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Noah Welch on Olympics, educating hitters, pledging his brain to science

The U.S. men’s Olympic hockey teams plays its first game in nine days, but for Noah Welch there’s some business to care of before jetting off to PyeongChang.

On Tuesday, Welch and his Vaxjo Lakers of the Swedish Hockey League will take on Finland’s JYP Jyväskylä in the final of the Champions Hockey League. The following day he’ll get on a plane heading to South Korea.

“It’s still sinking in, to be honest,” Welch told Pro Hockey Talk last week. “I think [it will] when the plane lands, when I get to South Korea. It hasn’t completely sunk in yet.”

Welch is in his seventh season playing in Sweden after a career in North America that saw him suit up 209 times in the AHL and play 75 NHL games with four teams. After establishing himself as a regular defenseman overseas, does he see the Olympics as a stepping stone for a return home?

“For me, no. I don’t think. I’m 35-turning-36. It’s a young man’s game right now in North America,” he said. “I’m comfortable where I’m at in my career and this would be an incredible way for me to go out and win a [Champions Hockey League] championship and then medal in the Olympics and then my team is Sweden has a great chance to win the championship. I’m going to do everything I can to leave it all out there and almost treat this like it’s the last year.”

Welch is one of a number of players on the men’s Olympic roster that has NHL experience. It’s a lineup that has elicited a large amount of “Oh, I remember that guy” responses. But while you might recall the Brighton, Mass. native’s time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning or Atlanta Thrashers, a decade ago he made news for a unique decision that will help others after his death.

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It was in 2008 that Welch met fellow Harvard alum Chris Nowinski. Nowinski told him about what is now known as the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which he co-founded, and how he was committed to raising awareness and studying the long-term effects of concussions. When the idea of brain donation came up, it was an easy decision for Welch, who was already an organ donor. “I didn’t think much of it, didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I just said ‘yeah, sure,’” he said.

Welch became one of 12 athletes, and the first hockey player, to agree to donate their brains after their deaths.

It’s been 10 years since that decision and there are now 190 pledges from current and former men’s and women’s hockey players, among other athletes, with Ben Lovejoy of the New Jersey Devils the only active NHLer involved. There have been numerous finds since as researchers continue to learn more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Welch was way ahead of the game and has seen the impact that the spotlight on concussions in all sports has made.

“Overall, it keeps players safe, especially when it comes to their brain,” he said. “That’s extremely important. On the one hand, hockey players — this is what we sign up for. It’s a physical game, we know we’re going to get injured — part of the job, right? You’ll take an elbow, a shoulder, a knee, all that stuff, but when it comes to your brain, that’s where it gets scary. I think it’s great that there’s more awareness, especially on little things like keeping a guy out for an extra five days, how that can make such a big difference in their recovery period of a first trauma to the brain. Maybe that’s something we didn’t know years ago, where a guy rushes back to make one game that might not be that important gets hit again and now he’s out for a much longer time.

“It’s helping, and that’s great but there’s another side to it, too. Athletes are actually, in some situations, returning to their sport quicker and more prepared than they were before. Maybe they come back a little too early, they’re still foggy and then they’re more vulnerable and then if you get the total time of how long an athlete is out, maybe it could have been a lot less if they just followed the protocol.

“I think, overall, it’s a good thing. Sometimes, maybe, we get a little carried away and everything might be a concussion nowadays. But I guess if you’re going to err, you err on the side of safety when it comes to the brain.”

Welch wouldn’t disclose exactly how many concussions he’s suffered during his career, simply saying “a few.” It’s been so long since he pledged his brain that he was pretty sure that none of his current teammates at Vaxjo are aware of his plans.

In the decade since, Welch has seen progress by sports leagues to minimize head trauma and protect players from returning too early, but there’s still plenty of educating to do.

“I know in the SHL, I think they’ve gone a little too far one way where they’ve taken responsibility out of the puck carrier,” he said. “Now they’ve talked about that the last couple of years and now they’re drawing back a bit. For example, if a guy’s skating up the ice with his head down and it’s a north-south hit, [it’s] hard to kind of aim your shoulder where you can hit a guy. You can just see his body move, it’s one object, just try and hit the middle. Sometimes you might get him in the head, sometimes you might get him in the chest, sometimes you might hit him in the left shoulder, and that’s hard. A lot of those what would be clean hits where your head is down were becoming suspensions just because it was a hit to the head. So the only alternative is to maybe let up, which I don’t know how I feel about that. But that’s something that the league’s are really going through right now. I know in the SHL they’ve drawn back and they’re telling players, puck carriers in particular, you have a responsibility, too, to know what’s going on around you and to pick your head up.

“It’s the east-west hits that are bad, and there’s no room for that in the game. Guy is maybe following his pass and then a guy completely comes blindside. On that play, a player can aim their shoulder. There they can locate where they want to hit the guy. They can get low and hit them in the ribs or his arm, and you can come up high and get him right in the jaw. But when it’s that north-south hit, it’s really hard to identify a particular spot on the opposing player’s body. The game’s so fast. And if he has his head down and you hit his head, it’s like, that’s a good hockey hit. You’re not trying to injure a guy but it’s a good hit and it does send a message. We found in our league in Sweden that a lot of the suspensions this year have actually been [the player getting hit has] has been a lot of young players, like junior guys. So you wonder if because the rules have gone so far one way that they’re not learning now to be more aware. There are some plays where you talk to older, veteran forwards on our team and they’re like I can’t even believe that guy would think about doing that. Everyone knew back in the day when Scott Stevens was on the ice you didn’t go up the middle. Some guys did, and we’ve all watched the YouTube clips.”

Inspired by the NHL, the SHL has been releasing videos explaining suspensions and certain non-suspensions in hopes of educating players the proper way to go about delivering hits.

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This won’t be the first time Welch has represented the U.S. in international competition. Aside from playing several youth tournaments, he was a part of November’s Deutschland Cup, the only games that the American team played before the final roster was announced on Jan. 1. Like his teammates, up until last April, he was fully expecting NHL players to be participating int the Olympic tournament, even after the NHL announced its decision.

“This wasn’t even a thought. It wasn’t even a goal or a dream,” Welch said. “Last time I thought about this was I was probably 10 playing street hockey. A door opened up in the spring. Even after they decided [not to go,] it was always a chance that the NHL players were going to figure out a way. It wasn’t on the radar until just a few months ago.”

It’s turning out to be quite a start to 2018 for Welch between the CHL Final, the Olympics and his Vaxjo Lakers cruising toward a SHL title. Eight years ago he was trying to carve out a regular spot on an NHL roster, now he’s been a mainstay on the blue line for three different organizations in the SHL. He’s not looking for a North America comeback because he’s carved out his place in Sweden.

“[My family and I] always look at it as ‘just temporary,’ like it’s not home for us, but it’s a great place to work and to play,” he said.

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Primeau calls Crosby “ambassador for people who have brain injuries”

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Keith Primeau — 14-year NHLer and outspoken advocate for concussion prevention — is praising Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby for displaying courage and foresight in the face of his latest concussion setback.

“Crosby is an ambassador for people who have brain injuries and who have endured head trauma,” Primeau told the Tribune-Review. “People are looking up to his courage as we speak.”

Primeau was forced into retirement at age 34 after suffering a series of concussions (four of them documented). Now 39, Primeau still struggles daily with the after-effects — he told the Canadian Press in November that exertion and exercise makes him lightheaded.

As such, Primeau is now the driving force behind stopconcussions.com, a website he co-founded. It’s designed to heighten awareness about baseline testing, post-concussion syndrome, CTE and more.

In speaking about Crosby, Primeau appreciated the patience and caution shown by No. 87 when he didn’t feel well following Monday’s loss to Boston. Professional athletes don’t always put their health first, according to Primeau.

“For me and my quest, seeing Sidney do the right thing is special,” he said. “The culture we’re brought up in with the hockey world just tells us to play through injuries. That may seem like courage, but it really isn’t.

“This is an injury that can be debilitating. The fact is, Sidney had the courage to speak up when something wasn’t right. Good for him. Maybe people don’t realize it, but that’s a true sign of courage. It really is.”

Bettman says it’s too early to link CTE to fighting

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Not all of the news coming out of the Board of Governors meeting in Pebble Beach has revolved around realignment. In addition to the well-publicized conference shuffling, Gary Bettman discussed a much more important topic on the second day of the meetings in California. Today, the NHL commissioner was discussing the New York Times article that revealed that yet another former NHL player had been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

It’s not surprising that Bettman was confronted with plenty of questions in the wake of the Times series of articles this week. But even as former players are being diagnosed, the league insists that it’s too soon to make any assumptions.

From QMI Agency: “Do you know everything that went on in their lives?” asked Bettman. “Were there other things going on which could also cause CTE? The data is not sufficient to draw a conclusion. Our experts tell us the same thing. You don’t have a broad enough database to make that assumption or conclusion because you don’t know what else these players might have had in common, if anything.”

But that wasn’t all Bettman had to say. He insists that the league has been ahead of the curve with head injuries and continues to look for ways to keep their players safe. “Look at our history,” Bettman told USA Today’s Kevin Allen. “Starting in 1997, we’ve been all across all fronts, whether it was the working study group, baseline testing, diagnosis and return-to-play protocol, rule changes and creation of the department of player safety, we’ve been doing lots and lots and will continue to do lots and lots. But there are no easy answers yet. But I think it’s unfortunate that people use tragedies to jump to conclusions that probably at this stage aren’t supported.”

The problem for the league and its decision makers is that there isn’t an easy fix even if CTE is positively linked to the NHL. It’s easy to say that fighting would eliminate the degenerative brain risk, but Rick Martin wasn’t a fighter and he was diagnosed with CTE earlier this year.

No matter what rule changes are put in place, hockey is a fast-paced, violent game. “Even if it’s a legal hit, it can lead to a concussion,” Bettman said. “We play a very fast-paced, physical game in a close environment. I think people need to take a deep breath and not overreact. It’s important to react and it’s something we’ll monitor closely.”

Nobody wants any of the players to have to endure mental or physical injuries that linger well past their playing career. The league may be slow to admit there is very likely a link between NHL hockey and CTE, but it’s true that there isn’t a quick fix to prevent players from potentially dealing with the disease.

The best news: it’s an issue that is getting mentioned at one of the most important meeting of the year. The first step is admitting there may be a problem. Once the issue is officially on the docket, the Board of Governors can take a look at possible solutions.

Report: Derek Boogaard dealt with issues related to Alzheimer’s disease

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A sad and stunning New York Times report reveals that studies of Derek Boogaard’s brain provided evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is described as “a degenerative brain ailment related to Alzheimer’s disease that is caused by repeated blows to the head.”

One of the report’s most disturbing findings was that the disease was more pronounced in Boogaard (who died at age 28 and played in parts of six NHL seasons) than Bob Probert (who died at age 45 and played in parts of 16 NHL seasons). Dr. Ann McKee – one of the leading researchers – had this to say after studying Boogaard’s brain.

“To see this amount? That’s a ‘wow’ moment,” McKee said. “This is all going bad.”

It’s tough to argue with that point.

Terrifying Trend: Evaluation shows Rick Martin had brain damage

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On the last night of a positively nightmarish offseason, the league may have been dealt the most devastating long-term news of the summer. Rick Martin, NHL Hall of Famer and member of the legendary French Connection line, passed away in March at the age of 59. Tonight, researchers from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy revealed that Martin had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)—a disease that has repeatedly been linked to brain trauma.

Martin is the third NHL player to donate his brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (a joint venture between the Sports Legacy Institute and Boston University). Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert had previously donated their brains to the center for research—both were found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Sadly, Martin is now the third former hockey player to show signs of CTE.

This is nothing new for athletes—football players like Mike Webster and Dave Duerson have also shown signs of the degenerative disease. The difference here is the type of player Rick Martin was and what this could mean for an entire generation of hockey players. Webster and Duerson were interior linemen in the trenches of the National Football League. They were paid to knock heads for 60 snaps per game—14 (now 16) games per season.

On the hockey side of things, Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert were known for the physical side of their trade as well. Both were known for their hands flying in a fight as much as they were known for their hands on a hockey stick. It doesn’t take a long leap of faith to understand that repeated fists to the head can lead to brain damage.

Rick Martin is different. It’s the difference that should send chills down the spines of hockey fans and players all over North America. From the Associated Press:

“The difference is Martin wasn’t a fighter. He’s the first non-enforcer who has been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy by researchers at a Boston University brain bank.

“Martin died of a heart attack at the age of 59 in March. All three former NHL players who have donated their brains for research so far have been diagnosed with CTE, a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma.”

The obvious part of the story that stands out is that Rick Martin was known as a skilled forward and not as an enforcer. Lisa Dillman from the LA Times shared even more specifics about the report and Martin’s health history:

“It was noted by researchers in the report that Martin’s only known concussion occurred in 1977 during a game when his head hit the ice. Martin, who was not wearing a helmet, suffered ‘immediate convulsions.’”

Martin engaged in only fourteen fights in fourteen seasons in juniors and the NHL. Let’s be honest, we have a name for a guy who gets into one fight per season: a hockey player. From a physical standpoint, Martin was a normal hockey player. In fact, during his era, you could almost consider him a finesse player—so for Martin to be diagnosed with CTE makes one wonder about an entire generation of hockey players.

It’s important to note that Martin played in a different era and without a helmet for the majority of his career. Even though he was diagnosed with a concussion, it took convulsions to make doctors take note. Back when he played, trainers would diagnose most concussions by saying the player “just got his bell rung.” The culture of the game would force players right back onto the ice and ignore any possible symptoms that could have served as warning signs.

Recently, we have player after player diagnosed with concussions. The players are missing longer periods of time as they recover and the league is taking admirable steps to insure that teams don’t rush their players back to the ice. In just as many instances, the league is protecting the players from trying to come back before they’re 100% ready for the rigors of an NHL game.

The chilling part is that this could just be the beginning for the sport. As more and more hockey players from the 1970s and 1980s donate their brain to science, we will undoubtedly hear about more players who have suffered from the degenerative brain disease. But what about today’s players? Are they adequately protected with improved helmets and equipment? Or is the game so fast today that NHL players are exposing their bodies to long-term damage that we won’t know about until they’ve retired and it’s too late?

Before today, there was hope that CTE was limited to the enforcers around the league. It was a dirty little secret that the league needed to deal with—but it was an isolated problem. Two enforcers had already shown to have CTE and Derek Boogaard’s brain is currently being examined at Boston University.  But now?  This is a problem that could affect every single player who’s stepped on NHL ice over the last four decades.

Regrettably, this isn’t a problem that will stop when the offseason ends.