, the NHL posted this social media campaign called “There Is a Price to Pay.”

The NHL wound up deleting that social media campaign because of pressure from fans. So I guess one thing that fans could do would be to hold the NHL accountable. And when they see things like that, to call them out on social media.

I love hockey. I love watching the NHL. I love playing hockey. I do it two or three times a week when I can. But at the same time, my responsibilities as a journalist are to hold the NHL accountable and to give a voice to people and to families that feel like they’ve been abandoned by the league.

SP: One obvious thing that Gary Bettman can do is step up and admit the link between brain trauma and significant head injuries. But what else can the league do?

RW: Admit the link, that’s No. 1. And start funding the research.

Three years ago, I interviewed Eric Lindros. He went to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles with the chief doctor for the Montreal Canadiens, and he asked the NHL to invest $1 million dollars per team into researching concussions. Three years later, they’re still waiting for an answer.

So put your money where your mouth is if you’re a family.

Ken Dryden suggested the NHL ban all hits to the head. Why not follow that suggestion?

Who are the concussion spotters in San Jose?

SP: Actually, I don’t know.

RW: How can that be? You pick up the San Jose Sharks media guide, you can find out who everyone is. All the pro scouts, all the amateur scouts, everyone in hockey operations, massage therapist, chiropractor, team doctors. It’s all there — except for the concussion spotters.

So one thing they could do is be more transparent about a program where people are making decisions in the last minute of a critical game about whether to pull a player out or not because they bounce their head off the ice.

This is really important to be open and transparent about.

They could also ensure that their medical staff, their trainers, and their doctors educate players better on the risks.

Educate players about it. They are adults, and they’re gonna make the decision ultimately, but at least give them the tools, the knowledge that they need for this.

SP: Do you know who some of the concussion spotters are? Are they qualified?

RW: I don’t know who they all are. I know the Maple Leafs had one of their trainers do it for the year. I know that Bill Ranford, the former NHL goalie who has no medical training, was a spotter for a year.

SP: Why won’t the league name its concussion spotters?

RW: Ask the NHL. They won’t give me an answer on that.

This is not a hockey book for everyone. If you want a story about somebody settling old scores and talking about trades that never happened, go buy another book.

This is on the NHL. In good times, this is a $5 billion dollar industry, right? They have the best doctors in North America working with them. This is a fixable problem.

And if anything, the NHL should embrace this discussion because if they have reform and address these problems and make it better, you’re gonna have fewer players who have these problems.

SP: Right, because in many cases, teams will not even say a player has a concussion even though it’s clear that’s the injury the player is suffering from.

RW: Other leagues do it. The NFL does it.

SP: And these other leagues aren’t exactly the paragons of concussion awareness either — it shows how far behind the NHL is, if the NFL is ahead of them.

RW: I remember watching the Stanley Cup Final a couple of years ago, and before the first game, Gary Bettman had a press conference talking about the state of the game. He was asked, I think it was Helene Elliott, who asked him about brain injuries. And Gary Bettman’s response was, I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t want to start a new news cycle. And you know what everybody in the crowd did, all the reporters there?

SP: They wrote about it?

RW: They accepted it. They accepted it, and they did not ask another question about it. Can you imagine — think about all the different political stories that we’ve seen in in the US in the last couple of years? Imagine if a political leader, whoever he or she was, said that I don’t want to talk about that again, and reporters covering them just nodded and moved on. Is that a better system?

SP: I know what you mean. This is not my story, of course. It’s about Joe Murphy. But as a writer coming up, having access but not supported by a major outlet, that’s a balance I have to strike. I’ve learned that I have to be more careful than I want to be. That’s the reality of this business, access.

RW: I think it’s important you mention it. I think that’s a really good point — you’ve lived it. That’s a reality for many people. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about it.

SP: It is surprising what you said about Helene’s question. I was there and don’t remember that. I assumed someone would’ve written more extensively about it. More people should have.

RW: I’m going to let you say that in your words. (laughs) I think it’s great if you think that’s true.

SP: I do. To close off with one more Joe Murphy question: How is Joe?

RW: The short answer? I don’t know. I have not had contact with him for for a while. He was in Regina this past summer. A local television station in Saskatchewan interviewed him this past summer. I don’t know exactly how he’s doing right now. I hope he’s doing some better, but there’s every reason to think that’s not the case.

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Alaskan_ice

I saw that news report. It left me feeling down.
Something truly needs to be done. Murphy wore teal and I cheered him him on but I remember thinking he was not interested. Now I think differently and it’s a shame.

Alaskan_ice

Thanks for that insight. I’ll look for it.

Gary To

Wonderful and powerful interview Sheng. It’s so disappointing that such a wonderful sport and league keep ignoring the scientific facts.

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