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Q&A: Daniel Carcillo on Hockey and His Crusade Against Traumatic Brain Injuries

The former Blackhawk, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, recently brought a lawsuit against the NHL, part of a fight that began after the death of his friend and teammate Steve Montador.

Daniel Carcillo puts his baby Austin in the Stanley Cup as they celebrate their victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Monday, June 15, 2015.   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Former Chicago Blackhawk Daniel Carcillo played the game of hockey rough. You don’t get the nickname “Car Bomb” for giving out hugs. A skilled player, never afraid to fight. And fight he did, twice leading the National Hockey League in penalty minutes during a career that spanned from 2006 to 2015.

Carcillo, now 33 and retired from the National Hockey League, is still fighting,  this time taking on his toughest opponent yet—the league itself, which he calls “the league of denial,” and its player union. Carcillo recently joined a lawsuit against the league and is waging a public campaign against it and the NHL Players Association to shine a light on the danger of traumatic brain injuries. When not advocating, Carcillo runs the Chapter 5 Foundation, which he established to help players transition into civilian life after hockey, and oversees TPD Hockey in Chicago, a hockey training company that incorporates both mental and physical training.

Carcillo’s advocacy began after his good friend and Blackhawk teammate Steve Montador died in 2015 at 35. His brain was was found to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. The symptoms of CTE include memory loss, impulse control problems, depression, anxiety, Parkinsonism, and, eventually, progressive dementia. These symptoms often begin years or even decades after players retire. Many believe CTE is responsible for the suicides of several former NHL and NFL players. The NFL, which for years denied any connection to their game and CTE, had to admit in 2017 that there is a connection between the disease and their game and pay $700 million as part of a settlement in response to a class-action lawsuit brought by former players.

The NHL still denies any link and is facing several lawsuits, most recently one brought by Carcillo and former player Nick Boynton, who has written about his own issues with depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts since stepping off the ice.

Carcillo is planning a media campaign along with his lawsuit but spoke with Chicago first about his issues, the motivation for his lawsuit and what he wants to see changed. The interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

How much did the death of your friend and former teammate Steve Montador spark your campaign?

When he passed, I contacted The Players’ Tribune and I did my first video with them, which was basically a call to arms because I saw him struggle for a year and a half, and nobody helped him. I don’t think it’s right, and I’m pretty sure that if you’re playing in a league that’s worth $4.5 billion, that’s a business, and businesses like that should have transition programs and mental health experts and therapists and psychologists to help you. They don’t just basically throw you out to the wolves.

So, yeah, communicating with him for a year and a half and then his death, and then looking at his brain, which was littered with CTE, made me decide that something needs to be done. I’m using my platform and social media to put public pressure on the people who are in a position to bring change.

Montador’s death wasn’t the first. Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien died in a four-month span in 2011. They were 35, 28 and 27 years old. And Bob Probert, who died in 2010 at 45 from a heart attack, tested positive for CTE. What should we learn from their deaths? 

People wonder how [Probert’s death] is linked or how I can blame the league because it was a heart attack. I can explain that pretty easily. If you have undiagnosed and untreated traumatic brain injuries, and hundreds of them, one of the concussions that they check is your autonomic system, an autonomic [abnormality], which is your heart rate and your blood pressure when you go from sitting to standing and it also has to do with your blood vessel diameter. He died of a heart attack on a boat in front of his kids and his wife and his wife’s parents. That’s why I say things like the NHL is killing human beings because they are by not properly diagnosing and treating these concussions.

You’ve come out saying that you are experiencing your own issues. You played in the NHL from 2006 to 2015. When did you first notice something wasn’t right with you?

2013 during the lockout. Steve actually coaxed me into going to Atlanta to go to the Carrick Institute. I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms per se because it’s really difficult to identify that when you’re in your career because you force yourself to operate. I’ve learned that my pain tolerance is very high and also learned that I was actually one of the worst TBI cases they’ve ever seen.

TBI?

Traumatic Brain Injury. That’s the term that’s used, nobody says concussion.

Is that because it’s not just concussions? I think some of the public thinks it’s only concussions that are dangerous, but it’s the repeated head blows—

Yes, the sub-concussive hits. Think of it like a house on the edge of a cliff. It’s not the one big hit that’s going to do it, it’s the sub-concussive hits that dig at the edge of the cliff until eventually that house topples over.

What type of issues have you faced?

Short-term memory loss, suicidal ideation, anxiety, depression, light sensitivity, headaches, chronic pain, chronic neck pain, not being able to sleep, and because I’m not sleeping, I’m not producing REM sleep and not producing the right enzymes in my stomach so I’m not hungry. Just a whole lot of things.

I didn’t understand where they were coming from because I’ve never been predisposed to suicidal thoughts, or anxiety, or depression, but I researched for three and a half years. I knew the Carrick Institute was there, and I recently went back and they saved my life, no doubt. I feel like I’m sixteen again, and now I’m putting all these connections together that I wasn’t able to before because those parts of my brain were shut down. I had a pretty big spiritual awakening, and if you can be enlightened, I’m definitely enlightened. Now, I need to hold the people accountable that are responsible for putting me in that position and for putting countless others in that position.

You were on the 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 Chicago Blackhawks, both teams that won the Stanley Cup. You have said you would take your name off the Cup if you could trade it for the issues that you’re facing now. Do you still feel that way?

That comment was that I’d take my name off the Cup twice over to have another conversation with Steve. I’m not a hockey nerd and never was. I never studied the game. It was an emotional release for me. I liked the community and I liked the guys. And I held people accountable. When I saw injustice and someone picking on one of my friends or my teammates, then I’d go and stand up to them if they couldn’t stand up for themselves. I’m doing the same thing now in the real world, as I call it. Hockey is not the real world, it’s a fantasy.

You weren’t the biggest guy, but you were never afraid to throw down with anyone, which really endeared you to a lot of fans in Chicago and in Philadelphia when you were on the Flyers. I think they have similar types of fans.

For sure, hardworking fans. The thing you need to understand about me is that anything I do, I do 110 percent. That’s the only way I know how to do it.

You earned the nickname “Car Bomb” for your feisty style, and you led the league twice in penalty minutes. I have seen some comments from people who think you brought on your health issues because of the way you played.

I think those people don’t understand what I’m trying to do. Usually you fear something that you don’t understand, and everybody thinks that I want to take hitting and fighting out of hockey. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The game is amazing. But what needs to happen—or people will keep dying—is that the league needs to start treating and diagnosing these traumatic brain injuries.

People don’t understand that it’s the sub-concussive hits. Go talk to the goalies that get a knee to the head. This has nothing to do with fighting, and I think sometimes the message does get twisted, but that’s ok. I’m early into this, I started this campaign March 1 on social media. It’s not just about hockey either. I have more people reaching out to me that are just regular people. That is also what it’s about — proper understanding for the public.

So the person who asks ‘Why is my husband crazy now?’ It’s not like you flip a switch to post-concussive syndrome. It’s a chemical imbalance that causes mood swings. I just want people to understand why you see veterans doing crazy things, after researching and realizing that it’s a chemical imbalance and it’s parts of your brain that are shut down.

Luckily for me, the Carrick Institute clinic identifies those parts of your brain and checks all five different types of concussions and then stimulates those parts of your brain accordingly to make new neurological pathways around the dead neurons. And then you feel like I feel again. I feel like I’m 16.

Do you think fighting should still be allowed in hockey as it is now?

I don’t really have an opinion on that. I’ll just say this: Boxing, UFC guys, every sport that allows fights requires their fists are wrapped and/or they have gloves on. Hockey is the only sport where you are allowed to punch someone in the face with your bare knuckles. It does a lot of damage, let’s just leave it at that.

You just filed a lawsuit with former New York Ranger Nick Boynton. Steve Montador’s dad is also suing the NHL and there are a few others. Do you think ultimately the cases will join together into a class-action suit?

I’m hoping so because that will put more pressure on the league and then guys won’t have to take on the battle with a lawyer by themselves. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

I’ve heard you say the NHL doesn’t have the money like the NFL, but for you this isn’t really for money, is it?

This has nothing to do with money, it’s about putting pressure on the right people so that they change their ways and start treating the best hockey players in the world like human beings and not like pawns.

You want a neurologist on every bench?

Yes, these teams all have doctors, they can do it. If they want to go through the back channels, they can have the doctors bring on a neurologist. But an orthopedic surgeon or athletic trainer shouldn’t be looking at players’ heads.

Can a team hire a neurologist on its own instead of relying on the league?

100 percent, yes. What’s going to happen to them? They aren’t going to get fined.

Everything all said, do you regret anything in your career?

Absolutely not, because I wouldn’t be in the position I am now. I wouldn’t be able to help as many people as I’ve helped. I wouldn’t be able to speak like this if I didn’t go through all that. I don’t regret anything.

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