When the cheers died, NHL players were left with badly damaged brains

Jeff Parker's legs churned. The Hartford Whalers forward from White Bear Lake skated the puck through center ice, then busted for the outside, attempting to go around Kevin Hatcher.

The 230-pound Washington defenseman said no.

Hatcher angled Parker toward the boards, momentum carrying them until — BANG! — he slammed Parker's head into a stanchion holding the glass above the boards. Parker's green helmet smacked the ice, the second blow more violent than the first.   

Washington winger Dino Ciccarelli skated by as a trainer attended to the inert man. "Fuckin' pussy," read Ciccarelli's lips.

Parker doesn't remember being carted off to the light applause of 16,000 fans that night in 1991. Once his mind stopped flashing white, he was convinced he still played for Buffalo, his team the previous season.

He returned to the Whalers lineup two weeks later, when Hartford faced the New Jersey Devils.

April 4, 1979: Linesman Kevin Collins watched from a safe distance as the North Stars’ Jack Carlson, center, and Chicago’s Bob Kelly exchanged punches during Minnesota’s 4-3 victory over the Blackhawks.

April 4, 1979: Linesman Kevin Collins watched from a safe distance as the North Stars’ Jack Carlson, center, and Chicago’s Bob Kelly exchanged punches during Minnesota’s 4-3 victory over the Blackhawks.

"You get your bell rung, shake it off, and get back in as soon as you can," he explains. "I was eager to get back on the ice."

For two-plus periods, "I was playing some good hockey, playing hard at both ends of the ice, you know, like a grinder," Parker says.

But a run-of-the-mill check from a Devils defenseman moving at half-speed caught Parker high. His mind flashed white. Appendages went numb.

It was his second concussion in 15 days.

He downplayed the damage for months, attempting to train in the offseason as if it were business as usual.

Little brother John Parker remembers. Fresh off an NCAA championship at the University of Wisconsin, John was en route to the Calgary Flames' training camp. He assumed Jeff would be headed for Hartford's.

I can't, said Jeff. I'm done.

John was floored. "I'm like, 'What do you mean you're done?'"

"I can't. I can't do it," Jeff replied. "I can't work out. I get these constant headaches. I'm losing my balance. I know something's wrong with me, but I just can't tell what it is."

He soon went missing. His brothers found out he was wandering the streets of St. Paul.

"Jeff paid the ultimate price playing hockey," says brother Scott. "He's never been the same."

"I'm not all there"

Twenty-five years have elapsed. On a spring day in northeast Minneapolis, 52-year-old Jeff Parker arrives late for an interview. He chose the location, only a few blocks from his apartment, but he still went to another restaurant before realizing his error.

"Forgetting stuff, not remembering doing something when I did it 15 minutes ago, it's the kind of shit that happens a lot," Jeff admits.

His sense of smell is also shot. He fails to catch a whiff of the steaming vat of pad Thai in front of him. Light sensitivity requires wearing sunglasses indoors. Headaches come daily.

April 13, 1977: The Carlson brothers of Virginia, Minnesota, from left, Steve, Jeff and Jack, during Fighting Saints training camp.

April 13, 1977: The Carlson brothers of Virginia, Minnesota, from left, Steve, Jeff and Jack, during Fighting Saints training camp.

His equilibrium "is off all the time," which is obvious when Jeff stands from the restaurant table. He uses both hands to brace himself, then slowly rises from his seat. One second. Two seconds. Every change in movement seems to demand a moment before embarking on the next.

As a blast of sunshine meets him outside on the sidewalk, Parker walks as if each step requires thought.

"You can tell when somebody's not all there," says Jeff, "and I'm not all there."

His brothers can attest to that.

"You look at Jeff and his lips are blue and his face is red," says Scott. "He's elusive in conversation, always giving these short answers. It kind of reminds me of a kid who's autistic."

Earlier this year, Jeff drove to John's home in Wisconsin to watch his niece's dance recital. He was there in body, but his spirit was AWOL.

"All the noise, commotion, whatever, it's like it's too much," says John. "After the recital, he went downstairs, got up the next morning, and left. That's all we saw of him."

“There’s a reason guys are killing themselves,” says ex-North Star Jack Carlson.

“There’s a reason guys are killing themselves,” says ex-North Star Jack Carlson.

Scott thinks Jeff's diagnosis is much more than fog on the brain: "Without a doubt, Jeff is a total CTE deal."

Think of atrophy marrying a bad wiring job. That's CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease that can be caused by repeated concussions or head trauma. Dizziness and headaches can deteriorate into memory loss, depression, and erratic behavior, then dementia and notions of suicide.

It's a phantom condition with symptoms relegated to suspicions. The only way it can be properly diagnosed is to test the victim's brain tissue — after they're dead.

This leaves the living to be chronically misunderstood. "A guy battles depression," says Scott, "can't keep a job or stay in a relationship, and we think it's because he can't get his shit together, only to find out after he's dead that he had CTE.

"These guys are eating, walking around. They look normal. But I'm telling you because we've been so close to what's gone on with our brother, these guys are suffering and they're good at hiding it."

Behind the shield

On it. That was the message from the National Hockey League. Its Concussion Working Group, which turns 20 years old next year, was one of the earliest head injuries programs in professional sports.

Jeff Parker’s NHL dream ended in 1991. He hasn’t been the same person since suffering two concussions.

Jeff Parker’s NHL dream ended in 1991. He hasn’t been the same person since suffering two concussions.

The effort between league brass and the NHL Players Association was a trailblazing creation in 1997. But the group would hibernate soon after its birth.

For more than a decade, there were no press conferences about what was being studied, no announcements about what had been learned.

Nobody paid much mind for one reason: American sports fans were transfixed with the NFL's high-profile concussion crisis. Hockey was an afterthought.  

But the NHL knew the game was leaving players neurologically damaged. Between 1997 and 2004, the group examined the link between concussions and brain problems, but kept its suspicions quiet.

Science from the outside world was more forthcoming.

In 2002, former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Mike Webster died at age 50. His post-playing days had been a circuit of painkiller addiction and alcoholism, depression and dementia. An autopsy showed that CTE had taken him down.

Webster's downfall would become the template for a mounting lineup of similar tragedies.  

The symptoms are a collusion of everyday problems in relationships, employment, and finances. Add in booze and/or painkillers shoveled into increasingly failing bodies, plus a guerilla war in the mind that brings impulse control problems, depression, and memory loss.

Webster's brain changed everything.

"Up until this point, we knew about what we now call CTE in boxers for decades, dating back to the 1920s," says Syd Johnson, a Michigan Tech University bioethics professor. "Now we had athletes in other sports whose brains showed they too had the disease."

Like hockey players.

Bob Probert, once the NHL's most feared enforcer, amassed 3,000 career penalty minutes while suffering no less than a dozen concussions. Alcoholism chased Probert to the grave. He died of a heart attack in 2010, but he lived with a CTE-diseased brain.

So did former Minnesota Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died of a drug and alcohol overdose in 2011.

Despite the escalating evidence, the NHL concussion group wouldn't stir to life until 14 years after conception.  

The study it conducted with the University of Calgary showed that between 1997 and 2004, for every 100 players, five to eight received concussions.   

The league introduced new concussion protocols in 2011. Players showing symptoms would be tested by doctors away from the ice, rather than leaving it to trainers. Targeted head hits would incur new penalties.

The league had no choice but to acknowledge the problem. Months earlier, one of the NHL's biggest stars, Pittsburgh's Sydney Crosby, fell victim to post-concussion symptoms. They would ultimately sideline the former MVP for portions of two seasons.

"Until this point... the NHL has known about the issue for quite a while, and it had reason to downplay the seriousness of concussions, which plays out like a sort of denial," says Michigan Tech's Johnson. "But now everybody knows the cat is out of the bag."

Not quite.

Minor league with major issues

Last May, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was still feigning denial over the link between head hits and brain damage. "From a medical standpoint," he declared, "there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other." (The league did not respond to repeated interview requests.)

More than 100 former players say otherwise. They're suing their old employer in federal court in St. Paul to prove it.

The plaintiffs compose a hodgepodge roster. They run from Bernie Nicholls, who scored 475 goals over 17 years, to Darren Banks, whose career amounted to 20 games with the Boston Bruins. Other plaintiffs include Minnesota hockey icons such as Reed Larson, and ex-North Stars like Brad Maxwell, Steve Payne, and Jack Carlson.

They allege the league concealed the risks of concussions for years, leaving them with debilitating health problems. They're seeking unspecified damages.

Carlson, a Virginia, Minnesota native, is a State of Hockey folk hero, an NHL tough guy who incurred "six or seven concussions."

"There's a reason guys are killing themselves and a reason why they're hurting physically and mentally from injuries when they played in the NHL," he says. "And that's what we're saying. If there are medical issues, we want them to be taken care of."

Carlson hasn't lost his lumberjack physique, nor does he look like a man who'll turn 62 in August.

But depression scarred his post-NHL days. He survived on anxiety meds for 21 years. Two marriages were doomed from too many episodes where percolating anger turned into explosions over nothing.

"I drank. I self-medicated. My anger issues were a progression, and for me they destroyed relationships," Carlson says. "I was a great father, but a shitty husband."

While the NFL is making its concussion suit go away by paying more than 20,000 retired players about $1 billion, the NHL doesn't have anywhere near that kind of money.

So it resorts to Bettman's obfuscation — and spending millions trying to get the suit dismissed.

Bright lights, big city

Manhattan's lights smiled upon Rudy Poeschek.

He got paid to play hockey. He rubbed elbows with the likes of Donald Trump, and was befriended by Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton, who introduced him around town "like I was the biggest star there," says Poeschek.   

He was 22, a rookie defenseman for the New York Rangers.

Poeschek played a rugged style of hockey that could teeter on recklessness.  

"As a kid, I never pictured myself doing all this fighting. I never thought I was going to be a tough guy," he says. "I thought I'd make it as a regular defenseman."

He couldn't.

In his rookie season in 1988-89, Poeschek collected seven fighting penalties — against Philadelphia alone. He suited up for 52 games, notching two assists and 25 fights. A bloody nose or a fractured orbital socket was just a day on the job.

"I didn't mind taking [a punch] if I was giving one," he says. "Fighting, it was kind of a rush. You have 20,000 people cheering you on. I really didn't like it, but in some ways you do like it."     

His career spanned 14 years and 10 concussions.

"My mentality as a player was I'm going to be fine," he says.

But he wasn't okay when he tangled with the Washington's Craig Berube in 1997. The fighters exchanged a succession of haymakers in a matter of seconds, each taking a half-dozen shots to the head. The brawl ended in a draw as they toppled to the ice as one entangled mass.

"I think I remember the white light happening twice in that fight," says Poeschek, who estimates he fought 100 times in the NHL. "But you watch the video of that fight now, you can't tell that I missed a beat."

Post-hockey life would prove a brawl of a different sort. Between 2002 and 2005, he was arrested seven times.

He used bogus information to buy prescription painkillers. He drove his Lexus over lawns in Tampa, his five-year-old daughter in tow.

Police would locate Poeschek 90 minutes later, hiding in a neighbor's garage. They needed a taser to subdue him.

Now 49, he looks back wishing "that's not me." He believes his behavior stemmed from his head injuries.    

He was arrested again two years ago, this time for shoving a woman after a traffic accident. Her sin: She wouldn't settle the matter without calling the cops.

He also lost his job. Poeschek fell asleep on the clock too many times for a mining company.  

Sometimes, weather permitting, he'll kill the house AC and open the windows, only to repeat the task minutes later.  

You know you just did that, his wife, Heather, will tell him.

"But I couldn't even remember doing it," says Poeschek, "and that's a scary thing for me."

He retired from hockey in 2001. Alcohol and painkillers discolored those first years. Whether they're issues now, Poeschek's not saying.

The soonest he'll see a neurologist is January. Canada's socialized health care doesn't do any favors for retired NHL players. In the meantime, he searches for work.

"I definitely have to still work," says Poeschek, who grossed about $3 million in his NHL career. "But you know, taxes, a divorce, it goes pretty fast."   

Feeling Minnesota

Eighty grand was the most Carlson ever made in a season.

Three weeks after he first retired in 1987, he landed a gig as an airfreight salesman, a job he holds to this day.

"I don't want a check from the NHL for $28,000," he says. "We're not asking for money to live on an island. If guys have an issue and it relates to a concussion playing in the NHL, right now there's nothing for them and that isn't right."

Medical attention used to amount to ice packs and sutures. Bell-rung players silently endured white flashes, yet rarely missed more than a few shifts, abetted in no small way by accommodating trainers and pressure from coaches.

"Now it's if anyone dings their head, they're right in the locker room, a doctor is right there," he says. "The league has taken the decision-making away from coaches and trainers. That's good. What's not are them not being truthful about what they knew.

"Trust me, there was a cover-up. The NHL knew the risks and kept it hush-hush. More stuff will come out. Just watch. And as it does, the league won't have a foot to stand on."  

In the meantime, fellow plaintiff Jeff Parker appears unsteady on two as he glacially makes his way on Central Avenue.

It feels like a lifetime since he tore up the ice.

Brother Scott Parker recounts how Michigan State coach Ron Mason once made Jeff skate 150 laps twice because he was late for practice.

"I remember Jeff telling me how he thought his spine was going to pop out of his back," says Scott. "Jeff was strong like a workhorse. He busted his ass to get to the NHL. As a family we were so proud he'd made it. He was living his dream. It all ended with one injury and ever since, Jeff has been living life through a fog. One hit. That's all it took and it's like his wiring has been messed up ever since."

Nowadays, a $366 monthly check from the NHL supplements Jeff's work as a bartender at Lonetti's Lounge. He's a reluctant MNsure enrollee.          

"A young man who leaves the game from injury, they don't have to give him a million dollars, just take care of him," says Jeff, whose career included a national title at Michigan State, 137 NHL games, and "six or seven concussions."

"I don't know if I really want anything from this lawsuit," he adds. "The security of just having health insurance, I think, is the number-one thing [the NHL] should do for someone who got hurt playing. When I hear how the NHL says head injuries don't cause long-term stuff or it's unknown that it gets worse over time, I say they're wrong."

The league currently treads in a state of purgatory. Its outlawing of head hits "has not decreased" the number of concussions, Canadian researchers concluded in 2013.

The number still floats between five and eight for every 100 games.

"I'd say the league was 75 percent more violent when I played than it is now," says Carlson. "Why have they cleaned it up? The NHL wanted to. I played when you could break someone's nose, lose teeth, get your orbital socket crushed. That's how you could get hurt. Fighting is so less important now. Every player is much more skilled."

Now the injuries are coming from "elbows to the head, jumping up to make a hit, and more stick work that's catching guys up high."

According to Michigan Tech's Johnson, the unfolding science of head injuries enables wiggle room for the league, albeit temporary.

"There's nothing meaningful the NHL can do about concussions and CTE without radically changing the sport, like removing body checking," Johnson says. "But we do know this: [Hockey] is a sport where your head gets banged around quite a lot. We're now at the point the science is really clear that this is not good for your brain. We don't know how many players will get long-term degenerative diseases, but we know there's going to be a significant number of them."

Other signs show that the NHL's recalcitrance exists on borrowed time. It's a miscalculation that could prove costly.

Mitchell Hamline law professor David Allen Larson notes a little-reported nugget from the lawsuit.    

A lawyer representing the players filed a motion requesting that the NHL's insurer, Chubb Corp., produce all league-related documents.

According to Larson, there's no way Chubb underwrote a policy without including an assessment of head injuries.

"So you have to believe Chubb, given the potential huge liability, did a pretty detailed actuarial study of all kinds of possible injuries, including traumatic brain injuries. If that happened, you got a really strong argument the league knew in very specific terms and didn't do enough."

In other words, the players believe a smoking gun sits in Chubb's files.

Time is also the NHL's enemy, Larson believes: "The longer the suit drags on, it raises the sympathy level for the players in the public, who start thinking more and more that these guys are going to suffer and why isn't the league doing something about it."

Postcard from the prairie

On the second coldest day of her life, Joanne Boogaard lay fetal inside her Regina, Saskatchewan home, her heart frozen.  

She'd shut out the world 24 hours after learning the eldest of her four kids, Derek, had been found dead inside his Minneapolis apartment.

Joanne's sister Rens pushed the phone on her despite instructions that she wished to speak to no one.

There's "a Gary Bettman" on the phone, said Rens. "He says he'd like to speak with you."

In 2005, Derek debuted as the Minnesota Wild's tough guy, becoming widely viewed as the baddest man in hockey.

But the physical pounding and multiple concussions would overtake him. By 2009, Boogaard was gobbling down eight OxyContin pills in a sitting.

Now the most powerful person in hockey was waiting to tell Joanne how sorry he was for her loss.

The last years of Derek's life were the worst, says Joanne, whose family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NHL. Her son was disappearing inside himself. Aside from the physical injuries, a mother's intuition screamed something else was wrong. But what?    

"I always worried about Derek's hands," says Joanne. "They were a mess from fighting. I was worried he wouldn't be able to use his fingers by the time he was 40. Little did I know I should have been worried about his brain."