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Mike Stothers: Did the NHL Do Their Best to Protect Players from Head Trauma?

Stothers responds to his former teammate Bernie Nicholls's plight & whether or not the NHL did their best to protect them from head trauma

Sheng Peng

Today, Scott Wheeler posted an article about the class action suit brought by retired players against the NHL, claiming the league "didn’t do enough to warn them of the potential long-term health risks" of repeated head trauma. Prominently featured in this story is popular former King Bernie Nicholls.

Coincidentally, just last week, I had a talk with Ontario Reign head coach Mike Stothers about his playing career, where we touched on Nicholls, his Kingston Canadiens teammate. We also discussed Stothers's significant role as an enforcer when he played and his opinion about abolishing fighting in hockey because of potential post-retirement health issues.

Anyway, I caught up with Stothers after practice today to ask him about Nicholls's plight. Since he had not yet read Wheeler's piece, I read to him, verbatim when possible but with some paraphrasing, these excerpts:

Years later, the now 54-year-old [Nicholls] battles daily dizziness, vertigo, headaches and a fleeting memory that "seems to be getting worse every day."

As an assistant coach with the Kings during their 2012 Stanley Cup run, Nicholls was forced to attend anger management sessions. There, the doctor asked him to lock up his guns.

"I don’t remember as a younger person ever being really violent or anything like that," [Nicholls] said.

This change in personality is common in those who have suffered head trauma.

Down the line, the 18-year veteran Nicholls says he and his fellow retirees are going to need "serious help."

Still, Nicholls appreciates the changes the NHL has taken to protect players, including a recent step to introduce mandatory concussion spotters at every game and moves towards sending players for ‘quiet room’ testing when a hit to the head is sustained.

But these protocols didn’t exist when Nicholls laced up. "There was no support when I played," he said. "No team doctor or trainer ever said when guys get hit in the head, 'you know what, I don’t know if you should continue to play, you’ve had a concussion so you better sit this out.'"

In fairness, I thought it best to leave Stothers's comments as unedited as possible.

Jewels from the Crown: Do you have any comment?

Mike Stothers: I can't speak for Bernie's experiences. I haven't seen Bernie in years since we played together years ago, and then every once in a while, through the hockey world. But if that's what he's experiencing, then I can only take his word for it.

But again, there's lots of people experiencing the health issues. Not just hockey players. It's becoming more common because more people are talking about it. Before, it was like anything else, 'Oh, don't talk about it. Oh, don't say anything.'

Over the years, everybody's improved everything, from medical personnel to the medicine or surgeries. Surgeries are much more efficient and effective than they were years ago. You could have a knee operation years ago and you had your knee opened up right up, and now you've got scopes. Everything improves, and so is the protection in hockey. Maybe we were the groundbreakers for the improvements that are needed and necessary.

Again, I'm not even sure I remember everything. But I guess the awareness that Bernie brings to it helps other people understand it, and we need to continue to develop it further. But I think it's always been the players' safety was the biggest concern. It was just a different time and a different era.

And you know what? 20 years from now, there's still going to be changes made, whether its the helmets or the shoulder pads or the equipment itself is improved and changed. So I don't think there's anybody out there that's not doing everything they can or is not concerned with the players' well-being in all sports.

Again, I just go back to, you know what? Injuries and situations are part of the game. I don't discredit any of these guys that are making these claims. Obviously, at this time, they're experiencing things differently than I am. But they're entitled to their opinion and certainly they're entitled to their health and well-being being the first and foremost concern. But I just choose not to use the situation that we all did quite well with...[this] profession...and now, I don't want it to be discredited when it provided all of us with a pretty good living.

The NHL, the AHL, and the junior leagues will all continue to do the best they can to prevent injuries as best as possible. And when someone is injured, they will do the best they can to make sure that person is properly looked after and treated and will not be put in a situation where they'll be put in further jeopardy.

I think that needs to get out there as well. Everybody is working very diligently to make sure that these situations are not as frequent and we can all learn from it.

I wish Bernie nothing but the best. He's a good man, a good guy.

JFTC: The accusation from a number of former players is that the NHL did not do their best about this issue when you were playing, perhaps sweeping things under the rug. What do you say about that?

MS: I just said what I said. I think everybody's awareness has become more and more.

You know, the skates are better. There's more protection on your skates. The shinpads are better. The hockey pants are better. The gloves are better. The elbow pads are better. The shoulder pads are better. The helmets are much improved. They didn't even used to wear helmets before. Now, they're wearing visors. They didn't wear those before either. Goalies used to play without a mask.

I mean, we're evolving into recognizing that protection is of the utmost importance. But at that time, the era that we played in, we always had the best equipment available to us.

So yeah, has it changed? Well, cars are a lot different now too.

You know what? If they didn't think they were being looked after back then, they probably should've said something then. It's always easy to look back and in hindsight.

But again, they're entitled to their opinion. Just as I'm entitled to mine.

JFTC: So in your opinion, there was no willful ignorance on the NHL's part?

MS: Absolutely.